Episode 05:

Mining For Solutions with Margaret Munchheimer

Episode 05: Mining For Solutions with Margaret Munchheimer

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During OBSESSED!, a biannual jewellery festival, galleries across the Netherlands open their doors to the jewellery crowd, hosting exhibitions, lectures and discussions. Last November, an important panel discussion titled Mining for Solutions took place at the Fashion For Good museum in central Amsterdam, unpacking questions of sustainability.

Organised by Current Obsession, the event brought together different practitioners from textile, fashion and jewellery, to discuss what makes a sustainable practices effective. Panel speakers included jewellery artist and educator at Central St. Martins, Katharina Dettar; Co-founder of Fibershed NL and longtime fashion professional, Stijntje Jaspers; Jaime Valderrama, Bogota-based brand representative for the Fairmined initiative and the Alliance for Responsible Mining; and award-winning artist and recent graduate of the Royal Academy of Antwerp, Mariel Matute.

Following the article Slouching Towards Sustainability for Current Obsession, in which Margaret Munchheimer explores the questions makers face every day about the materials they use, this panel event sought to extend these questions into the public forum for the benefit of the community.

Today, I have invited Margaret Munchheimer, the moderator and author of the aforementioned panel and text, as well as a multifaceted jewellery maker, podcaster and writer, to host this episode of Undisciplined and share her research, interviews, and speak on some of the most important questions related to mining of precious metals and stones, fast fashion and where to start in your own practice to become more responsible and sustainable maker.



Margaret Munchheimer: Makers today are faced with the conundrum of how to approach making physical objects amidst a growing concern over natural resources. And despite the many pitfalls of the industries that produce our raw materials, through both the obsessed festival and Munich jewellery week papers, we’ve seen firsthand through the responses to our open calls, just how many artists are speaking about this. So we really wanted to address this in a public way for the community. Fashion and jewellery have historically had so much overlap, and we wanted to take advantage of that relationship for this discussion. The do camps share volumes of knowledge between them, especially as so many contemporary jewellers work with textiles as well. And in general, the fashion world has gotten a much earlier start on addressing sustainability. So we felt the two had a lot they could learn from each other. Here we share some individual stories of everyday people, just taking small steps toward change, and ultimately making a real impact. Artists using their work as a platform for creating awareness as well as a bridge to connect communities. A growing and sustainable alternative for metals and a textile network going beyond sustainability to achieve a net positive effect in the world through regenerative circularity. Most of us have one simple question in common, which is, what can I really do? These stories show us that as it turns out a lot. As a maker myself, I use my own experience as a starting point. The first time I really encountered the question of sustainability in jewellery being addressed by a jeweller. It was in the window of gallery Marseille in Nijmegen in 2016, with a piece by Katrina debtor in the annual graduate show, and it appeared at first glance to be a massive pile of rocks, but it was powerful. And eventually, I saw that perched atop this pile of stones was a simple gold band. Then I saw the title of the piece, which was 1540 equals 0.00 to one kilos. In other words, one and a half tonnes of stone to make a two gram gold ring. That piece I felt did such a masterful job of expressing the material realities at play, bringing the viewer face to face with physical matter, literally the stuff that makes up our stuff, and allowing them to work out for themselves the idea of what it must have cost to get all that material out of the ground and into that space. So happily, our first speaker in the panel was Katrina Dettar.


Katharina Dettar: I graduated with four pieces, and they were all on a different topic. So one was road one was stone, one was gold. One was silk.


Margaret: How did you start to approach the theme of extraction in general? It was clearly important for you, how did you just get started on that?


Katharina: Yeah. So I would say, I didn’t do my BA and then went straight into an MA. I would say I went into an MA when I was already eight years in jewellery; having exhibitions, doing that for others, doing my own thing, doing commissions, working for other people. And I just think I had never questioned it. And no one ever asked me that question. You know, never, I did not ask myself -and I’m talking about 2014 – I didn’t ask myself, where does this come from? And ‘where does this come from?’ is the bare minimum. The next one is how did this get there? Yeah. So where does it come from? How did it get there? And then, who made that happen? And I think that was really shocking. So the moment you begin to research, when I began to research gold, silver, stones, after that you don’t sleep anymore. You know, you want to stop making, really honestly, like you just want to stop making. You want to stop being part of that, even if it’s a small part. And I came across this Swiss-funded research project, it was called A Golden Racket. And basically, it’s about the Togo gold… so it’s a story of gold coming from Togo, from Africa, and then making it into Europe, and being melted in Switzerland, through a Middle Eastern enterprise. As we already see, one money goes this way, the other material goes that way. And then, during this report, they realise that Togo had no mines – where all the gold was coming from Burkina Faso and from other countries north of it, and were smuggled into Togo because certain countries had harder laws on exporting. And through there it was easy. Well, basically what it’s saying is, it’s very difficult to trace because it’s very small. The same with diamonds and precious stones. Yeah, I think that’s the curse of the jewellery industry, is that the materials we use can be smuggled easily. And they are really valuable. Now you have lots of value, monetary, economical value, in a very small amount of material. So coming across this, this thing, was really shocking. And of course, like, there’s really good photos from some photo journalist: you know, child labour, prostitution, the cyanide and the mercury that they have to use in order to make the gold conglomerate and separate it from the rest of the.. dirt, let’s say it like this. Basically, the conclusion is, they focus on Burkina Faso, but the conclusion is you don’t really know where it’s coming from.

