Sustainability is one of those buzz words you hear all the time these days, and it is especially pertinent when it comes to fashion. Trendy, ‘fast fashion,’ aka things that are meant to be worn a few times and then tossed, has become the norm. But in a world with limited resources, this is not a sustainable practice.
When it comes to jewelry, a good place to start is by not buying things like cheap plastic beads. While few would purchase a genuine pearl choker and wear it only once, not many people ever give much thought to where our jewelry comes from or how it was made. So what does sustainability mean in the jewelry industry?
The Trouble with Gold
A typical gold ring weighs about a third of an ounce. To make just that tiny amount of gold, approximately 20 tons of toxic waste is created. Yikes. Mercury is commonly used to extract gold from rocks, but it is toxic to both miners and to the environment. Cyanide is another poison used to mine gold, and the deadly sludge that is left over is often dumped directly into our water supply. Double yikes. Annually, about 180 million tons of toxic waste produced by metal mining gets dumped…somewhere. (We’d insert another yikes but you understand.) Metal extraction is one of the most detrimental forms of mining.
The Diamond Dilemma
While drilling for diamonds doesn’t require the use of toxic metals like those used for gold, diamond mining can still cause serious environmental damage. Unethical practices result in deforestation and soil erosion and can lead to permanent destruction of an ecological community.
The second problem with diamonds involves sourcing. Many diamonds come from countries where human rights abuses are common practice. The sale of these ‘conflict diamonds’ frequently contributes toward continuing the violence.
For Humanity’s Sake
When people discuss sustainability, they often talk in terms of environmental impact, but the human impact is equally important. Slavery still exists in the world and manufacturing is one of the most common industries in which we find enslaved workers. Laborers frequently do not receive fair compensation and the working conditions can be very dangerous. Buying from businesses that offer living wages, a safe work environment and fair work contracts are all ways to promote sustainability and ethical treatment of tradespeople.
Bling With a Conscience
Fair wages and decent working conditions go a long way in promoting health and welfare, not to mention a more peaceful world, and some businesses are going a step further. More and more jewelry companies are making a commitment to sustainability by offering vocational training, education grants, counseling and shelter to assist those who are the most vulnerable, such as women escaping from human trafficking.
Other fair-trade practices include prohibiting child labor and forming long-term partnerships with artisans to help ensure a regular income. Some jewelry companies in the United States have committed to hiring the homeless and those with criminal records, providing reliable wages and health benefits as a way to support the transition to a more stable lifestyle.
It sounds like something out of a futuristic film, but smog diamonds are real. A Dutch artist came up with the idea after being confronted with a wall of gray smog out of his Beijing hotel room window. Daan Roosegaarde created a solar-powered tower that vacuums up smog and returns clean air. A second problem arose with what to do with the garbage the tower extracted. When his team realized almost half of the gunk was carbon, they had a brilliant idea: compress it into diamonds. Don’t expect a glittering gem; it’s more of a dark, smoky cube. Each one represents over 1,000 cubic yards of pollution.
The earth’s ecosystems are fragile. We have a responsibility to respect them and use the planet’s precious resources carefully.
No one needs cheap junk jewelry, so one of the easiest things you can do to support sustainability is to buy less. Cultured or engineered diamonds are an alternative to conflict diamonds. Diamonds grown in a lab are created using the same processes as natural diamonds, and are just as beautiful, without promoting the exploitation of people or the environment. You can also buy second-hand, or perhaps someone in your family has an heirloom they don’t mind passing on. No matter what, always consider carefully before making any purchases and invest in quality pieces that will last.