Welcome to our interview series where we speak with purpose-driven business owners and ecopreneurs from around the globe.
Every few weeks, we’ll dive into their journeys, learn about their wins and challenges, and the resources they couldn’t do without.Prepare to be inspired and learn something new!
Today’s guest is Rebecca Oakley from Riviera Rebel.
Please tell us a little bit about who you are, your background, and what you did before starting your own business.
My name is Rebecca. I am from the south coast of England and now live in London. I have a sustainable jewellery brand called Riviera Rebel, which, along with gardening, serves as my creative outlet in life.
I grew up in the countryside near Portsmouth. I am a twin and one of five children. My childhood years were spent with horses, constantly. Looking back now, my twin and I were afforded an unnerving amount of freedom considering how young we were. Always at ‘the yard,’ finding new riding routes, gorse bushes to jump, rivers for bareback swimming, and hills to gallop up. As an untethered teenager (like most British teenagers in the ’90s), I would often be up to mischief: smoking in the fields, going to the only village pub that would serve us alcohol, skipping school, and going to the snooker hall or beach.
Although my strongest subject at school was English, I was most interested in the natural world and how it worked, which steered me toward geography and, latterly, studying Environmental Protection at University.
I am curious, creative, romantic (to a fault), and have an impatient temperament, so my life to date has been one long meander, not without its ebbs and flows. I have lived in Rome, Andalusia, various places around the UK, and all over London, often following a significant other.
Work-wise… where to start?! I have worked in some of the most random places: from the docks in Portsmouth packing fruit to selling Italian crystal at Harrods. I have flown all over Australia producing a documentary about the Royal Flying Doctors, pumped freshly pressed grape juice into tanks at a winemaker’s, served pints in the oldest pub in London… the list goes on.
During my degree, I travelled to South Africa for several months to complete an immersive conservation placement. This transformative experience involved tracking elephants, surveying antelope herds from a helicopter, tranquilising and treating an injured Rhino, to name but a few. Seeing that part of the world from such a personal viewpoint—the animals, expansive landscapes at dawn, being that remote and exposed to the wild—had a profound impact and forever changed my perspective on the world. For me, nature is sacred and the most important thing on the planet. It sounds like hyperbole, but it has been an ever-present refuge for me since childhood.
Regrettably, I never did pursue an environmental career. Distraction, impatience, and eventually, money took over, and I worked as a Personal Assistant throughout my 30s.
What inspired you to create a purpose-driven company and how did you come up with the business idea?
Riviera Rebel was born from a confluence of factors: growing up on the coast, travelling, my love for the natural world, and an untapped creativity—an itch that needed to be scratched. I’m no artist, but appreciate the beauty in form and craftsmanship. Jewellery was a form of personal expression for me, a medium through which I could create something tangible and wearable. Designing came naturally, but the business side of things did not. I am not a numbers person and can procrastinate endlessly to avoid planning and strategising. The transition from designing to production, building the brand and selling the product, was scary, uncharted territory and a very steep and challenging learning curve.
There was no question of Riviera Rebel not being an environmentally responsible business. It was never even a point of discussion. Every decision, from sourcing the precious metals and packaging to using proceeds to support habitat conservation with WWF, was inherently driven by the core values of sustainability and ethical awareness that define the brand and are an indelible mark on my conscious. It just went without saying.
In your experience, what are the main challenges of starting and running a green business?
Needless to say, as a naïve solopreneur prone to impatience and idealism, I dove in head first with staggering enthusiasm and very little consideration for cost, the practicalities of production or commerciality. I was completely blinkered as I drew the jewellery collections and began making the prototypes. Then reality hit. The cost and time involved with product development, tweaking design dimensions and finding suitable componentry was an expensive and stressful process. There were many stumbling blocks and, upsettingly, many people saw me coming and took advantage to make a quick buck. Circling back to square one became a familiar route for me. It was a hard lesson to learn but a business has to be viable and a product commercial, otherwise it is just an expensive hobby.
