A sign of rank, religion and more recently rebellion, jewelry under all its form has always been an important part of every culture with the most ancient signs of it dating back to 75,000 years ago in Africa and the first signs of established jewelry found in Ancient Egypt around 3,000-5,000 years ago.
In the past decades, the fashion industry has marketed jewelries as products of mass consumption that can be bought at every mall and fast fashion retailer to give that little “wow” effect to any outfit, even if only for one night. This jewelry feeding frenzy significantly increased the demand for new raw materials such as silver, diamond, gold and precious stones all found in the same place: the Earth’s soil.
To meet the demand however, the jewelry sector has also been been behind some of the most negative environmental and social impacts any industry has had, including large scale pollution, nation-wide corruption, the use of child labor and war financing, just to name a few.
Are diamonds really a girl’s best friend or have we been sucked in by clever advertising?
A dirty environmental secret
“There’s no such thing as clean gold, unless it’s recycled or vintage.”
These are the words of Alan Septoff, communications manager for the No Dirty Gold campaign about the growing environmental impacts of gold production. Indeed, most of the gold found today come from open pit mines where huge amount of soil is taken and processed to find traces of gold. To extract the precious material, mercury and cyanide are used and then discarded with the rest of the rock and soil causing large scale pollution in water streams around and downstream of the mine.
The very nature of gold processing puts the local ecosystem off-balance as the size of the mines are often found on previously virgin rain forests. The noise nuisance is yet another issue. In Peru alone – Latin America’s biggest gold producer and one of the top producers of gold worldwide – gold mining has destroyed forests in the Madre de Dios by a whopping 400% area between 1999 and 2012, from a scale of 10,000 hectares to more than 50,000 hectares.
Additionally, gold mining releases hundreds of tons of airborne elemental mercury (similar to coal-burning power plants) each year affecting air quality and causing many negative health effects.
But gold isn’t the only culprit on the environmental front. Other precious metals, such as silver, platinum and palladium to name but a few, require equally polluting processes for the precious metals to be extracted from the Earth. This is particularly the case in Africa where countries rich in natural resources see their water severely contaminated by cyanide, mercury, sulphuric acid and the other toxic chemicals used by mining companies which leaves locals with polluted water for their residential and agricultural use.
Conflict diamonds and untraceable gemstones
If you were born before 2000 (roughly) you’ve probably heard the expression “blood diamond”. In addition to being the name of a (very good) Leonardo di Caprio movie, the term refers to diamonds that feed wars between rebels and governments in conflict areas, often in western and central Africa. But let’s go back a few decades…
Since diamonds were first discovered in the late 1800s, diamond mining has often been linked to human rights abuses such as violence, smuggling, child labour and worker exploitation.
But in the 90s – when civil wars were raging in Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo – the public discovered that rebels were taking control of the diamond regions, exploiting locals into working in the mines and trading the precious gemstones for money and weapons. In exchange, diamond companies were buying the stones and selling them in their stores in “developed countries” despite their link with thousands of deaths, and hence blood diamond.
Following worldwide controversy, the industry set up in 2003 the Kimberly Process, an international certification system aimed at assuring consumers of the conflict free nature of the diamonds they were buying. The process is supposed to evaluate producing countries and certify that diamonds are “conflict-free” but many, including NGOs , are criticizing the processes laxness regarding smuggling and corruption and its narrow definition of conflict diamonds as “diamonds used by rebel groups to fund civil wars” without considering issues of child labor, sexual violence and other abuses taking place in diamonds mines.
When it comes to gemstones (which mostly originate from Central Asia and Eastern Africa) no similar process exist, making it even harder to differentiate ethical and non-ethical stones. Rubies, sapphires, emeralds could be mined under abusive and destructive conditions depending on the country they’re coming from and the specific policies that govern mining operators in that region.
How to stop the damage caused by unethical jewelry?
The first step is to reduce consumption. Enjoy what you already have or invest in high quality certified jewelry rather than that charming silver bracelet that cost 50 bucks because chances are the person who made it has no idea where the silver came from.
If you’re buying new, choose a brand that is transparent about the origin of its products and sources materials from reputable and ethical mines such as Brilliant Earth, a business that shares extensive information about industry issues on its website. They embody the kind of transparency we love.
You can also look for brands affiliated with the Responsible Jewellery Council that performs annual audits of its members to ensure they respect the standards for social, ethical and environmental practices. Fair-trade certified is also a label to look out for if you want to be sure the workers in the supply chain of a product were fairly treated and paid.
Finally, if your wallet allows it, Tiffany & Co, one of the world’s most famous jewelry brands has been leading a strong and ambitious sustainability strategy in the last few years. They focus on:
- sourcing diamonds and metals from known mines and recycled sources,
- reducing their environmental impact; and
- supporting local NGOs through its foundation’s work.
By focusing on sustainability, Tiffany is now recognized as the industry leader in the area of sustainability and is encouraging others to follow. Fancy feeling like Audrey Hepburn while reducing your purchase’s environmental impacts? Then Tiffany’s your pick.
But most importantly, if you care about how ethical your diamonds and jewelry are, find out. Read, research, ask questions. Don’t settle for a product if you don’t know enough about it. By buying fair, you’ll not only make a great investment, you’ll also be showing the industry that there’s nothing more glamorous or luxurious than treating people and our environment with utmost respect.