And very often, what does happen? It  happens that, it’s not taxed, you know, people don’t pay taxes on it, so there is less money for the population, those places get controlled by guerillas, or the military, you know, it’s really… I think, just  endangers anyone there. And Tim Burgess, he is a journalist with a really good book. He writes for The Guardian, sometimes-  he said that that’s the curse of any country, especially like, third world countries, like the global South, any country that has any kind of mineral of value. That’s the curse. It will bring foreign investment, brings displacement of the population, because of that area being highly valued, suddenly, you know, clashing forces, guerillas or the military. Yes. They say it’s a curse. It’s good, but it’s a curse.

And so in that sense, that was what shocked me. And I really began reading a lot of journalistic work. You just begin reading it, and there’s loads; you know, Save the Children has made a really good report on child labour in precious metal mines, you know, because the smaller the hand, of course, you know, or the smaller the bodies, the better they get through the holes… So, for me somehow it was the thing that really shocked me, to know all of that and to know that for 10 years that I had been doing jewellery, I hadn’t even thought of that. You know, so I really just wanted to stop making, honestly, and then suddenly I thought like, Well, okay, so how much material do you need for this, or how much material do you need for that. When you see these numbers, and numbers are just numbers, but I think if you materialise the numbers, the effect that it has on a viewer is very different than if you see 1540 kilos. Okay, 1540… But if you see them, and you see that your body could be buried under that pile of stones, it does make a change a little bit.

(Laughing) I thought I should bring it to Inhorgenta, you know: just go with a lorry…bring it all down, put the gold ring on top and leave.

So I think that’s how I began with it. And how shocked I was. And then after I kind of felt ‘Okay, I cannot change the world. No one can, Well, maybe maybe someone can Greta Thunberg did. But in my way I was like, well, I won’t be able to solve this problem, I won’t be able to change the world. But what can I do best? And I was like, Well, I’m really good at one thing. I’m really good at what I do. Maybe I can make pieces about it. Yeah, maybe it’s not… I mean I definitely don’t give answers. And I don’t give a solution. But I do open up a conversation. And I open up a conversation between people, but also within oneself.


Margaret: Katharina is a great example of an artist dealing with these questions trying to work through this material as an artist, her story is really a reflection on how she came to the issues of sustainability and where that led her in her artistic work. I think that’s the importance of the perspective she brings.


Katharina: So I got funding to go to Gambia and Senegal; so first I gave a workshop on how to do jewellery out of recycled materials. It was like a foundation where they were doing textiles like batik textiles and printing. And then I made with them necklaces, out of the batik leftovers. And we use the seeds and match that they had locally there to develop like a kind of things but it was more almost like an appreciation towards things that are in your surrounding rather than, you know, looking. This is how they do it over there and you want to do the same. Okay, I see that and then we got funding to go to a mine in Senegal, and… it all went backwards. I got sick on the way as well. And it turned out that our contact at the mine, which was a contact of our contact, they said first that we wouldn’t be able to arrive with SUVs, that you had to arrive with motorbikes. So it almost got more and more complicated. And the idea was, it was about taking the riverbed where all the cyanide collects, like with the clay. And then I wanted to make everyday objects with it. Because of how the everyday is affected by this, you know, like the everyday local people affected by this, that they cannot even use the water of the river because it’s contaminated with cyanide. So how the everyday downriver, not even at the location of the mine but like, downriver, is really affected by it. And I just wanted to do you know, like a couple of cups, a couple of beakers or jars. I got it lined up that I would have an exhibition in Barcelona, all of this, I have the funding… and then it just never happened.

I went there with a journalist friend of mine, who had been many times in situations like this, and we just never made it.

But it was also that, suddenly, you know, it was one thing to visit a mining site and take some photos. But suddenly, if you go to a mining site, and you’re taking something, they might see it that you’re taking samples from the soil, and it becomes really dodgy. You’re taking something of this soil with you, and you have a whole camera regarding the process. It just very quickly became a dangerous situation really.

And the next problem was that I had already lined up okay, I’m going to transport these barrels full of mud, by boat, up to Spain…you know..

It’s always a lot of research because for me to make that peace with the pile of stones took me almost seven months to get it done. Or the moth one, it was like three months of research, of me going into reading, just reading…I’m going into, like forums of butterfly and moth people and then they were banning me saying She’s an animal rights activist infiltrate! And I’m like, no, no I’m an art Student! I think it very quickly becomes suspicious, just because you’re questioning something, and then you’re asking about the origin.

So the same thing happened with Barcelona, with the customs person I was asking questions like, Where can I just bring some barrels full of mud from Africa?

Yeah, but what’s the origin? Do you have the paperwork- where are you buying them from?

I’m not buying them, we’re just, like, shovelling.

And then I was like: It’s a riverbed? Oh, well, if it’s mineral things, there might be.. what do they call that… specimens of invasive species!

So it already became evident, and I didn’t even mention cyanide yet.. Or gold. Right?

So it just becomes difficult.

And then there was another mine that was on the radar that is in Senegal, close to the border of Mali. And back then I would say, this was after graduating, so 2017, I guess, it was one of the biggest mines in West Africa, where people from everywhere were coming in to work. And it was only 30 kilometres to Mali, connected by a bridge, and just attracted such masses of male workers from everywhere, and then prostitution, because of the male workers having money… And I was in contact with UNESCO, and then they put me in contact with Save the Children or something like this, and [the work] was basically about child labour, and trafficking. But [finally] they told me it’s not safe to go there without a convoy…

It’s not safe to go to these places without a military convoy.


Margaret: I wanted to get her honest view on the situation, having done all the research she had, and where she continues to channel her energy today. In short, did she see any solutions or any areas we could lean into to make a difference?


