Bringing Business to Life: Turquoise Mountain

Turquoise Mountain was founded in 2006 by HRH The Prince of Wales to preserve and regenerate historic areas and communities with a rich cultural heritage and to revive traditional crafts, creating jobs, skills, and a renewed sense of pride. Since then, Turquoise Mountain has restored 150 historic buildings, trained over 6,000 artisans, treated almost 120,000 patients at their Kabul clinic and graduated hundreds of talented artisans. We spoke to Turquoise Mountain CEO Shoshana Stewart about the inspiration behind the business and how it all came about.
By Jil Carrara

What inspired you to join Turquoise Mountain?

I wanted to go on an adventure and moved to Afghanistan in 2006 as a volunteer for Turquoise Mountain, taking a year off from my teaching job in Boston. And I stayed. I stayed because I loved Afghanistan. We were rebuilding beautiful buildings in the Old City of Kabul, we were working with young artisans making the most incredible, intricate wood pieces and turquoise bowls, and we had fresh fruit from our garden every morning - I just fell in love with it all.

What are your sustainable priorities for the business?

My main priority is that people have good employment, and what I mean by that is not just that they have a job, but that they have a job with good wages, good conditions, and doing something that makes them feel proud of their culture. I also want for the businesses that we are helping to grow, access new markets, and bring benefit to the communities around them. Traditional craft is also such an incredible opportunity for women entrepreneurs, and when they get to the level of being able to produce for high end markets internationally, they have the chance not only to earn a good living and support their community, but to really drive the leading edge of female entrepreneurship.

How is your eco strategy developing as you grow?

We now work with artisans in four different countries and across a range of craft traditions, so we are therefore exposed to more and more solutions and challenges for supply chain, for example the safe disposal of dyes. I believe that it is important that we tackle these issues as we come across them, and luckily, we are able to work with some brilliant partners who help us to do this. Label STEP is one such partner - their team audit and verify elements of our carpet production process in Afghanistan several times a year, as well as offering advice and support on working condition improvements to the regional weaving centres with which we work.

How challenging has it been to maintain your eco principles?

We always work to positively influence all the supply chains within which we work - whenever possible, we work using only eco-friendly materials and methods of manufacture. Where we encounter eco challenges in new supply chains, we try to work alongside artisan communities to develop ethical and viable alternatives. That way we can support and improve their positive environmental footprint as well their access to sustainable markets.

What have been your biggest milestones and triumphs until now?

Our biggest milestone has been the chance to exhibit Afghan culture and craft at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. Half a million people got to see the Afghanistan that we know, which is a combination of beauty, the traditional and the contemporary, and the incredible resilience and drive of Afghans. The first commission that we got for a five-star hotel, which was The Connaught in London, was also a huge milestone, showing us that we could create five-star quality from the Old City of Kabul. A recent milestone for us was the launch of a new collection of gemstone boxes with Asprey, handmade by Afghan artisan Abdul Jalil in Kabul. 

What have been the main prohibitions to your progress in building a sustainable business?

Artisans’ technical skill is the great asset from which we begin. However, to be able to bring products to high-end international markets, there are other things that are required for market readiness, from pricing to meeting industry standards like textile rub tests and fireproofing, all of which require training and support. These have probably been the biggest challenges, but they also represent the opportunity, because if you can link these incredible people with incredible skills to these higher end markets, there is so much potential for sustainable jobs and the preservation of culture.

Do you feel pressure from your customers to be more eco?

Most of our direct customers are most interested in the human story rather than having specific questions or standards around sustainability. However, our business customers (buyers) are increasingly interested in sustainability.

What advice would you give to anyone hoping to launch a sustainable business?

I think it is important not to see the world in black and white. Categories of ‘sustainable’ and ‘not sustainable’ are unhelpful for bringing individual artisans and companies and buyers along on the journey to sustainability. You must advertise and talk about what you do well in terms of sustainability, but just keep trying to make it better every year.

Which other sustainable businesses have inspired you?

Pippa Small is a UK-based jewellery designer with incredible sustainable principles, who began designing jewellery with us in Afghanistan 10 years ago and now works with us in Myanmar and Jordan. She inspires me not only because of her sustainable principles, but because of the graciousness and generosity that she brings with that. She treats artisans and partners with real admiration, love and humour, which is so resonant with but often lacking in the sustainability conversation. 


Read more about how HRH The Prince Of Wales became and environmental leader.

Bringing Business to Life: Turquoise Mountain