In a nutshell: sustainable and ethical jewelry means transparent and responsible sourcing practices and use of sustainable materials. It has a minimal impact on the environment, isn’t involved with conflict, and gives back to workers by way of fair wages and safe working environments.
Looking at sustainable jewelry is kind of like looking at sustainable fashion…overwhelmingly complicated and more than a little convoluted. They share lots of elements, like supply chain considerations and the problem of overconsumption. However, the jewelry industry adds yet another ethical and eco complexity to consider—mining.
This presents additional concerns when it comes to environmental and social welfare—some we’d like to dangle like a cute pair of earrings in front of ourselves (and you) so that we can better understand what makes a piece of jewelry ethical and sustainable.
So, remove those hoop earrings, take off all your rings, and prepare yourselves for an in-depth look at everything that shines and sparkles—as well as all the issues that diminish that luster.
The quick links are your best friend here—use them to jump around as you please.
QUICKLINKS FOR FOR SUSTAINABLE AND ETHICAL JEWELRY
THE PROBLEM WITH JEWELRY
If you think dropping a few thousand dollars on a luxury product won’t do any damage (outside of your bank account), think again.
When jewelry comes in a velvet box and is worn by gorgeous models, we’re quick to take note of its shine, sparkle, and luster, while typically ignoring the fact that the jewelry industry is rife with concerns regarding ethics and sustainability.
If we’re caught up in the occasion or the gift, we’re not thinking about the fact that that ring or bracelet’s raw materials were unsustainably mined in one of the planet’s poorest regions.
Traceability is extremely difficult in the jewelry industry and, while it’s becoming a greater concern for buyers, most people aren’t including discussions of mining and modern-day slavery in their proposal, anniversary, or birthday celebrations.
Before we get to what sustainable and ethical jewelry IS, let’s take a look at the many things it ISN’T.
PROBLEM # 1: OVERCONSUMPTION
We’ll talk later about how jewelry is produced, but it’s also important to take a look at how it is consumed.
In some American households, more than $1,600 are spent every year on jewelry. In the United Kingdom, a 2014 survey found that the average woman owned more than $7,500 worth of jewelry. While some of this consists of timeless luxury pieces, the overwhelming majority of it is wear-once costume jewelry.
Like with fast fashion, cheap jewelry is often worn just a handful of times before ending up in landfill. The silver or gold plating quickly fades, leaving the cheaper materials (and green skin) behind. Once in a landfill, metal and plastic “gemstones” don’t biodegrade and end up releasing dangerous toxins into the air and water.
With countless blog articles titled “x Pieces of Jewelry Every Woman Should Have” and with Pandora charm bracelets taking the world by storm (which alone encourage a new jewelry purchase for nearly any occasion), it’s no wonder that our jewelry boxes are overflowing (while most continue to wear the same favorite pieces over and over).
And it looks like we can expect over-overconsumption in the future.
With more women working, declining gold and silver prices, increases in E-commerce sales, and a rising GDP per capita—jewelry market growth is forecasted until at least 2023.
There is some good news here, however. A 2014 study showed that more than 80% of consumers wanted ethical jewelry and were willing to pay more for jewelry with higher ethical standards.
PROBLEM # 2: COMPLEX SUPPLY CHAINS
Transparency is extremely difficult in the jewelry industry. The raw materials are often mined in one country, processed in another country, then turned into jewelry in yet another country.
A supply chain for jewelry will typically look something like this:
- Jewelry creation
- Inspecting and certifying
- Selling the final product
Perhaps because it’s easy for it to go unnoticed, corruption is a facet of many aspects of the jewelry supply chain. From ‘mine to market,’ there’s a ton of touchpoints there things can go wrong from a social or environmental standpoint.
For many brands, there’s simply no way to find out what country the raw materials (e.g. diamonds or gold) were mined—let alone what specific mine and under what specific working or environmental conditions and protections.
PROBLEM # 3: ECONOMIC GROWTH PARADIGM
If you took a high school economics class, you probably remember supply and demand. They’re the fuel behind our economic system and if you don’t have both, you don’t have growth.