Katharina: I think this is the next problem, which is the artisanal small-scale mining, ASM.

When you hear the word artisanal, you think of lovely sourdough bread.. Made in a workshop, you know.. And I think the problem with that is that it’s very often not regulated. I think it’s something like, artisanal, small-scale mining is responsible for like 70% of the Earth’s pollution of cyanide. So I think it has to begin by changing that name.

And I don’t think we can blame, or I can blame those people for going there. Because for them, there is a livelihood. It’s either that or they don’t eat. So somehow, I don’t think that you can prohibit it, you know, it will still happen. It will still happen. So let’s give those areas and those pockets the means to do it safely, you know, and without the effect on the environment.


Margaret: And what’s your take on that? Do you think there is any effective or efficient alternative?


Katharina: Alternatives… I mean, alternative, yes, it’s good if there are alternatives. But this is still gonna happen…like, ‘alternatives’ just to have to become the ‘normal’. You know? So that it’s not the alternative anymore. But I think Fairmined is, I think it’s good, it sounds good. At least, you know, they say that they pay the minimum. If the world price goes up, they give the workers a bit more. It sounds like at least there’s a health and safety system. Improvement isn’t affected. I think they’re alright. And: Single Mine Origin. This one is interesting. I think it’s interesting, but so far, they only have two mines. I think what else is very interesting is the gold from E-waste. And the Royal Mint claims they have found a chemical solution that dismantles all the rest except the gold, and has minimal environmental effect. Which is difficult to believe. But I found that really interesting.

Even if … even if more and more companies are saying We are only working with recycled gold, it’s greenwashing. It’s not true. Who certifies that recycled gold is purely recycled, and there isn’t any new gold? So melted once, resold to someone, boom: Recycled… You get the label. I mean, that’s why maybe the Single Mine Origin or the Fairmined or Fair Trade, at least that gives you a minimum standard. So It’s the better thing to do.

And I guess as far as students, they are curious, they do ask. And my students read these articles. I send my students these articles. I send my students the articles where a mine is collapsing, I send them A Golden Racket, they have access to all this.. If they want, they can read it.

But maybe the next point is, and I’ve mentioned this before, it should be in every library. It should be in every library of every institution. Because they’re free. They’re free PDFs.

So I think the information is there. But you have to look for it.


Margaret: Fairmined is a name I’d heard from plenty of other jewellers over the years. They’re an organisation that assists precisely the group of small scale miners Catalina mentions in transitioning their largely unregulated mining practices to more responsible and less damaging ones with traceable results. attempts to regulate mining tend to affect the smaller scale. In other words, independent miners almost exclusively. Larger operations have the resources to at least appear to meet environmental standards imposed on them or simply pay the fines they incur. But they can be difficult to monitor from the outside, so the attention and the punishment falter, those least able to adjust. Fairmined began within a collaboration with the Fair Trade label before eventually branching off to focus specifically on their own goals and objectives. Those being, supporting small mining operations to do better business, and personally benefit in the process. They do this by partnering with individual mines, offering them educational goals to work toward which reflect better mining practices like banning the use of mercury for example. They then create networks of gold refiners and wholesalers as well as certified jewellers, which they pair with the mines they are partnering with to ensure they have a complete supply chain to work within. In this way, the miners are guaranteed to have partners that pay a competitive rate for their product, as well as guaranteed customers for the gold to make and sell jewellery from, in turn, educating consumers and the public about the importance of traceable and responsibly sourced gold.

Our guest for this was Jaime Valderrama, a brand representative from the Alliance for Responsible Mining, as Fairmined are based in Colombia. Rather than joining us in Amsterdam, Jaime treated us to an explainer video he made especially for us. They currently have seven participating mines in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, and Jaime sketches out for us a case study of one of these, the Cheda mine, in Colombia, who have had great progress in creating more equitable and supportive labour practices for women in their organisation.


Jaime Valderrama: I want to introduce you to the Alliance for Responsible Mining, which is a Colombian NGO that was created in 2004. As a global leading expert for artisanal and small scale mining, we help this group of miners in the transformation of their practices into something more respectful, and sustainable. I have mentioned the artisanal and small scale mining concept, but let’s go a little bit deeper on that. What does this mean? It means that it’s the extraction of minerals, using basic techniques, and basic tools. According to the United Nations, there are 100 million people that depend on these activities. In these areas, the zone where the mines are located, there are not many job opportunities; they have to do an income for them and for their family. And that’s the reason why we focus on this particular scale of mining organisation. There are 17 objectives that the United Nations created that need to be solved by 2030. So for example, to reduce poverty around the world; to reduce the hunger around the world, to reduce the gender inequalities, to have a better quality of education, these are some of the objectives. So we are working hand in hand with these Sustainable Development Goals. The miners, they do a lot of investment in money and time, a lot of hard work to produce and to extract this material. We help them to access a fair market, we also have an incentive, called the Fairmined Premium. This means that for every gramme of Fairmined gold that they sell, they will receive $4 And for every gram of Fairmined Ecological gold, they will receive $6 they can invest that premium in their mining organisation and in their community. So it’s an incentive for them to do this transformation to Fairmined. I want to take one of the firm’s certified mines as an example, and give you a little bit of information of the things that they do when they invest the firm premium back into their organisations and in their communities. There are three levels that the investment could be made: their organisational development, the well being of the workers, and benefit in their community. Most of these gold mines, emerald mines or even diamond mines are located in conflict areas. And this is the case unfortunately, in Colombia. This is not an issue for the Cheda mining organisation. We are so proud of them because for example, they have become a benchmark for health and safety practices within the region. They have also made substantial efforts toward empowering women miners and preventing gender based violence, resulting in an 18% reduction in the gender employment gap since the first certification. Around 14-15 women miners are currently working in the Cheda mining organisation, and the manager is Annie Hermia. She is a woman that is leading this mining organisation, and she has tried to reduce this gap and give more opportunities to females in that zone. So also, for example, they have invested in individual psychological assistance for all mine members. They have also invested in the local school for the children so they can have better quality in their education. This is really, really something that we’re proud to show, that this is the best way you can be responsible and sustainable. And we have the Fairmined Premium Report; it’s published every year and it shows you really in detail, all these investments that I mentioned, not only for this mine but for all the mines that we are currently working with.


