What Is Sustainable Jewelry?
Sustainable jewelry is made with honesty and integrity. In a world full of problematic practices, sustainable jewelry strives to be better. To be considered ethical and sustainable, jewelry should fulfill the following characteristics:
- Have a transparent and responsible sourcing practice
- Use sustainable materials
- Be manufactured with minimal impact on the environment and without social conflict
- Workers should be paid fair wages and work in safe environments
It sounds simple enough, but researching sustainable jewelry can take you down a dark hole. It’s a complex and overwhelming issue, so let’s narrow it down to 5 big problems with unethical jewelry. These are the main reasons the jewelry industry is often considered unsustainable.
Unethical jewelry is intertwined with fast fashion, as both are sold as complementary pieces. Both are linked to waste, overconsumption, and questionable manufacturing processes that exploit workers and cause environmental damage.
Costume jewelry is the worst offender. It comes with a low price and a matching level of quality. After just a few wears, the thin metallic plating wears off and fake gemstones come loose. Then it’s off to the landfill, where they never biodegrade. Instead, they release dangerous toxins into the air and water. Fast fashion brands and social media influencers encourage us to regularly buy into microtrends, which is what leads to overconsumption and waste.
2. Complex Supply Chains
Traceability and transparency are often lacking within the jewelry industry. Items are usually mined, processed, and designed in separate countries. This makes it hard even for jewelers to know where their materials originally come from.
A jewelry supply chain generally has 8 steps:
- Designing and creating
- Inspecting and certifying
This leaves a lot of room for ethics to go wrong, especially when steps are spread out across the far corners of the earth.
3. Environmental Concerns
Mining is the traditional way to extract gemstones and precious metals. This problematic activity leads to a lot of environmental issues. Mining a single diamond shifts hundreds of tons of soil. It’s estimated that we mine hundreds of millions of gemstones every year, so you can imagine the impact. The expansion of mines themselves leads to deforestation, erosion, and landslides.
Gemstones aren’t the only problem. Mining precious metals causes air pollution, water waste and pollution, and ecosystem damage and loss. Noise pollution and soil deterioration cause animals to move, and in extreme cases even cause death. Mining anything increases greenhouse gas emissions; it’s estimated that every mined carat releases 57kg of carbon into the atmosphere.
4. Ethical Concerns
Over a hundred million people work in the jewelry industry. Some of them work in luxurious showrooms and studios, but most reside in poor developing nations and work in mines. Workers are often subject to unsafe working conditions and aren’t always paid a fair wage. Large-scale mines have been linked to child labor, child trafficking, and human displacement.
Citizens that live near large-scale operations are also affected by mines. Soil and water quality often diminish, while local biodiversity disappears. These changes negatively impact local communities and their livelihoods. In extreme cases, mining of precious materials has been linked to violent groups and corrupt governments.
5. Health Concerns
Mine workers are constantly exposed to dangerous and toxic chemicals that negatively affect their overall health. Working in a dusty, enclosed environment puts miners at a greater risk for lung problems and skin diseases. A workplace accident can lead to serious injuries or even death. To put things into perspective, the mortality rate of diamond miners in South Africa is 20% higher than the rest of the general population!
Jewelry manufacturers also face health risks. Gemstones are carefully shaved when they are cut, and the shavings turn into microscopic dust particles that are inhaled by workers. Not all facilities have proper ventilation or provide their workers with adequate protective gear. Regular exposure to this dust can lead to permanent lung damage.
How To Shop For Jewelry Sustainably
Choose quality over quantity. Avoid trends and costume jewelry that will only be worn a few times. Instead, look for quality pieces that will last a lifetime. These can become sustainable heirlooms that get passed down from generation to generation.
Look for sustainable materials. Did you know that jewelry can be recycled? Silver and gold can be melted and recreated into new pieces. Best of all, the new versions will retain all of their original quality!
Seek out ethically-sourced gems. It may be difficult to uncover an entire supply chain, so look for brands that are as transparent as possible. Brands that truly care about ethics will happily share details about their supply chains, working conditions, and workers’ rights.
Try lab-grown gems. Enjoy the dazzle of gemstones without the ethical and environmental implications of mining. The only downside to lab-grown gems is that they often use a high amount of energy to create. Look for a carbon-neutral company that offsets their energy consumption.
Shopping for sustainable jewelry requires research and dedication,
but it will make you feel much better about your purchase.
Writer: Maria Polansky