Because capitalism is designed to promote continuous growth (I mean, who wants to get out of business after selling just one diamond ring?), it requires a steady supply and an even more consistent demand.
In 1938, the De Beers company would forever change the jewelry industry by insinuating diamonds “were synonymous with romance, and that the measure of a man’s love (and even his personal and professional success) was directly proportional to the size and quality of the diamond he purchased” (quote per The Atlantic, in this fascinating read) .
This marketing campaign helped shape how we view jewelry, how we view love, and how we view money. It ingrained in our society that a diamond ring is the only way to get engaged—an idea now spreading around the world.
Now, just a handful of brands sell most of the jewelry in the world and just a handful of companies produce it. And, like De Beers, they do whatever it takes to ensure that we keep buying their products.
With more women than ever purchasing their own jewelry, brands know how to treat their products as that “perfect reward” for a hard-working woman. Simply put, they know what glossy magazine covers, attractive models, and jewelry slogans will do the trick.
PROBLEM # 4: ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS
When a diamond is mined, an estimated 250 tons of earth are shifted for every single carat. To put this into perspective, we mine around 148 million carats every single year. The mines are so massive that they can be seen from space.
And that’s just the mining of the diamonds, a stone smaller than your fingernail.
The mining of the precious metals themselves (i.e. gold, silver, and platinum) have their own fair share of problems, including:
- Air pollution: Manufacturing pollutants include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released from the solvents, and fumes containing hazardous air pollutants (HAPs).
- Water waste and pollution: Not only does precious metal mining require massive amounts of water, but it also contaminates groundwater and threatens drinking supplies. Toxic chemicals like cyanide, mercury, and sulphuric acid commonly end up running off into local waters and soil.
- Ecosystem loss & damage: Noise and vibration have been associated with a collapse of local animal life. Biodiversity and vegetation losses are common in mined areas, as is erosion. Mining and mining accidents have resulted in thousands of deaths of local animal and plant species and deterioration of soils.
- Greenhouse gas emissions: It’s been estimated that every mined carat releases around 57kg of carbon into the atmosphere.
- Dangerous materials: From nickel to cadmium to lead to the chemicals in the glue, there are a plethora of harmful materials in jewelry. Not only can they be dangerous for wearers, but they’re not great for the planet, either.
- Waste: Jewelry fashion trends are short-lived (anyone remember Silly Bandz?), which means that a lot of jewelry ends up in landfills. Since the vast majority of it is not biodegradable, it’ll sit there just shy of forever. We guess that’s what they mean by “diamonds are forever”.
PROBLEM # 5: SOCIAL CONCERNS
There are more than 100 million people working in the jewelry industry. Combine that with the fact that most of these people are living in some of the world’s most economically depressed areas and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Large-scale mines are associated with human displacement and resettlement. These migration effects may spread much further than we’d ever considered. Mines come with transportation corridors—which means that huge swaths of land come under the control of the mining company.
This typically results in the displacement of hundreds—if not thousands—of local inhabitants.
Changes to the Environment
Even if local residents aren’t forced to move, they’re often exposed to new conditions that impact their livelihoods. Local biodiversity becomes diminished (which is one of the most critical areas of environmental concern), soils become degraded, water quality becomes negatively impacted.
Simply put, the things that people rely on to survive and thrive become compromised.
Often, historic significance of these lands are not considered. For example, just recently, Rio Tinto destroyed a 46,000 year old sacred Aboriginal site in Western Australia (for an iron ore mine).
There are an estimated one million children working around the world in small-scale mining operations. Many children are faced with unsafe working conditions, long-term exposure to inhaling dust and other dangerous particles, and even instances of trafficking and forced labor.
These same children are commonly the victims of accidents or lifelong and irreversible conditions. There have been documented cases of hazardous child labor in countries like Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Indonesia, Mali, Nigeria, the Phillippines, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.
Cyanide is one of the most toxic chemicals known to man. It’s also one of the most commonly used chemicals in the jewelry industry.