Margaret: Jewellers first approach Fairmined for a licence in order to buy gold and silver from them. This means they first detail the processes and procedures involved in mining those metals, and how partnering jewellers should communicate this to the public when selling work with the fair mind label, jewellers agree and every three years they submit to an audit, a verbal interview, to discuss how they’ve used the product, how much they’ve bought, and sold and so forth. And it’s all on a voluntary honour system. I think a lot of makers think if they start working with Fairmined metals, they have to immediately swear off everything else. But this is a myth. And Jaime is very clear that they just want to reach jewellers to collaborate and bring this product to the public in whatever way is feasible. One of Jaime’s main areas of work is creating opportunities for exchange between the miners producing fair mined gold and the jewellers working with it. He describes an annual or biannual jewellers trip they organise bringing fair mined licensed practitioners to tour a few of the mines and show their work to the miners, allowing them to see the jewellery made from the gold they’ve mined. The whole exercise serves as an important way to close the loop and keep the actors involved feeling connected to one another, generating a thriving community around this initiative beyond geographic distance. His parting message is one of encouragement and enthusiasm to get as many people involved as possible.


Jaime: So this year, around 18 jewellers from all around the world, some refiners and manufacturing companies as well, came to Columbia, and we went to the Cauca region. And we were able, although there were many challenges that we faced, because as I mentioned, this is an armed conflict zone, we were able to see those investments that they always talk about in real life. It was such a beautiful exchange and experience, because the miners, they want to know what happens when they sell the gold- like, what’s the next thing to do? And the jewellers, they show the jewellery pieces that they made with Fairmined gold and silver. so they were so proud, and they were able to see that all that hard working job that they do, it really paid off, and also the jewellers, they want to know how the gold and the silver that they use for your business is extracted, firsthand. So it’s a really beautiful experience that we have those exchanges. You’re more than welcome also, to join the Fairmined family and come and visit us some time. And start thinking how you can introduce in your supply chain, the Fairmined  gold, you can use Fairmined as a customisation option is it means giving your customer the possibility to make their jewelries with Fairmined so they can choose which material they want. If that doesn’t work for you, well, you can also incorporate the Fairmined gold into your personal sourcing mix. This means that you can, and you are allowed to mix Fairmined gold with other sources of gold. Me and my team will be really happy to assist you in the licensing process and obtaining your Fairmined membership. So please feel free to reach us at info@fairmined.org.


Margaret: So that actually brings us to our third speaker – Stijntje Jaspers, co-founder of Fibershed Netherlands. Stijntje is a veteran in the fashion industry, who worked with some of the largest international brands before the Rana Plaza garment factory disaster in 2013 made her completely rethink her career, and fashion in general.

For those who don’t remember, a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, just collapsed one day,  and roughly 1.100 garment workers inside were killed. It was a massive building, and they were all employees producing for brands like Primark and H&M, brands that sell to huge markets of, primarily, western shoppers.

So in her questioning, she begins to research, and learns the deeper issues in the fashion industry, and begins looking for a solution. After hearing the ways in which initiatives like Fairmined are working to create more sustainable practices in the jewellery sector, Fibershed offers some additional hope for the future of textiles.


Stijntje Jaspers: So, my name is Stintje Jaspers and I have worked for over 25 years as a fashion designer and the head of design for very mainstream fashion brands, for the mid-market, so not so expensive, and that evolved during my professional lifetime into ‘fast fashion’. And after Rana Plaza in 2013,  that was sort of a wake-up call- and not that it happened, because if you have been to these factories, you actually, I was surprised it didn’t happen, something like this before. But I really was shocked how the professional world in the West was responding, and especially the company I was working for at that time. And I thought, oh my god, I’m part of this. So, and then I did some research and I sort of realised that we, or fashion, is the second most pollutive  market at the moment, after oil and gas. So it’s really very bad; their CO2 emissions are the same as all the [emissions from] air and shipping freight together, so it is really, really not a good sector.

We all wear clothes, and we all need them… So I was thinking that if I, who, working already for over 25 years in fashion, was not aware of this, what about the public? And what about all these people that are buying clothes? So I really went into this whole system; like how does this system work? and I decided to leave my job. I went into the circular economy, because I thought that could be the solution, and I also did a study about sustainability and systems change, because I realised it’s about changing a system: What is that, and how can we do that? And then, when I was writing my paper for this study, (which was about the importance of local supply chains for post-consumer waste – which means that all the waste that we put into the textile boxes on the street…)


Margaret: When you say it’s going to other countries, you mean it’s going to other countries to be used for something, or it’s going to be, like, thrown away?


