Environment Ethical Fashion

Conflict-Free Zone: Why Ethical Jewelry Is The Best Choice

Conflict-Free Zone: Why Ethical Jewelry Is Always The Best Choice
Chloe Mikolajczak

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?

Conflict-Free Zone: Why Ethical Jewelry Is Always The Best Choice

Credit: Tiffany & Co

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.

Credit: WikiCommons

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.

Mining for precious metals and gemstones causes environmental havoc in parts of Africa and developing countries

Credit: Pixabay

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.

Credit: Wikicommons

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.

Just How Ethical is Your Jewelry?

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.

Conflict-Free Zone- Why Ethical Jewelry Is Always The Better Choice - Tiffany & Co

Credit: Tiffany & Co

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.

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About the author

Chloe Mikolajczak

Chloe Mikolajczak

Sustainability consultant by day, freelance writer and blogger by night, Chloé is before anything else an environmentalist and an animal lover with a small obsession for her dog. When not discovering the latest green innovation or watching TED talks at inappropriate hours, you’ll find her travelling and discovering new cultures and food.

7 Comments

  • Hi Chole, I think you need to get back in here and correct some of the misinformation in this article.
    The term “blood diamond” doesn’t just refer to rough diamonds that fund rebel violence against governments; it also includes diamonds that are a significant source of revenue used to fund human rights violations, such as war crimes or crimes against humanity, by rogue regimes in Israel, Angola and Zimbabwe.
    The Kimberley Process doesn’t certify diamonds are conflict-free. The KP only bans “conflict diamonds” – it doesn’t ban other blood diamonds that fund government forces guilty of gross human rights violations. The term conflict-free doesn’t appear anywhere in the KP regulations. It is part of the bogus System of Warranties introduced by the World Diamond Council to create the illusion that the remit of the KP extends to cut and polished diamonds as well as rough diamonds. It doesn’t. Only rough diamonds are regulated by the KP. Cut and polished diamonds evade all regulation regardless of what HR violations they may be funding.
    Was Eco Warrior Princess paid by Brilliant Earth, the Responsible Jewellery Council and Tiffany’s to include links to their websites?
    If you had done some research you should have discovered why these companies could not possibly be high on anyone’s list of ethical suppliers.
    Brillilant Earth sells diamonds polished in Israel claiming they are conflict-free even though the diamond industry in Israel is a major source of funding for an apartheid regime that has developed a stockpile of unregulated nuclear weapons and stands accused of grievous human rights violations including war crimes and crimes against humanity. Diamond that fund human rights violations are blood diamonds.
    Also, Brilliant Earth recently settled a law suit with Jacob Worth who had put out a videos exposing the fact that Brilliant Earth’s couldn’t prove the origin of diamonds they were claiming were sourced in Canada. Worth has taken down the videos but you can still see some of them here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=An76-kLVvZI
    You recommend people look for brands affiliated to the Responsible Jewellery Council which uses the discredited Kimberley Process and the bogus System of Warranties as the standard for ethical diamonds even though both give a free pass to blood diamonds that fund rogue regimes guilty of HR violations.
    You go on to recommend Tiffany’s because they source diamonds from known mines. Yes they source diamonds from a Beny Steinmetz mine in Sierra Leone. The Steinmetz Foundation has “adopted” a Unit of the notorious Givati Brigade of the Israeli military. The Givati was responsible for the 2009 Samouni family massacre in Gaza – a war crime documented by UNHRC, AI, HRW and B’Tselem. Diamonds that fund war criminals are blood diamonds.
    In 2016 Tiffany’s were abruptly dropped from the Sustainability Business Summit USA after I alerted the organisers to the company’s partnership with a miner that funds and supports suspected war criminals. You can read my report here – http://mondoweiss.net/2016/01/questions-raised-after-tiffanys-dropped-from-responsible-business-summit/
    I look forward to your reply.

    • Hi Sean, thank you so much for lending your knowledge and expertise. Just to clarify, this piece was not paid by any organisation and if it had, there would be a disclaimer advising as such. I personally will review the information and videos you have provided, but just from my own curiosity, where would you shop for jewelry and gemstones so that we may help the community not only become more informed, but to help them make better decisions. Look forward to your reply. Regards, Jen

      • Hi Jennifer, thanks for responding to my comment.
        Given the matrix of bogus standards, warranties and certification schemes set up by vested interests in the diamond industry it is really difficult for consumers to source truly conflict-free diamonds. However, that said there are a few companies that go that extra mile to try and ensure their diamonds are not tarnished by bloodshed and violence at any stage along the supply pipe. The following companies are good examples – Cred Jewellery https://credjewellery.com/, Ingle and Rhode https://www.ingleandrhode.co.uk/ and Inspira Diamonds http://www.inspiradiamonds.com/
        This is a topic I have been researching and writing about for a number of years. You can get a good grasp of the extent of the blood diamond scam from my article published last year – https://www.globalresearch.ca/blood-diamonds-more-than-one-fifth-of-diamonds-sold-worldwide-are-funding-bloodshed-and-violence/5561214

        • Thanks for the reference to your article and will follow up on your suggestion to read it given I am of the belief that knowledge is power and the more we have, the better the decisions we make (for those of us who care to make better decisions and don’t want to be ignorant or complacent anyway). Thankfully we have featured Cred Jewellery in a round up at some point last year. The other two I am less familiar with but your advice at least gives us more options with which to point our community.

  • Appreciate the article, and quoting me.

    As implied by Sean’s comment, there’s a quite a bit of tumult in the ongoing global conversation about how to responsibly source minerals. Underlying all those conversations is the fact that extraction of metals from the earth is inherently environmentally destructive, and that — especially at the industrial scale — the destruction is forever.

    So even if one believes that mining gold — which almost exclusively goes to discretionary uses like jewelry — is worth the perpetual environmental destruction it causes, it’s essential that the communities where mines are proposed are in a position to make informed decisions about whether they want to host those mines.

    The Responsible Jewellery Council is particularly objectionable because it gives mining and jewelry companies the power to decide for these communities what is “Responsible” even if those communities object. RJC is governed by industry. Impacted communities and civil society are not equal partners in determining what is “Responsible”. That asymmetry of power undermines its standard whenever tough choices must be made. For an analysis: https://www.earthworksaction.org/library/detail/more_shine_than_substance

  • Thank you to all the commentators on this article. This has to be one of the most informative and rational discussions I have read on an article in a long time. Great to see the author willing to do further research on this important topic.

  • In a few weeks time the international Kimberley Process Certification Scheme will be hosted by Australia in Brisbane (9-14 December). The first meeting was hosted by our Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. We are asking Julie Bishop to ensure that the December meeting addresses the issue of blood diamonds and makes it easier for consumers to find out if the diamonds in their jewellery is ethically sourced. Only takes a few minutes and a few clicks to send an email to Julie Bishop and our members of Parliament
    http://www.afopa.com.au/israels-blood-diamonds

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