Most of the world’s mercury is used for gold mining and many miners are exposed to the shiny liquid metal. Exposure can lead to disability and can even kill.
Job Site Dangers
Any job site will present a risk of danger and death. Not every job site will take special precautions to ensure that workers are safe.
Unfortunately, the jewelry industry is rife with risk. Mining accidents can lead to injury or even death and can occur when pits aren’t secure or equipment is faulty. For example, diamond miners in South Africa have a 20% higher mortality rate than the general population. Hard rock, or underground, miners face the worst risk and highest mortality rates of all.
Miners are constantly exposed to toxins in underwater mines, forced to breathe in dust that can lead to later severe lung problems, and often suffer from unidentified “skin diseases.”
Gem Cutting Hazards
While that diamond is being shaved into the princess cut that buyers know and love, it’s also producing microscopic dust. Most gemstone laborers work in facilities that don’t come equipped with safety measures such as proper ventilation or protective gear.
As we can all probably imagine, diamond dust isn’t great to inhale and it can lead to long term health complications—some of which end up being fatal. Think about it: diamonds are technically carbon, the exact same stuff that coal is made of which leads to countless deaths due to Black Lung.
Diamond and precious metal mining and trade have been associated with several violent armed groups around the world. Gold and silver trading has even funded armed groups associated with massacres and systemic sexual violence against civilians.
These conflicts come from both individual groups and government forces that abuse their power. In 2015, Angolese government soldiers tortured and murdered civilians in an attempt to control diamond mines.
While consumer demands have started to change the landscape in which these conflicts occur, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. Even with a push from groups like Human Rights Watch, most brands still fail to ensure that their products are truly conflict-free.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT UNETHICAL JEWELRY AS A CONSUMER:
DON’T BUY ANYTHING AT ALL
Can you borrow instead of buy? Do you really need new bling? Is there something you already have that can do the trick?
Many times, outside influences (i.e. marketing pressure to spend a certain amount on a diamond engagement ring) lead us to go against our better judgment. In fact, the idea of an engagement ring just happens to be one of the most successful marketing campaigns in human history.
But that’s all it started as: a marketing campaign. Before that, people were happy to say “I do” without all the diamond ta-da. Love and celebration can be expressed in a million different ways—it doesn’t need to come with carats.
BUY SECONDHAND JEWELRY
Imagine the story that comes with a vintage piece of jewelry! Not only will you NOT be contributing to the story of environmental destruction and social issues, but you’ll also be able to find some really unique pieces.
Vintage stores are great for unique and quality pieces of jewelry. Check out our list of online thrift shops including some excellent vintage stores like Etsy and Vestiaire Collective and options like Poshmark, for more up-to-date jewelry that someone simply doesn’t want anymore.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
When buying jewelry, the best thing you can do for the planet and the people who produce it is to ask questions.
Most jewelry producers, try as they might, can’t afford or even possibly achieve the level of activism and transparency of sourcing that we need to ensure their wares come without the unseen damage. That’s why you need to be clear on what they mean by ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable.’ No brand is perfect but some are definitely doing the right things.
Don’t “put a ring on it” until you have considered the following:
- Where were the gems purchased? Were workers educated in the field? Were safety measures in place?
- How much of the “mine to market” journey are brands aware of? Do they know the areas of the world involved? The people involved? The environmental protection (or destruction) involved?
- What social impact does the brand have? Do they give back to the community through any charitable practices?
- Where are the materials from? Were they recycled? Were they ethically-sourced?
- What finishes were used? Does the final product contain any harmful toxins?
- How does the brand compare with others? Do they know areas in which they need to improve? What plans do they have in place to make necessary changes?
- Does the brand offer repairs? Do they use materials that last a long time?
- Is the brand involved in carbon offsetting? Or are their practices certified carbon neutral?
- What packaging is used by the brand? Is it compostable or recyclable?
- What ‘vibe’ do you get from the brand? Does it seem like they’re actually committed to sustainable and ethical jewelry—or are they just trying to tap a new market?