Stijntje: We think it’s going to be used, but it’s also dumped a lot. Anyway, I was writing this paper, and then I thought, okay, the circular economy is really about waste, it should be seen as a resource and not as waste, and it should be reused, so all the waste should go back into the loop. Which is a very good idea; we don’t do that yet. But I also thought, it can also be an excuse to keep on producing like we do, right? So if, and if we don’t change our production and consumption patterns, it is like we say in Dutch, it’s ‘mopping the floor with the tap running’.

So I thought, okay, instead of focusing on the end part, I really wanted to start focusing on the start part. And that’s why we co-founded with an ex-colleague of mine, Fibershed Netherlands. Fibershed is actually a worldwide network of, now 64 affiliates, all around the world. We all look in our own bio region, so it’s not that much about country borders or language borders or whatever, it’s really a bio region… What do we have and what do we grow in natural materials to make textiles and clothing from in a local supply chain?

And why do we look in our own bio region and why do we say what we have and what we grow? Because it’s about native plants. It’s also animals, like sheep, for example, because they add to biodiversity and they are part of the ecological system. We should not do cotton in a greenhouse [for example], because that’s really breaking down the environmental system.

And if we would do this all over the world, then first of all, we would use plants that help our own bio, biodiversity and [create] healthy soil, because it’s an issue, we need to fix this.

We will get more quantity in natural materials for textiles. And if we do it in a local supply chain, it also means that, of course, the footprint is smaller because you will do everything as close to home as possible. But it’s also interesting, because then we can use the cultural heritage and the arts and crafts that are already there for centuries, which we’re also losing somehow. So we will also get more variety and more interesting products.


Margaret: Instead of trying, just trying for a net zero effect, we try for a net positive effect for a system that is actually productive and beneficial rather than just reducing the footprint of our extractive practices.


Stijntje: Yeah. That’s why I really liked this because, before I was, I was really focusing on: How can we have less negative impact? And now it’s really: How can we have a positive impact with clothes? I mean, how great is this?

So also farmers are part of this system. So if we talk about fashion and clothing and textiles, people don’t think about farms, but a lot of the materials are actually coming from the land. So we should include farms and we should include all the people who make the crops and the fibres into yarns and into fabrics; and then the designers come in. But this whole step before is very important to take into account.


Margaret: This works really well to just get different perspectives on what circularity looks like and how much it has to involve the community that it’s a part of, and it has to involve the source. So when you’re talking about the farmers, of course, maybe a lot of people don’t associate farmers with fashion. The idea [is] that fashion has to be about luxury and that it has to be expensive, or it has to be all of these things.


Stijntje: We pay now not enough, I mean, I’m not talking about the luxury brands, but if you look at, for example, Primark or Shein, you buy a t-shirt for €2,50, which is not possible. It’s not possible without anyone else paying for this. Not you, but people who make it, who live there, whose environment is polluted. And then you also don’t see the value anymore, right? Because it’s the same amount as a cup of coffee. So why don’t you just wear it two nights and then throw it away?

At least in the West, all the negative things are externalised, right? We don’t see it.

We don’t feel it. It’s not here. If we start producing now in our own country, we will see all the steps. That’s why we always do this open day week. Then, you see how much work it is to have a sheep, to spin the wool, to make a garment out of it and from other materials. And it’s not like a ‘push on a button and then your clothing is coming out’.

And at the moment, the farmers don’t get a lot of money. I mean, they get the least money from the cotton, for example, but they have a high, high risk because if their crop is not good or they have a storm or whatever, then a buyer from cotton will say, ‘Well, I will buy it somewhere else. Bye. I don’t care.’

So we say this whole chain needs to be one system also business-wise.

And maybe it’s interesting to say that each Fibershed has its own focus.

In the Netherlands, we really feel that it’s really important to change our consumption and we have to bring back the making industry. So we have the resources and we have designers, but the parts in between are sort of gone, because we’ve all outsourced them. For example, I’m also a coach of Fibershed Sri Lanka, who started a year ago. And they are very much into feminine empowerment, and rural communities not being exploited.

So the making industry is there. They make things, but then they are really on this social [agenda], like you said about fair mining. It depends on where you are, what kind of focus you have.


Margaret: What I love about the Fibershed story is that in this big question of sustainability we’re all grappling with, trying to figure out how we can get involved, their model of circularity is one of the most informative. It feels like it paints a picture of what true sustainability looks like with a teachable example of regenerative practices. And while it isn’t directly jewellery-related per se, it does give us some perspective on how to think about the source of our resources and how to consider all the steps in our production, not just the making and the selling, in a way we can learn from and begin to implement for ourselves.

Stijntje is truly a fountain of knowledge about this topic, in part because she’s also recently written a book which gives a larger historical context around the material. For example, she talks about how the ideas of the Enlightenment, though we consider them to be so valuable to Western philosophy, actually gave us a lot of the thinking that was used to justify all our future extractive practices, including colonialism, that most of our current industries are still based on. Just imagine the idea that humans are at the top of a divine hierarchy above all things in nature which allows us to see everything around us as a tool at our disposal for our ultimate gratification and to which we owe nothing in return.

If you think about it, you can see this idea in the roots of most modern business practices and some social ones as well. So her book is called Goede Gespreksstof, van Grond tot Garderobe, which roughly translates in English to Good Conversation Material, From the Ground to the Closet. She also puts some context around the need for organic materials by tracing how the use of synthetics simply outgrew what it was intended to be.

When these materials were introduced earlier in the 20th century, they were intended to make clothing cheaper, thereby making clothing more accessible to more people, but all that access to cheaper clothing has resulted in people buying much more than they once did, and in truth much more than they need. She shares that in the Netherlands we are buying twice as many pieces of clothing per person as we did in the year 2000, and we are keeping them for half as long. So rather than repairing and reusing, we’re throwing our clothes away.

