Ethical business and sustainability are on everyone’s mind these days. We’ve all heard about the perils of fast fashion in the context of clothing: the waste, the unsafe working conditions, the overuse of precious resources like water and petroleum.
But what does eco-consciousness mean when it comes to jewels like black gemstones or pearls?
Unfortunately, in the case of jewelry production, all that glitters is not gold. Many of the manufacturing practices are downright dirty.
Read on to learn about 5 eco-friendly and ethical jewelers who are doing their part to make the world a healthier, cleaner, better place!
Why Ethical Jewelry Matters
Ethics means behaving in a way that does not cause harm. Making ethical jewelry means that the steps in the supply chain do not hurt humans or the planet. This includes everything from obtaining the raw materials like metals, gems and mother of pearl to shipping methods. Employees all along the chain should receive fair wages and work in safe conditions.
Take a look at this informative TEDx Talks video to understand more about the complexities of sustainable and ethical jewelry design and manufacture:
Jewelry supply chains tend to be extremely complex, making transparency difficult to achieve. Gold will be mined in one country, the gemstones in another, and assembly will likely occur in yet another place. The item is then sold in a country that may well be on the opposite side of the planet.
That’s a lot of steps to keep track of. And it offers a lot of opportunity to get away with less than golden standards. In the case of many brands, there is simply no way to know where the raw materials like gold and diamonds come from, much less the actual conditions within the mine. This is what makes seeking out ethical jewelry makers all the more important.
With the above in mind, here are five ethical jewelry makers to support instead:
5 Ethical Jewelry Makers
Catbird is a NYC-based brand created and run by women. It makes all of its pieces in-house from either recycled materials or responsibly-sourced, no-conflict gems.
Catbird actively supports diversity and the BIPOC community, both through hiring practices and expanding its third-party brand offerings in its shop. Additionally, the company donates a percentage of its sales to charities such as the Food Bank of New York City and the ACLU.
San Francisco-based SOKO is also led by women and takes a people-first approach to business. The platform uses modern technology to connect marginalized artisans in Kenya with the rest of the world.
Rather than be forced to commute or live in a central location, mobile technology allows the artisans to stay within their community. Thoughtful and effective production leads to a higher income without compromising sustainability. Fair prices for their work also preserve personal dignity.
SOKO is a certified B-Corporation. This means it meets high standards for accountability, transparency, and social and environmental performance throughout its supply chain.
ABLE is a brand of ethical jewelry that has the goal of empowering women and breaking the cycle of poverty. Located in Nashville, Tennessee, artists make jewelry by hand from a range of sustainably-sourced materials.
The company is highly transparent and publishes the salaries of its entire staff which is 95% female. ABLE is committed to offering fair wages and treatment that reflect the workers’ inherent dignity and worth.
4. Joi De Viv
Feminine yet fierce, designer Vivian Wyell’s approach to ethical jewelry means growing diamonds in a lab. Joi De Viv’s luxurious yet sustainable line of ethical jewelry is produced by an ethically-treated labor force which employs environmentally-conscious manufacturing processes.
Each diamond is made in the US and comes with an IGI certificate. Metals used in pieces are either recycled, reclaimed or responsibly-sourced.
The Canadian brand Mejuri offers a range of ethical jewelry pieces including wedding bands. All are made from recycled or fairly-mined base materials with a traceable supply chain. Another essential component for the brand is affordability, making it very popular. ‘Everyday fine jewelry’ is its slogan.
Typical Problems with Unethical Jewelry Creation
There are many complex and interrelated issues that make jewelry unethical, and unsustainable. Here are the most important issues to consider:
Strip mining, as its name implies, has a significant environmental impact. Entire ecosystems may be destroyed in the quest for precious metals and gemstones. It is estimated that 250 tons of soil are moved to find a single carat of diamonds! With almost 150 million carats being mined annually, that’s a lot of earth upset. These mines are so huge, they can be seen from outer space.
Deforesting is another threat with mining. Waterways also get polluted due to contamination by deadly chemicals used in the mining process.
These toxins also sterilize the soil and the ecosystem may not recover for decades or centuries. The noise alone drives away wildlife. The overall impact can turn the local environment into an uninhabitable wasteland.