- Have other eco research sites done any digging on them?
WHAT TO CONSIDER WHEN LOOKING FOR SUSTAINABLE AND ETHICAL JEWELRY BRANDS
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
For most people, buying ethical and sustainable jewelry will be something that only happens a few times in our lifetimes. With that in mind, we can save up to purchase a piece of jewelry that aligns with our social and environmental values.
Yes, it can look great to buy a necklace that is just perfect for that Fair Trade dress you’re pairing it with, but if it’s only worn a handful of times it’s much better to save up for that special necklace you’ve had your eye on.
Your wallet and the planet will thank you.
CHOOSE THE MOST SUSTAINABLE MATERIALS POSSIBLE
Unfortunately, when it comes to the “sustainability” of a piece of jewelry, the term isn’t based on any set standards and is loosely used by manufacturers and retailers.
Some jewelers will use our favorite S-word to designate jewelry products that are manufactured using recycled or waste materials or indicate when transparent practices reduce emissions or prevent environmental destruction.
Recycled Gems, Metals, and Other Materials
Precious metals can be recycled. Silver and gold can be easily melted and reformed into a new piece of jewelry. They don’t lose their qualities when they’re melted down and reused—which is great from both an environmental and financial standpoint.
While it’s more difficult (and generally not as profitable), gemstones can also be recycled. However, for it to be sustainable, this generally can only happen on a small, artisanal scale.
The first way that recycled jewelry is better for the environment is that it doesn’t require mining. It doesn’t require the use of cyanide solvents to separate it. It isn’t associated with damaging the environment or polluting nearby waters.
It also gives a second life to that antique brooch or damaged necklace so they’re not fated to just add to growing solid waste streams. It allows us to see precious metals as exactly that: precious. It gives gold and silver the chance to shine again and teaches us that we shouldn’t be so cavalier in our treatment of these materials.
Look for brands that use 100% recycled materials offer a ‘buy-back’ option where jewelry can be upcycled to reduce waste. This way of reimagining the way we view is so crucial if we ever hope to achieve a zero waste system of production and consumption.
As it’s sometimes hard to find recycled gems, ethically-sourced gems are the second best option. Ask the brand questions to ensure that they aren’t using traditional mining companies and are incorporating as much transparency as possible into their sourcing practices.
Ethical sourcing will mention workers rights, it will talk about health and safety, it will demonstrate that fair pay practices are used, and it will not be associated with any conflicts. It will also incorporate sustainability practices and demonstrate that environmental impact has been assessed and any shortcomings are corrected.
Even with the Kimberley Process (we’ll expand on this later) and a variety of claims, it’s really, REALLY difficult to ensure that mined diamonds are sourced ethically. It’s kind of like trying to find that ring that made its way down the sink drain—there’s a small chance that you’ll get it, but it’s most likely impossible…
For that reason, lab-grown diamonds have stepped into the limelight as the newest shimmer in the world of sustainable and ethical jewelry. Nearly 70% of millennials report that they would buy a lab-grown alternative. Why is this?
Well, right off the bat we can assure that lab-grown diamonds are produced without the environmental and humanitarian catastrophes.
Lab-grown diamonds are produced using heat and pressure (much like their earth-based counterparts). However, instead of an aging planet, these diamonds are created using machines, either a High Pressure High Temperature (HPHT) system or a Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) system.
While technology may sound like the perfect solution here, the processes aren’t all squeaky clean. Like with diamonds from Earth, there’s also a lack of transparency here.
Since it requires a lot of energy to power these machines, it has been suggested that the emissions from growing diamonds in a lab are HIGHER than those from mining natural diamonds. Without lab data, however, it’s difficult to draw conclusions about which option is warming our planet faster.
There are a few lab-grown diamond companies who have become certified carbon neutral over the years and only use renewable energy to power their operations—something that has actually led to natural diamond companies doing the same.