Running a green business is a big responsibility and, once you have made that commitment, it must be woven into the fabric of everything you do. It was sometimes very hard and frustrating to stand by the brand principles of Creativity, Integrity and Sustainability because it was the longer, more expensive and more difficult road. But there was little point in compromising these, the market was already saturated with cheap, unethical, mass produced jewellery.
The very nature of the jewellery business is damaging to the environment, some issues are extremely difficult to avoid, regulate and authenticate. The kind of issues that keep me up at night!
Mining is a big problem when it comes to being eco-friendly. The machinery used is a mass producer of CO2 with precious metals often mined in developing countries, making regulation extremely difficult and supply chains complex with a lack of transparency. The supply chain from “mine to market” is extremely long and multi-faceted, each step occurring in different locations and countries. This makes it very difficult to find out from which country your metal originates, which mine, the conditions of the working environment and protective measures employed.
In addition, air pollution, water pollution, ecosystem damage, greenhouse gas emission and the hazardous by-products of mining for metal all contribute to a very destructive industry.
HUGE challenge for sustainable jewellery brands!
How does your work address societal and/or environmental issues?
So, this is where it becomes vital to connect and collaborate with like-minded businesses. I use UK suppliers of precious metals that have established relationships with certified mines and can supply recycled and Fairtrade silver and gold, albeit at a higher cost. Small-scale UK production also ensures integrity, quality, and minimal waste, while reducing the need for long-haul shipping. I exclusively use 100% recycled silver in the designs and opt for Fairtrade gold for bespoke commissions. The lightweight packaging is made from recycled and recyclable materials and the protective packaging used in shipping is recycled, re-usable and part of the Eco Packaging Alliance, contributing to global reforestation. The business refrains from using unnecessary leaflets, excess packaging, or marketing materials. Furthermore, 10% of all sales are donated to habitat conservation with the World Wild Fund for Nature.
I am also passionate about encouraging people to shift towards shopping locally, supporting craftspeople and small businesses, and purchasing items at farmers’ markets, seasonal fairs, and community-led events. Instead of being stocked in big retailers (which require extensive stockholding and mass production) Riviera Rebel embraces a personal approach by selling directly to customers. This allows us to build a genuine connection and offer a face-to-face experience, like the good old days.
What are the most common mistakes you see green businesses make?
In a word, Greenwashing. Sustainable, eco-friendly, green, bio, plant-based, recycled, carbon neutral, the list goes on. These buzzwords are thrown into ‘about us’ pages and marketing materials to tick a few boxes with very little evidence to back them up. Too many businesses make these claims to sell a product or to increase their appeal but, are they delivering what they say?
For a business to genuinely be considered green, transparency and verification must be firmly in place. Green businesses should strive for sustainability at their core, encompassing every aspect of their operations. This includes how their offices are run, storage facilities, transportation, business meetings, and even catering. It should be a 360-degree effort.
Large corporations excel at creating ‘green copy’ to outline their intentions and plans for future responsibility but the dots need to be joined. There is often a gap between these strategic declarations and measurable actions. A great deal of emphasis is placed on “talking the talk,” but there is often limited follow-through in terms of “walking the walk.”
Authenticity is the key, and it should never be sacrificed in favour of mere greenwashing. Consumers have a lot of information at their fingertips, they are savvy and know what to look for in a noisy market, a discerning shopper deserves more than lip service, seeking products and services that align with their values.
Is there anything that you do outside of your business that is driven by similar (sustainability) objectives?
All the usual day to day stuff. Trying to buy seasonal, local produce, reducing meat and fish consumption and buying higher welfare and wild whenever possible. We recycle and compost and often buy second-hand. My family love the garden so we have planted a variety of species that bees and insects love. We like to watch the birds and squirrels and even have parakeets in this part of London! We are members of the National Trust and Royal Horticulture Society, I follow many charities and try to stay up to date with environmental news, signing online petitions and donating to worthwhile causes and charities. We pick up litter on our walks and refrain from taking the car on short journeys and like to shop small at local antique fairs and farmers’ markets.
