The jewellery industry is promoting ethical and sustainable jewellery to attract customers. But just like many brands, a large proportion of these claims are riddled with greenwashing. So why do brands need to make untruthful claims and why is sustainable jewellery so important for the planet?
The increase in sustainable jewellery brands speaks to a wider growth in demand of products that are ethically conscious. In fact, many reports have found explosive trends in the searches for ethical diamonds or ethical gold over recent years, amongst other ethical consumer trends like sustainable jewellery.
In the global jewellery market (estimated to be worth $230 billion), ethical or sustainable jewellery by some estimates are already thought to make up $69 billion. People and planet-friendly or simply sustainable jewellery is popular.
Yet, ethical conscious marketing is a trend that brands want to meet. With that comes many unsubstantiated claims about being planet-friendly and ultimately greenwashing has become worryingly common. So much so, that the jewellery and watch initiative 2030, a UN-backed initiative tasked with reducing the devastating impacts of the jewellery and watch industries on our planet, are struggling with overcoming greenwashing claims in an attempt to clean up the sector.
Knowing that greenwashing is an enormous part of branding, the above number that estimates sustainable jewellery contributes up to a third of the market seems vastly over-inflated. Particularly when you consider the wide reports of socially and environmentally harmful practices throughout the complex supply chain. However, it is at the very least encouraging there is growth on the consumer side in support of the ethical and environmental movement.
But why is jewel mining so bad for the environment?
It goes without saying that any image of a mine is truly shocking (a quick google search and you’ll know what I mean). The environmental damage is obvious from the sheer size of a mine. Swathes of land need to be cleared and destroyed to gain access to these valuable mineral deposits. Not only the mine itself but all the infrastructure that is associated with it (think buildings, roads and railways).
But the resources required for mining are also huge. It is estimated that for every carat of diamond it requires 3.1 tons of earth displacement, 8.9 litres of fuel consumption and 2,534 litres of water. Yet, it is gold mining that is considered the worst environmentally. Mainly due to the fact it often requires open pit mining resulting in vast areas of land searching for traces of gold.
Worse still, the chemicals used in the extraction is harmful to local environments if not disposed of properly. Mercury and cyanide are extremely poisonous chemicals and these often leak into local rivers destroying livelihoods and ecosystems alike.
There has been so much damage to landscapes globally through mining in modern history. Mining as a whole has been responsible for some appalling disasters. Without change, these disasters will continue.
And why is it bad for people?
In addition to the leakage of deadly chemicals, the mining industry is also responsible for and associated with huge human population displacement, poor working conditions, child labour and conflict.
The use and leakage of deadly chemicals from mining practices brings those who work and those who live nearby under huge danger. The cyanide spill at the Aural Gold mine in Romania is deemed one of the worst in history and resulted in the abandonment of nearby villages owing to the toxic concentration of chemicals that leaked into the Tisza and Danube rivers (similar to that seen in the cover photo of this article taken from Geamana, Romania).
The huge areas of land required for mining and the access infrastructure associated with these mines results in huge areas of land coming under the control of mining companies. Once the ownership shifts to mining companies, it often results in the forced displacement of local communities.
The lack of consideration for the historical importance of these areas and the communities that rely on these areas is devastating for these forgotten people. Despite the use of resettlement schemes, many do not truly support and safeguard the thousands that are forced elsewhere.
Although there have been innovations in the techniques used in mining, there are still extremely low working standards in many mines around the world. The use of deadly chemicals and the toxic dust that miners breathe commonly cause long-term lung problems and unidentified skin diseases.
Similar to the involvement of child labour in the fashion industry, the same is true for the complex supply chain of the jewellery industry. It is estimated that over 1 million children work globally in artisanal (mining using traditional and non-mechanised methods) and small-scale mining operations. Considering the dangers of mining operations, the fact children are anywhere near these practices is truly shocking.
Conflict diamonds or conflict minerals have been buzzwords for sometime. Despite their use in the media and high-profile celebrities raising awareness for the people affected by it, conflict is still heavily associated with the jewellery industry.
Global Witness have been covering the links between armed conflicts and the money raised from mining for years across countries like Afghanistan, Angola, Central African Republic, Colombia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe. Due to the lucrative opportunities of selling these precious stones and metals on global markets, these operations have often been used to fund armed militias and have been fundamental in maintaining civil conflicts for years.
What needs to be done and the importance of sustainable jewellery
From the consumer side, the growth in demand for ethically and environmentally responsible jewellery is an incredible start. It sends a clear message to corporations and governments that more needs to be done to ensure these jewels do not cost the Earth and the people on it.
However, greenwashing still plays its part and companies will devise clever plans to make it appear that their products are being friendly to our planet. We all have to take great care when purchasing products and look out for clear greenwashing signs.
Keep an eye out for credible or renowned certifications to prove their sustainability or ethical practices. One quick way is to find out the amount of recycled material that is found in their products.
There is more than enough gold, silver and other sought-after minerals in the world to enable a circular economy of jewellery. The concept of a fully functioning circular economy would reduce the need for new mines to be opened and keep circulating recycled jewels time and time again through recycling and repurposing.
In addition, see what values the company says they hold versus what they actually do. Do they care for the planet? Amazing, so they use recycled materials and reduce transport emissions? Do they care about giving back to communities involved with the jewellery industry? Awesome, do they pay them fair wages and do they work in good conditions? Do they stand for charitable causes? Great, so what have they actually donated?
Annoyingly for us, it’s no easy task to sift through websites to see if your favourite jewellery brand is sustainable or not. But there are plenty of people who have already done this for you so hunt for those influencers who have their go-to lists for sustainable jewellery. There are also websites with reviews on the level of sustainability of many jewellery companies like Good on You.
And of course, we have our own article all about our favourite sustainable men’s jewellery brands (coming soon) in case you do need to make a purchase. As a start check out EdgeOnly and SkyDiamond. SkyDiamond takes carbon dioxide out of the air and compresses it into diamonds. Thereby tackling the many issues associated with climate change and mining.
But remember your first point of call should always be not to buy. If you do need to buy, then definitely try second-hand first. Then move on to sustainable brands. There is something special about purchasing second-hand jewellery and repurposing it into something unique. Your bank account will probably thank you too.