Another consideration to make is that, while it is associated with social issues, natural diamonds do provide a source of income for millions of people around the world who would likely struggle financially otherwise. It’s hard to say what would happen if an area loses mining and the livelihoods that come with it.
Ultimately, there’s a lot to consider with lab-grown diamonds. However, we’re of the opinion that when someone is prepared to say “I do” they should start by saying “yes” to lab-grown diamonds.
LOOK FOR SUPPLY CHAIN TRANSPARENCY
When it comes to sustainability and ethical concerns, a lot of them are found at various stages of the supply chains. Transparency is part of the solution to address some of our biggest concerns.
Unfortunately, transparency within the jewelry industry is also one of the most difficult things to achieve.
Different countries have different regulations in place regarding mining and workers rights. The first step towards an ethical and sustainable jewelry decision boils down to traceability and knowing the country of origin.
One key way brands are trying to change this is by using what’s essentially the technology behind Bitcoin, called blockchain. In one of our early episodes of the Sustainable Jungle Podcast with Todd Lemons, we discuss blockchain technology and how it’s being used to aid in conservation efforts. We highly encourage you to have a listen or read here for more info on the power of blockchain.
In terms of jewelry, however, computer giant IBM has developed a type of blockchain that is used by the jewelry industry to ensure that their diamonds aren’t from conflict areas.
TrustChain™ can track both diamonds and precious metals—showing transparency across the whole supply chain. This is still in the trial phase and hasn’t been used yet, but stay tuned for similar practices in the future.
Until the industry has a more developed plan for ensuring transparency, each brand is responsible for sharing what they do to accomplish this. Take a look at the brand’s ‘about us’ page to see what values drive their sourcing and manufacturing.
You should be able to see reports and targets that show where brands currently are with regard to pollution, traceability, and waste management—as well as where they plan to be after improvements are made.
LOOK FOR BRANDS WITH A POSITIVE IMPACT
When we’re looking for ‘ethical’ jewelry, it might be helpful to have a good working definition on what it is to be ‘ethical.’ We like this definition from Bario Neal:
“Products that are produced and traded in ways that avoid or lessen social, environmental, economic, cultural and/or political harm OR produce benefits to same on a local, regional, national or global scale.”
These are different ways to look at the same concept. And how does one exactly define “no negative impact?” That seems pretty impossible when near-infinite resources and millions of individual human workers are involved.
There will be some social, economic, environmental, or political harm embedded in our purchases. With most products, from food to clothes, this is, unfortunately, the reality.
The power we hold as consumers then is to try to minimize these as much as possible and choose brands and products that don’t only take but also give back to the environments and communities they work with.
Ethical and responsible jewelry ensures positive environmental impact from doing things like rehabilitating old mine sites, planting trees, or preventing water and air pollution.
It also fulfills social aims like supporting miners with free education, paying fair wages that allow families to eat, ensuring safe work environments, or supporting small-scale artisans.
It’s important to realize that in some areas of the world, jewelry can truly change the lives of those who work with it. Community is formed and living wages get people out of poverty. Women and indigenous people should be empowered in decision-making processes and given the tools to improve their livelihoods in a safe and respectful way.
Just imagine how much more those earrings will shimmer when they’re associated with stories like this!
SUSTAINABLE AND ETHICAL JEWELRY CERTIFICATIONS
While there aren’t many certifications out there (yet) to help us with this, there are a few to look for:
- Fair Trade: The materials, production, and trade are certified by FLO-Cert to be Fair Trade and meet standards like: the continuous improvement of working conditions, an increase in environmental sustainability of activities, living wages in compensation for the work, and the investment in worker/farmer organizational development.
See here for a list of some Fair Trade certified jewelry brands
- The Kimberley Process: This U.N. resolution is the most popular international standard for diamonds, but also suffers from many weaknesses.
It was perhaps a good starting point for regulation, but fails to fully define “conflict diamond,” doesn’t apply to anything but rough diamonds, and has been known to fail when it comes to imposing sanctions on non compliant countries.
Some believe it’s nothing more than a “‘perfect cover story’ for blood diamonds” and thus should be taken with a pretty hefty dose of skepticism.
