Contributed by Becca Stickler
Now that the holiday season is in full swing, many people have already started purchasing jewelry to give as gifts to their loved ones. Rings, necklaces, and other diamond-laden accessories are classic choices for placing under the tree, and often seen as expensive tokens of affection.
Unfortunately, the jewelry industry is laden with ethical issues, including inhumane working conditions and conflict fueled by sourcing. Mining for gold, silver, diamonds, and other precious materials commonly used in the industry also has a serious impact on the environment, as illustrated by the fact that central British Columbia is still dealing with the fallout from the Mount Polley mine disaster more than three years later.
This doesn’t mean you need to avoid jewelry altogether, though. As today’s consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental and social implications of their purchasing decisions, some companies have developed ethical sourcing and manufacturing processes.
So the next time you’re considering buying jewelry, get answers to two key questions before reaching for your wallet. Companies with high ethical standards will be happy to address these concerns, and most proudly display all of the information you need on their websites.
How were the materials sourced?
Mining is inherently not an environmentally-friendly process. Today, most gold comes from open pit mines, where large amounts of soil are extracted and processed using mercury and cyanide. The runoff from this process pollutes streams and rivers and disrupts marine ecosystems downstream from the mine. Airborne elemental mercury also negatively impacts air quality.
The resulting erosion from this process can expose deep earth to air and water, which causes chemical reactions that produce sulfuric acid. It can leak into drainage systems, leading to further pollution — and these are just the effects from gold mining. When you add the processes involved in extracting silver and other precious metals from the ground, the impact this industry has on the planet is huge.
Beyond environmental concerns, the mining industry has serious problems with worker exploitation. If you’ve ever heard the term “blood diamond,” you’re likely familiar with some of the more drastic impacts of mining in financing armed conflicts. Numerous other human rights abuses stain many mines.
In 2003, the Kimberley Process was developed to prevent the flow of conflict diamonds — so looking for certification can be a good starting point when shopping for diamond jewelry. However, many critics consider the certification process too lax and say it doesn’t do much to eliminate corruption and smuggling.
So purchase from jewelers who source their materials from known mines or, better yet, use recycled material. Using metal from existing jewelry, post-industrial waste metals, and electronics components eliminates both the need for additional mining and an excess of waste.
Where was it made?
After metals and stones are pulled from the ground, they undergo a manufacturing process to become necklaces, bracelets, and other types of jewelry. Depending on the process, this can involve additional environmental impacts and unethical working conditions.
Before you buy a piece of jewelry, make sure you know who made it and how. Shopping from small businesses that specialize in handmade, local jewelry is best, but isn’t always an option. So be sure to do your research when buying from companies who rely on third-party manufacturing.
Any ethical jewelry company should be able to identify their supply chain and tell you where their products are made. Only buy from brands that make fair labor standards a priority and partner with factories that treat their employees well.
Bio: Becca Stickler is a freelance writer with a focus on sustainability and eco-friendly living.