Health & Safety Issues
As mentioned above, mining is a very dirty business. But it is growing fast in developing countries, as much as 20% a year. Oxygen is often limited in mines. Dangerous particles hang in the air and get inhaled. Miners rarely have all the protective equipment they need. Another hazard miners face is cave-ins. Mining can be a deadly job.
Exploitation and Child Labor
Gems and precious metals frequently come from nations that do not have strong labor laws. Working conditions are miserable and often downright dangerous.
Employees usually do not receive safety training and are inadequately equipped for the work. Add to this, many workers barely earn a living wage.
Safety nets like disability insurance are nonexistent. The human impact alone is a strong reason to choose ethical jewelry.
Worse, in many countries, forced child labor is used to mine diamonds, gem stones and precious metals.
This TEDx Talks video delves into how diamond mining impacts children:
The film Blood Diamonds brought attention to the fact that many gemstones are mined in countries where the funds fuel conflict. It is estimated that up to 20% of the diamond market may be guilty of this practice.
Countries that have had their diamonds banned for this reason include Angola, the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. If you want to be sure your gems aren’t contributing to human suffering, buy ethical jewelry.
Use of Toxic Substances
As mentioned above, miners often suffer terrible working conditions and hazards. The poisons mercury and cyanide are used in nearly all gold mining. Mercury poisoning has some pretty awful effects, including:
- loss of coordination
- loss of peripheral vision
- impairment of hearing, speech, and walking
- muscle weakness
- memory loss
These toxins don’t only harm the workers who handle them. The poisons are released into the air and water and do untold damage to the environment and all living beings in the surrounding area.
Unethical practices like diamond smuggling doesn’t only incite and sustain war. It also steals millions of dollars from some of the poorest people in the world.
Indigenous people regularly have their land taken away from them or destroyed for mining. They have no legal recourse. While some progress has been made in this area, there is still a long way to go. The only way to know for sure you’re buying ethical jewelry is to do your research.
Final Thoughts – The Steps You Can Take
Studies show that four out of five consumers are willing to pay more for conflict-free jewelry. As a customer, you have the power to make a difference. Don’t fall for the advertising of the ‘You’re Worth It’ variety. There are plenty of ways to treat yourself without harming the planet.
Before you buy, consider whether you really need more. If the occasion calls for something you don’t already own, you can:
- Shop secondhand/vintage
When buying new, always research the company. Look out for greenwashing. Unscrupulous sellers know that items with an environmental label are in high demand and will go a long way to make their product sound eco-friendly.
Ethical jewelry is still in its infancy, but demand is driven by consumers. The more questions shoppers ask about the origin of their jewelry, the more designers will listen. This will create a positive cycle, and lead to a healthier, happier planet and population.
About the Author
Sue Seabury is passionate about all things fashion and the Earth. She is a regular contributor to the blog for the ethical pearl e-tailer, The Pearl Source.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Can I Tell if a Jeweler Is Using Ethical Practices?
Ethical jewelers are usually very proud of their work and tend to be explicit as to their sourcing, processes, and other parts of ethical jewelry production, including eco-conscious shipping methods and recyclable packaging. Read the full article to learn more about how to know if jewelry is ethical or not.
What’s the Difference Between Sustainable and Ethical Jewelry?
The two may be used interchangeably. Sustainability refers primarily to environment practices, such as not dumping chemicals or employing slash-and-burn techniques. Ethical jewelry is made without harming the environment or the workers involved in its creation. Read the full piece for more on ethical and sustainable jewelry production.
Which Is the More Ethical Jewelry: Recycled or Eco-Friendly?
Both can be ethical. Recycled means the base materials are being reused, whereas eco-friendly means that the jewelry was produced without harming the environment. But read the fine print. And be wary of greenwashing, aka, making a product sound more environmentally-friendly than it actually is. Read the full article for more on the virtues of recycled and eco-friendly jewelry.
References and Useful Resources
Ethical Consumer: Search Tool for Ethical Products
Ethical Making: The Ethical Making Resource
Ethical Metalsmiths: Resources
Forbes: The Challenge of Creating Responsible Jewelry
Forbes: Meet Joie de Viv a Diamond Industry Disruptor and Environmental Advocate
Science Direct: Social Impact Assessment in the Mining Sector: Review and Comparison of Indicators Frameworks