How do you grow and scale your business, and what are the main growth constraints and opportunities?
This is an area I still find difficult and do not think can apply to handcrafted goods. Many people have spoken to me about scaling up; manufacturing more to reduce cost and increase margin, use a manufacturer outside of the UK. I have tried to do this once as an experiment with a more complex jewellery design, requiring the setting of many small gemstones. The cost of making this in the UK was prohibitive so I did a lot of research to locate a manufacturer capable of making the design without compromising on quality and sustainability. Unfortunately, this immediately affected the integrity of the product, increased the carbon footprint, compromised transparency and produced an item that simply did not align with the brand. I felt uncomfortable selling it and putting my name to the product.
I aim to build loyalty and word of mouth business by remaining consistent and by offering a unique, handcrafted product. Growth is slow but organic and better for longevity.
I am sure there is opportunity to scale up and it is undoubtedly needed to establish a competitive edge. Costs could be brought down and margins improved by diversifying and refining the production processes, identifying components that can be used more readily and casting higher quantities. More product would allow the brand to exhibit to a wider audience but, this is a crossroads I have yet to brave.
What green businesses/sectors do you see growing the fastest right now and/or will become mainstream within the next 10 years?
Environmental Technology Sector or Green Tech – This will apply to every business worldwide, adopting or investing in sustainable technology to contribute to the environment and offset where needed.
Waste Processing – Again, digital technologies will deliver more effective waste management and facilitate the recovery of valuable materials present in waste streams, reducing the mining or importation of raw materials.
Green / renewable energy – An obvious one but a biggie. Solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable technologies; renewable electricity growth is accelerating faster than ever worldwide.
Fintech – This industry is having a huge impact on the collective green consciousness. With a focus on green investments such as renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and green infrastructure, Fintech has also leveraged pioneering digital solutions for effective carbon tracking to provide businesses with emissions intel so as to monitor their carbon footprint and take relevant measures to improve their negative impact on the planet.
In your opinion, what are the top skills necessary to be a successful eco-entrepreneur?
Finding a powerful communication style that engages, educates and inspires people will stand you in good stead from the off. Transparency and authenticity should be the foundations of your language. If you can then build loyalty, you are on your way. Winning customers is great but keeping them is better. Do this with authentic action, be the business that delivers on its promise.
Stay flexible. Regularly take a step back and review your progress and offering. It is so important to stay relevant and to future proof your business.
Any “lessons learned” or advice you can share with aspiring or current green business owners?
I know my experience will not resonate with everyone, it’s niche and small and perhaps a glorified hobby but we share the same raison d’etre and difficulties, with many a revelation applicable to anyone building a green business.
It isn’t an easy path but it is getting easier as the world shifts towards a more sustainable mindset. Look around, there are a lot of valuable resources and like minded people out there. Connect with them and do business with them, this will strengthen the collective impact. Keep your ‘why’ front of mind, remind yourself that it is important and don’t be tempted to just greenwash your business, consumers are becoming savvy and are increasingly looking to make kinder and more meaningful purchases.
Owning a green business can be a powerful thing, the choices you make and the principles you uphold in your venture contribute to a more sustainable future and leads the charge towards a very necessary change. It’s a path well worth treading for anyone with a vision for a better world.
What inspires you every day to wake up and keep going?
It is certainly difficult and I have stop-started so many times due to cash flow and the substantial costs associated with crafting a product here in the United Kingdom. Sometimes it just doesn’t seem feasible. BUT, people love the jewellery. I get a buzz when I see it on friends and family and when strangers notice and compliment it. I am still inspired by the designs and will always love the creative process.
Riviera Rebel is a great source of pride for me, it has become like an old friendship – sometimes nurtured, at times fun and oftentimes a tad neglected but I have never compromised and it symbolises what I love in the world and what I have learned over the years. Far more than a business, it has been, and continues to be, a very personal journey.
Rebecca Oakley, Riviera Rebel
Jewellery Designer, nature lover and struggling solopreneur.
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