And it gets worse. With these synthetic materials, just washing them breaks them down, releasing microplastics into the environment. In fact, it’s estimated that 35% of the microplastics in the oceans comes not from the production of these materials, but from washing them.

So it was a good idea that led to really harmful long-term results and a complex situation that requires a complete system change to resolve.


Stijntje: I was reading this nice book about the difference between to live somewhere and to, how do you say, to conquer something- and it was this interesting story about why the Vikings started, because they had too many people and not enough food, to sail to other countries.

And then they lived for about 400 years on Greenland and Antarctica, but they somehow died. And the Inuits are already living there for more than thousands of years. So these anthropologists were looking [at], Why did these people not survive and this group did? And this is really [about] the mindset.

So the Inuits were part of this nature. They were living with this nature. They were seeing, How can this environment feed me, and how can I give something back? And the Vikings were just conquering the land, but were also bringing.. like we always eat beef, so we bring our cows.

So not looking at, What does this land give us, does this fit? No. Sort of copy/paste.

And this really helps, because I started from, Okay, let’s be circular, clear, very good.

Then I thought it should be biocircular. And now I’m really at regenerative, which is another step. And if you really look at it, it’s about restoring and balancing.. and then all the choices you make are different.

What I’ve always tried to say to these designers, like I was a designer once, we learn that we choose a material, we make something of it and we sell it. This is not…it’s only a small part. So we should get used to thinking about the material that we choose.

Where does it come from? How was it made? What did it do for the environment and the people, et cetera, et cetera?

So all the steps before, but also after we sell it, we have to think about: What happens when I sell it? Can people wear it long? When it’s discarded, can it be repaired? Is it durable? Is it easy to recycle? Is it compostable?

We need to be responsible for the whole cycle.

Then you make different choices.


Margaret: So finally, this brings us to artist Mariel Matute. Mariel is a Peruvian artist based in Belgium.

She first studied communication science in Peru and then moved to Antwerp for a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in jewellery at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. And over the course of those six years, she really struggled to narrow down her area of focus, moving from jewellery to activism, social art, and really digging to uncover where she fit in. Now in an interesting twist, I learned during our interview for the panel, in fact, the first thing she said to me was that she herself had seen this same piece by Katharina Dettar at Marseille back in 2016 on a student trip there.

And according to her, it was a big part of what triggered her to pursue the course of action she’s ended up on today. It’s an incredible coincidence, and the story just gets better from there.


Mariel Matute: You know, she was the winner of the Marzee in 2017, I think, 16, 17… And I had the book, I bought the book? In fact, I was just one day there on a visit from the academy. I was, at that moment, a second year bachelor.

So I pass by and I say, Wow…! I was really impressed.

Like that kind of language from jewellery has such a soul to transmit. Me, coming from my background – because I’m Peruvian, I was born in Peru, Lima -so you can imagine, I grew up going to museums from head to toe, full of gold and silver from the Incan Empire, you know. So when I saw that language from Katharina, it made me immediately remember like, Wow, I remember in the Incan Empire, they also used metal not as a precious thing. They also used it to communicate with God, that in that moment, God was the sun. So everything who looked apparently like the sun, like the shining, was more close to their God.

It’s such a lovely story. And Katharina kind of used the same way, you know, their favourites from Peru in that time during the empire, they used metal to transmit their ideas, to transmit their love, to transmit the sense, to transmit their stories, not to trade or to sell.

And Katharina used it for that. And I was like, Wow, this makes me remember things that I saw since I was so young. I feel immediately connected.

And, you know, when you are a second year bachelor, you’re still like a sponge absorbing. I was like, oh, my God, I think this is my path.

For example, my bachelor project was, I made some figures of gold, of 18 karat gold.

It was, I think, I don’t remember right now, was more than 20 grams of gold, it was a big piece. Not big, but big for gold, you know. So, and then, I exploded it. And I made a video about it. I didn’t want to destroy the metal. I just wanted to mutilate it.

And this is an expression for me of how mining damaged the lands in Cajamarca in Peru. Cajamarca is a land in the highlands. And my grandparents, and my father is from there.

So I grew up all my life when I was young, having summers in the highlands. We took our horses and we went to the lagoons. And I was really, luckily, really close to nature.

But at some moment when I was between 11 or 13 years old, I noticed that some of these areas in Cajamarca, close to the lagoons and those areas, they became closed. So restricted areas, restricted areas… I remember, it was an area full of trees of eucalyptus. And I was in love with that walking path that I’d do with the horses and with my grandfather.. you know, we’d drink tea.. It was so nice. And suddenly we couldn’t do it anymore.

And later in time, later, years and years passed, I found out it’s because it was international mining companies coming there and literally exploding everything. When I was doing my research, a lot of the pictures that I saw, explosion after explosion after explosion. And I was like, OK, this is a sign. What I’m going to do, I’m going to explode the gold.


For people, you know, like, oh, it’s just a land. It’s just earth. But if I explode gold, Oh, my God, this woman is crazy! Like when I present this in my country, they were even thinking that I was a big terrorist. Leftist ideas.

You know, the concept here in Europe, was like, Ok, she’s a bit of a rebel. She’s trying to find her language in jewellery. And in Peru, it was like, Oh, my God, what is she doing in Europe? She’s becoming a terrorist!

In fact, that encouraged me to continue doing things in that way.

Of course, in the meantime, also, well, I have to make money in some way to do this.

