Like the fashion industry, the jewelry industry is rife with environmental and ethical dilemmas alike. The most well-known issue is perhaps ethical issues around “blood diamonds”, which have been used to fund bloody wars in Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lesser known “blood rubies,” mined through slave and child labor, were used to fund the military junta in Burma. Cutting, grinding, drilling and blasting slabs of gemstones for jewelry also poses huge health risks for laborers who inhale silica dust and contract the silicosis, tuberculosis and heart disease that kills 24,000 workers each year in China alone (Reuters). Gemstone cutting is also rife with child labor issues, such as in India, where children as young as 10 are prized for their keen eyesight and tactile hands. Attempts to regulate the industry, such as the government-run Kimberly Process Certification Scheme meant to clean up the diamond industry, have significant limitations that allow conflict gemstones to slip through the system.
Besides the enormous social and health impact, gemstone mining also has a large environmental impact. Large diamond mines can use significant amounts of water, create acid rock drainage and produce huge amounts of carbon emissions in addition to tearing up large areas of land and disturbing biodiversity. There are also significant environmental issues with colored gemstone mining, which mostly occurs on a small scale and is much harder to regulate and monitor. Not only can these smaller operations cause water pollution from washing the gemstones in local rivers and water sources, but they also cause deforestation as trees are cut down to clear land for new mines and for cooking fires of the miners. (Slate)
Precious metal mining also causes heavy environmental damage. Gold mines, or example, are large operations requiring enormous amounts of energy to extract tiny amounts of gold per ton of rock. In fact, one standard 18-karat wedding ring produces more than 20 tons of ore and waste rock. Why does that matter? Because digging up rock and exposing it to air and moisture creates acids and leaches toxic metals (like sulfuric acid, arsenic and copper), which run off into local water sources and threaten the aquatic life. But that’s not all. Removing gold from the ore by roasting releases dangerous mercury into the atmosphere. Cyanide, a lethal substance, is then used to finish the extraction process. All that waste ore and rock, otherwise known as the mine tailings, remains toxic for centuries. (The Green Lantern/WP)
Navigating these social and environmental issues means paying attention to what and where we buy our jewelry. Here are some tips to help you find beautiful baubins that don’t hurt the earth or its people.
1. Look for alternative sources for stones and metals
Synthetic stones -These days gemstones can be produced synthetically in labs. These “grown” or “cultured” gemstones differ from “simulants” like cubic zerconia and glass in that they don’t just simulate the appearance of the real thing, they are actually chemically, physically and optically identical to the real thing — so much so that trained gemologists can’t tell the difference. These synthetic gems still require mining for materials (such as alumina and graphite), but at a fraction of the environmental cost of gemstone mining since these materials are already mined for other purposes, and synthetic gemstones don’t require all that much (Slate). They also require a similar amount energy for creation as gemstone mining, but the overall environmental impact and social impacts are significantly lower.
No Dirty Gold – Although there are not yet any regulated international standards for gold mining, Earthworks started a campaign for “No Dirty Gold“, to educate consumers, retailers and manufacturers about the impacts of gold mining and to persuade them to pressure the mining industry into cleaning up its practices. No Dirty Gold invites consumers to sign a pledge not to buy dirty gold and invites companies to pledge to allow only responsibly mined gold into their supply chains. Over 90 major jewelry retailers have committed to the cause, with Macy’s and Costco being the only two major jewelry retailers who have not yet taken the NDG pledge. The NDG campaign is a good first step, but remember that NDG pledgees self-report their sourcing without any outside oversight, so the system is imperfect.
Fairtrade Gold – Started in the UK in 2011, Fairtrade Gold is the world’s only independently certified program to monitor labor, wage, safety, health and environmental practices in gold mining. Fairtrade’s “I do” campaign raises awareness to look for Fairtrade engagement and wedding rings in hopes that couples will help fund fairer wages and local improvements in gold-mining communities, such as education, healthcare and improved equipment (The Guardian). But Fairtrade extends far beyond wedding bands and is sold by purveyors around the world like Cred Jewellery, which helped get Fairtrade gold accredited and was a founder member of the Alliance for Responsible Mining.
