One of the most debated topics in fashion is how to approach sustainability and while most trends fade from season to season, the conversation around the industry's environmental and socioeconomic impact will no doubt continue gaining momentum in 2020. From the outside, our corner of the country might not be viewed as a style mecca--yet!--but it might behoove fashion’s revered titans to take a cue from the sustainable practices developed in the Pacific Northwest’s innovative ecosystem.
Case in point: BOMA Jewelry, a nearly 40-year old jewelry maker headquartered in Seattle and sold in over 1,000 independent stores across the United States, has a people-first mentality at the heart of its operations. I had the opportunity to talk with Suzanne Chaya, the daughter of BOMA’s founders, who took over the role of CEO four years ago after a successful 10 year career in architecture that took her across Asia.
BOMA was founded by Chaya’s father Boon, a native of Thailand who earned an engineering degree from the University of Washington. The company specializes in creating contemporary sterling silver and gold vermeil jewelry that is non-toxic, nickel-free and hypo-allergenic. Each piece (to date the company says that sold over 35 million pieces) is handmade in the company’s Thailand factory, which employs more than 200 local artisans. While calls for fair working conditions for garment workers are gaining momentum around the world (perhaps the most well known example being the Bangladesh factory collapse in 2013), BOMA employees have been offered ethical working conditions from the start, including competitive wages, safe working conditions and even an employee-led credit union.
Chaya explains that BOMA’s ability to control their supply chain--a tactic similarly implemented by newer companies like Harry’s--while creating an enjoyable company culture has been a huge part of their success, not to mention a cornerstone of the brand’s mission. “This past Thanksgiving we had several workers celebrate 30 years with us,” she shares.
The values of transparency, sustainability and ethical treatment of employees has been at BOMA’s core since its inception, according to Chaya, but very few knew about it. After becoming CEO she started telling the sustainable side of her company's story to their buyers and wholesale partners, to their surprise and delight. This mentality can be traced to Buddhist teachings of sustainability and respect--a common practice in Thailand--and nurtured following her father’s observations of Seattle-area companys' customer-centric nature, including Nordstrom and Microsoft.
“The secret to making sustainability part of a company’s culture is to incorporate the whole ecosystem, not just a single process,” explains Chaya.
Nearly four decades of perfecting their sustainable habits might make them trendsetters but under Chaya’s leadership BOMA will continue to find ways to respect the planet. “We are persuing our B-corp certification in the United States and our operations in Thailand,” she says. The company is also looking into switching their factory’s power supply to renewable energy.
The answer to curtailing the fashion industry’s wasteful habits is certainly not an easy one. The statistics behind fashion’s monumental waste, as pointed out in a recent article, can be confusing but consumers’ demands for transparency continue to grow. If others were to follow BOMA’s lead (perhaps to their benefit; the company says their wholesale numbers increased by 15% in 2019) addressing the human question might be a good place to start.