I developed my own economy in some way. OK, for these projects, I need money to invest. So at that moment, I was working with fashion designers producing jewellery for them [which] I also love.

And everything that I made with the money from them, boom, was back to my social projects. Everything, boom. So until now it’s how I kind of do my own self-economy, working in the two. And thankfully, I really enjoy it, to work in the two.


Margaret: So in Mariel’s case, her own conflicted feelings about the mining industry are filtered not only through being a jeweller, but also as someone who has a personal experience of the destruction left by international mining companies in her own home community. And this really propels her response to centre her action on direct intervention with the people in Peru.


Mariel: Especially when I start to have conversations with anthropologists from Peru, and social workers from Peru who are in educational areas in Peru, people from the Ministry of Education from Peru… I was really surprised by everything that they told me. And meetings and video calls with artists also- I hear everybody has the same concern. And it was, sadly in Peru, the economy is growing, but the economy is really unstable. Nobody is focused on education. Not only education, a lot of the handcraft culture that we have, like the ancient background, textiles, ceramics, stones, jewellery, et cetera, et cetera, is getting lost.

How come? One, the government doesn’t care, in fact. Oh yes, this is beautiful. Oh yes, Peru, come, tourism... But deep down, they really don’t do anything.

In every part of Peru, in the coast, in the highlands and in the jungle, there are people who carry this knowledge of handcraft on jewellery, for example, from years and years from family. The grandfather, the grandmother, the father, the uncle, the aunt, everybody… does ceramics or jewellery, for example. This structure comes from the Incan Empire.

The name is the Amautas. Amautas is a Quechua word who is, the meaning is: the science of artists who share the knowledge, in fact. So all these people were dying and all this amazing knowledge was getting lost. They couldn’t get the connection with the young generations in their small towns. Because of course, if you’re a small town person, you have to go to the capital. So what you have to do, you have to stop high school, run, at 17, 16 years old, go to the capital and make money to send back to your parents, your family.. Maybe you have somebody sick or.. you know, you have to find a way to make money a lot easier.

So that was one of the biggest reasons that it was losing. I was really planning to do other projects and suddenly this appeared and I said, okay, I have to contact these Amautas and I have to hear them from their own voice. They are my people. They are jewellery designers like me! And this takes a complete switch. I travelled to Peru.


I spent months in Peru investigating and learning from them. They opened the door to me. It’s a whole story and it’s really funny because the Amautas in Peru are all men.

Jewellery is really male-based. So you can imagine me coming to talk with them, to their studios, to the small ateliers as a woman. And they literally didn’t believe I was a jewellery designer until they see me sitting on a bench, burning my fingers, hammering, everything…

It was a whole process. It took me two years, you know, winning in some way, their confidence, for them to open up. I was so lucky, I spent months there to learn like, the Peruvian filigree, everything. It’s like amazing techniques.


Margaret: So you were doing, like interviews with them, but you were also doing workshops and learning?


Mariel: Yeah. I learned from them, and it doesn’t end up there…


Margaret: In 2021, she began what will become the Matute Project, a series of workshops teaching jewellery and other craft techniques to young people in the highlands of Peru.

At this point in her story, it becomes very clear how the investigation into ecological sustainability almost inevitably takes us into issues of social sustainability. And I feel like every story we heard echoed this point. Mariel talks a lot about her own distress at certain living conditions in Peru, which in her view have sharply worsened in recent years.

She attributes at least part of this to the defunding of public education, particularly in the arts. And this sort of organically combines with her talks with the craft holders, the Amautas, who tell similar stories about having no one left to pass their traditions to. So she sees the work of the Matute Project to reconnect these ancient traditions with the makers of today and tomorrow to empower future artists and especially empower females where they may not have been in the past.

She’s also managed to pair five female apprentices with the Amautas, and they’ve ended up designing a collection together, two of the Amautas, two of her students and herself as a bridge.


Mariel: I went to San Jeronimo de Tunan. And I literally begged. I went to the small city hall there and  literally begged them to allow me to make a workshop of contemporary art with some students from the region, from the area.

You know, there’s little towns all over, [and I asked] if I can bring the Amautas from San Jeronimo to give [a workshop] to them, non-profit. And later they told me, We do it.

Okay, how do we do it?

Later, the Minister of Education of the area contacted me, the town hall Mayor…It started to be super political, I had to present all these letters… It was a workshop for 10 days.

It was insane. It was 23 kids. So now literally I have 23 tickets on my charge in another country, girls and boys, between 12 and 18 years old..!

By the way, this workshop was supposed to be just for 10 students and because of the money, everything was planned for 10. But then when we launched the inscriptions in Peru, even people older than 18 wanted to participate!

It was so sad: when I was doing the workshop, other people, other handcraft people come to me, Senorita Mariel, Miss Mariel, can we join? And I say, Ay! I don’t have the capacity, you know? But I just have to do it, because, when I talked with some teachers of the students, they were telling me, You cannot let this kid out. He’s so talented. His mother is textiles...

So we ended up being 23..it was breaking my heart. But that was the best decision ever.


Also it was the first time for me to work as an educator, you know, as a sharing person. So what I did was, I started here [in Antwerp] with psychologists in education, I developed a workshop for four weeks in a high school. Close to the academy, there is an art school for minors. So I convinced them in some way that I have to learn.. you know, I feel at that moment so responsible.

I made my first workshop here in Belgium with minors. I start to learn the process. I talked with the teachers to prepare myself, and then after all these months, I went to do the workshop in Peru.

