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Whether you’re looking for a gift or treating yourself to something special, most of us appreciate a well-crafted, beautiful piece of jewelry. As with many other environmental and ethical issues in recent times, the jewelry industry is coming under closer scrutiny than ever before as more customers are seeking products that are kinder to the planet and the people inhabiting it.
One key issue in recent years has to do with the sourcing and mining of diamonds. In addition to the negative impact of heavy mining on the environment, unethical diamond mining practices make products such as lab created diamonds a kinder, more eco-conscious (and in many cases, more affordable) alternative.
Every Link Along the Chain
When seeking ethical and sustainable jewelry, traceability is a key issue. What this refers to is knowing how a product was made and where it came from. Typically, the supply chain for jewelry manufacturing resembles a list of processes from the exploration and mining of land to find precious gems and metals, to the final sale of the product.
While this is a factor buyers are increasingly aware of, much more work still needs to be done to assess the full social and environmental impact of unethical jewelry. Between the mining process and final sale many things can happen. The more regulated and monitored this process becomes, the better the outcomes for everyone involved.
One Issue, Many Facets
The mining of precious gems has huge environmental implications: in diamond mining, a single carat requires on average 250 tonnes of earth to be moved (an estimated 148 million carats per year). As a result, mines have been created that are large enough to see from space.
In addition to deforestation and soil contamination from jewelry mining, the mining of precious metals is also known to cause noise,water and air pollution through the release of toxic chemicals which contaminate local drinking water and present a threat to local wildlife. Not only this but an estimated 57 kilograms of carbon is released into the atmosphere for every carat mined.
Overconsumption (Supply and Demand)
In addition to environmental and human rights issues, there’s the matter of overconsumption. All too often, nickel-plated costume jewelry tarnishes easily and ends up going to landfill. Rather than fast-fashion costume jewelry, ethical jewelry tends to be of better quality, helping to reduce this problem.
Social Issues (Corruption)
The impact on local biodiversity has a grievous effect for local residents of jewelry mining communities. When not exposed to health hazards through pollution (such as mercury and cyanide poisoning) and dangerous working conditions (gem cutting rarely includes the use of PPE for workers), many people from mining communities have been displaced by mining companies with little regard for the historical and cultural significance of the land.
Child labor is another serious issue: with an estimated one million children worldwide currently operating in small-scale mining conditions, often subject to abuse and health hazards. Additionally the precious metal and diamond trade has been known to have associations with violent armed groups who despite the efforts of organizations like Human Rights Watch, still present a major risk.
Your Role As a Consumer
One option is to abstain from purchasing jewelry altogether, but there are alternative routes that can help to make the jewelry industry more sustainable for everyone. You can purchase second hand, look for recycled or ethically-sourced materials. You can even take part in a jewelry swap-meet, which has the added benefit of finding a different piece each time.
Seek out smaller, eco-conscious brands. While larger-scale companies continue to dominate the market, it’s important to take note of the smaller companies who are striving to put social and environmental issues at the heart of what they do, rather than profit. Encouraging growth in developing companies allows for more diversity in the market, particularly those that specialize in artisanal, handcrafted products rather than mass-produced items.
When buying sustainably, check your sources and beware of “greenwashing.” While some brands might market themselves as “eco-friendly” or sustainable, it might not be the case. In addition to checking companies against unbiased, ethical brand research sites, you can also check for certificates from organizations such as Fairmined Gold.
While organizations such as the Institute For Responsible Mining Assurance are all taking steps to make jewelry more sustainable, more work is yet to be done to ensure they are regulated properly, particularly given skepticism surrounding organizations such as the UN Kimberley Process.
Becoming aware that an item has been produced unethically can affect our enjoyment of the products we buy, but by doing our research, shopping sustainably, and supporting small businesses, we can help make the jewelry trade more sustainable and fair for everyone along the supply chain without anything taking the shine off.