Recycled and eco-friendly materials – Precious metals are a naturally renewable resource in that they can be recycled perpetually without any degradation in the quality of the material. Other eco-friendly jewelry materials include leather (if it comes from waste scraps that would otherwise be discarded), recycled glass, bamboo and wood (harvested from sustainable forests), reclaimed wood, seeds, seedpods, leaves, and nuts.
Avoid seashells and coral – In 2008 non-profit SeaWeb started the “Too Precious To Wear” campaign to stop retailers and designers from using pink and red coral, a practice which destroys reefs and reef ecosystems. Black coral is already listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (known as Cites), and efforts to get red and pink Corallium added to Appendix II have continued to fail in the face of industry opposition. (NY Times) However, both types of coral are legal to harvest and trade, and there are no regulations on harvesting in a sustainable way. Even in protected waters, Chinese coral poachers are aggressively destroying fish habitats with their coral nets to claim increasingly higher prices for the scarce material they collect (NY Times). According to Smithsonian Magazine, even casual tourist seashell collecting reduces the supply of seashell critical for maintaining habitats for sea and beach creatures. The Environmental Nature Center cites this issue as the reason why they do not condone the use of seashells in art, crafts or jewelry.
2. Buy from ethical, sustainable designers and dealers
Brilliant Earth is an ethical, sustainable fine jewelry company that educates communities about the
social and environmental problems in the jewelry industry and donates 5% of proceeds to communities ravished by the industry. Clarity Project sells conflict-free diamond jewelry and gives away 100% of the profits to Root Capital’s Women in Agriculture Initiative (as an alternative career to diamond mining) and World Heritage International (to fight forced labor). Leber Jewelers offers an Earthwise collection of fine jewelry. Laura Preshong offers wedding, engagement and custom rings made from recycled metals and conflict-free diamonds. Toby Pomeroy creates fine jewelry from fairmined, fairtrade and reclaimed materials. Judi Powers creates jewelry from recycled metals and ethically sourced gemstones. Tyramin Design merges art, design and fashion with sustainability and social responsibility in their jewelry and home accessories. Gulnur Ozdaglar designs her nature-inspired jewelry by upcycling PET plastic into beautiful pieces of art. Check out the delicate,
colorful whimsy of Virginie Millefiori, who uses all recycled metals, ethically-sourced gemstones and scrap leather. Or go for the minimalist designs of Tiffany Kunz, made from reclaimed, locally-sourced and fair trade materials. Bario Neal offers sustainable, ethical jewelry with a focus on environmentalism, social responsibility and marriage equality. Niccolo Bella offers a wide variety of eco-conscious, responsible rings for the modern man. Sulusso makes custom designer and bridal jewelry with responsible materials and methods. For handmade, modern and chic sustainable jewelry, try East Fourth Street Jewelers. For a more modern and elemental look, try Kara Daniel Jewelry. Or try any one of these “13 Eco-Friendly Jewelry Brands for All Kinds of Girls” from Eluxe Magazine.
3. Go vintage
Passing down heirlooms are a great way to reduce the impact of your jewelry consumption, whether you keep a piece in its original form or reuse the metals and gemstones to make a new piece. Another option is to buy someone else’s vintage jewelry. Look for vintage pieces in your local antique shops, or go to a dealer that specializes in vintage jewelry. Try Brooklyn-based Erie Basin for antique jewelry and modern pieces created around antique stones. Doyle and Doyle also offers vintage and antique jewelry along with in-house designs.
What can you do today?
Be aware of what you buy. Demand sustainable and ethical products and materials from the stores you frequent. Look into sustainable jewelers and jewelry designers to find sources of eco-friendly jewelry that work for you. If you aren’t sure about a product, ASK — it is always okay to find out where the materials in your jewelry come from (and you may even spread awareness about sustainable, ethical jewelry in the process). Make a commitment to switch to 100% sustainable jewelry. Tell others to do the same. Share this post and other resources to spread the word about sustainable, ethical jewelry.
Check out other Green Fashion posts by Everyday Earthiness:
- “Green Fashion: What’s the Impact of Your Closet?”
- “Green Fashion: Apparel Shopping Guide”
- “Green Fashion: Accessories Shopping Guide”
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