- Responsible Jewellery Council: This is typically considered the leading standard-setting organization when it comes to the world’s sustainable jewelry.
The 1200+ members view that jewelry should be produced responsibly and sustainably. The code of practice includes issues like labor rights, health and safety, and responsible supply chains.
However, according to Human Rights Watch, this certification has several shortcomings and can’t conclusively provide assurance of adherence to international standards for responsible sourcing. So unfortunately this certification is far from a silver bullet.
- Institute for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA):The only third-party certification currently available for industrial-scale mine sites. It applies to specific mine sites, not the companies that oversee or source from them and uses a “step model” of improvement to rank these sites.
- Fairmined: Fairmined certifies gold from small-scale mining companies that meet standards for responsible practices. Some of these practices include fair pay for miners, improved traceability, reduced use of chemicals, and no link to conflict situations.
BE AWARE OF GREENWASHING
As they say, not all that glitters is gold, and in the jewelry world, greenwashing means that not all that is ‘sustainable’ or ‘ethical’ actually is.
Like with any eco-friendly product, the line between sustainable and sellable jewelry is often blurred. When it comes to ‘ethical,’ literally anyone (and we mean anyone) can tweak some wording and add a label and change consumer perceptions.
Or, a brand could be using totally sustainable materials—from the recycled gold to the compostable jewelry box BUT they use dangerous workplace practices and pay their employees next to nothing. This certainly isn’t ethical, but could it even be considered sustainable? From a social standpoint, we say no.
Since the use of ethical jewelry certifications is still somewhat in its fledgling stage, it becomes even more difficult to discern the truth from the BS.
When it comes to any product, don’t take things at face value. Ask questions, do your own research, and, if you find yourself really passionate about bling that comes without social and environmental burdens, take action!
Together, we can change the industry for the better.
GET INSPIRED AND TAKE ACTION
The world needs more consumers who aren’t willing to turn a blind eye to environmental and social injustices. If diamonds are your best friend, treat them like such!
Fortunately, more and more of us are getting involved in sustainable and ethical jewelry. From following a movement to watching a documentary, you can get involved, too.
SUSTAINABLE AND ETHICAL JEWELRY MOVEMENTS
Similar to the certifications we talked about above, these are organizations and people pushing toward more transparency and ethical accountability in the jewelry industry.
Jewelry Industry Summit: Each summit allows attendees to learn about strategies for more sustainable and responsible jewelry sourcing. One of their initiatives includes a replicable mine model that incorporates: a regenerative farm, education, and empowerment for women, and traceability.
- Ethical Metalsmiths: Ethical Metalsmiths use action, connection, and education to inspire responsibility from within the jewelry industry.
RECOMMENDED READING AND WATCHING
- Blood Diamond (2006)
- Fashionscapes: The Diamonds of Botswana (2020)
- Beast Of No Nation (2015)
- When Elephants Fight (2015)
- Diamonds Of War: Africa’s Blood Diamonds (2007)
- Liberia: An Uncivil War (2004)
- Soldier Child (1998)
FINAL THOUGHTS ON SUSTAINABLE AND ETHICAL JEWELRY
For the most part, what constitutes ethical or sustainable jewelry will be up to you. You’ll have to make decisions about brands and products that meet your own unique criteria.
While many of us would agree that things like slavery, pollution, exploitation, and environmental destruction are unethical, there are many, MANY other ideas and opinions that complicate matters.
Is natural better than technology? Is it better to use Fair Trade practices or recycled materials? Is a one-time purchase better than several ‘ethical’ jewelry purchases over the years?
This guide is by no means exhaustive (the reason several books have been written on the subject!), but we hope that it provides some insight so that you can better navigate these complicated questions.
Overall, it’s time we band together to determine the best of the best when it comes to ethical and sustainable jewelry. Is there anything we’re missing here? What do you look for when it comes to sustainable and ethical bling? Do you have any favorite ethical jewelry brands? We want to hear from you!