So after this workshop, we’ve created a small art community. [Since then] there’s already five young girls learning and working in the Ateliers of the Amautas in San Jeronimo.

It was amazing because it was not boys, it was girls.


Margaret: So it sounds like your version of sustainability is very focused on knowledge sustainability. And it’s much more about craft and maintaining, or keeping traditions alive, and also propagating them so that people who haven’t been able to benefit from them yet can start to benefit from them.


Mariel: Exactly.

I also understand through this workshop, you know, I left the page open for them.

Okay, if you don’t feel jewellery, okay, what can I help you with? Painting..? You know, in the academy, we have so much knowledge about everything. Like we have to draw so much, we have to paint so much, we have to do so much sculpture and things. So literally, in this workshop, the summary of my six years in the academy were there.

You see all the methodology for the workshop. I asked the Dean, my teachers, everybody to check if I was giving the right information, knowing the ages [of the students], knowing from where they come, their background. I also talked with organisations from Peru, from the same highland area who were really rich in background knowledge, artistic knowledge from that area. I also learned in that process. So it was just becoming a community.


Margaret: Moreover, immediately after the panel, Mariel hosted one of these Amautas in a public workshop in Belgium to share his techniques and working traditions and honour his years of experience by passing on his knowledge outside of Peru.

So the impact has truly been pretty incredible. And in the end, it’s creating a kind of community.

So far, the Matute Project has won two awards from the Arts Thread in collaboration with the Gucci brand, and in 2023, the South American Art Biennial Award.

And we’ve had an update from her that she will be back for another series of projects, this time in the jungles of Peru by the end of this year.


Mariel: You know, for him, he’ll be so, so grateful that after so many years that he’s putting his life in this, finally, he’s getting recognized. How it should be. And you can see him, how he works, the way he works, the way I learned to work with them, because it’s really, really basic ways.

It’s another world of jewellery. Here, I learned with all these Switzerland brands, and German [tools]… There it was, This we do with an acid we made from salt and an onion!

It was another Bachelor degree! They even show me a special alloy that they were doing, so that the Silver has less oxidation.. Imagine!

And you know, he wants to share that here, with the people because, why should we stay with a secret?

Peru’s such a big country, that I’m already focusing on the jungle.. More workshops in the jungle, non- age limit, with ladies from the Caserios we call it. They’re already telling me their stories. Like , ok, We work with this natural material, and maybe we can find ways so that these natural materials can be preserved..? And in the jungle, wow… the richness of the materials..! From seeds to stones, water, animals.. Wow!

I’m really looking forward.. I’m kind of mixing the things that I learned here, with the knowledge they have to find a nice language in the end, so this is my next step, developing these things next year in the jungle.



Margaret: It’s interesting to see which points get repeated across these stories. One of course, is that where we have ecological exploitation we almost always have social exploitation, and that often, healing one will enable the healing of the other.

Even better, is how richly working with circularity pays off ..

For example, both Stijntje and Mariel remark on the fact that environmental resources are much greater and more abundant in places where this bio-circularity and environmental balance is being practised. So that working toward a net positive does actually work.


For me personally, I found that hearing all of these stories was a great relief, and a reminder that the small actions could lead to much bigger consequences. If the story of our place within the environment is all about impact, and the consequences our actions have on our surroundings, then this is also true in a positive sense- We really can’t estimate the impact our actions may have for good. The principles of circularity illustrate this perfectly, and these stories show that feeding into a network in a positive way, indeed has an unknown and unlimited potential for positive outcomes.


We closed of course by asking for questions from our audience, but first, asking our speakers to reiterate the questions they ask themselves when they approach sustainability in their work. Each of their journeys began by asking some essential questions they hadn’t dealt with yet, and letting the answers change their course of action.

Things like: where does this come from? How did it get here and who was responsible for that? If the price I’m paying for something doesn’t reflect the true cost of producing it, who else is actually paying the price? And ultimately: Do I really need this?

And from our audience Q&A discussion, we established a few key points as well: For one, the importance of centering personal stories as learning examples for doing this kind of work, and the importance of visualising those stories- as well as how essential public discussion moments such as this panel event are, as tools for learning and exchange.

Second, the observation that local and personal exchange enables us to make, and give things made with love, a simple and time-honoured point of view, that can actually be both useful and informative, and a reminder that calling something artisanal doesn’t make it so- we need to see proof to understand what that really implies. And finally, the wonderfully practical point for jewellers: How to explain to the customer the difference in price, between responsibly produced and traceable gold and undocumented or unregulated gold. Katharina and Jaime had similar advice on this: precisely this is the moment for education.


Fairmined offers plenty of information to their partnering jewellers, to help explain this to customers. If someone comes with a budget for a custom piece, the difference between 200 and 250 will seem a lot more realistic once they understand what is involved. In fact, not only will it be a price they can feel good about paying, they will likely ask themselves those same questions, the next time they consider buying jewellery.


That’s it for now-

Thanks for listening, and be sure to check the show notes for links to recommended reading and to see more of the work of these incredible artists and organisations.

Thank you again to Fashion for Good, Current Obsession and the generous support of Pictorights for making this panel possible. Thanks to the essential production support of Frank Verkade, and the Obsessed Team, the advice and guidance of Therese Mørch, Sanne De Vries, and Rosina Budhani, and to our panellists, Katharina, Jaime, Stijntje and Mariel, for sharing their stories. And a final thank you to our incredible OBSESSED! audience, for sharing your time and presence on the 11th of November for this marathon 2 hour panel!

Together, we’re each other’s greatest resource.