Firstly: What IS “Eco, Sustainable and Ethical” Jewellery?
“Sustainable and ethical jewelry means transparent and responsible sourcing practices and use of sustainable materials.”
In terms of metals – recycled Silver and Gold are considered to be a ‘sustainable material’. That is because they can be melted down and turned into new items numerous times without losing their worth. It is more difficult to recycle or melt down gemstones or crystals. But that is where using old, vintage or heirloom jewellery – and up-cycling into new pieces is good.
BUT buying metal that has been recycled, doesn’t necessarily make it more ‘ethical’ or ‘environmentally friendly’. This is because it was most likely from mines that have destroyed entire ecosystems, or contributed to the displacement or genocide of indigenous communities to start with.
Unfortunately recycling the metal is not going to make that go away. 😞
However, I do believe that as an individual maker (and one-woman-business), buying and crafting new products from recycled Sterling Silver is better than using plated metal. (It lasts longer, and does not contain nasties like Nickel – that many people react to!) Or buying ‘new’ (from those awful mines!).
I am not adding to the mining problem, and actually some of my products try to remove waste from going to landfill (e.g. my R3 Earrings and heirloom jewellery).
Recycling gold or silver is not a new practise – despite what many companies may like you to think! It has been done for many years by both individual jewellers and larger companies. In some ways, the advertising of recycled metal as being ‘eco-friendly’ is greenwashing. More on what this is below. 🤔
It’s difficult though – I do think that ‘recycled’ metal is more environmentally friendly than new. But I also think many companies are making their money from advertising and driving the message across that they are environmentally friendly in everything they do – but actually, they’re not.
What do you think?
Beware of Greenwashing
The rising demand for eco-friendly products and environmentally ethical business practices shows signs of the shift towards conscious consumerism – which is fantastic! However, it has also led to an increase in “greenwashing”.
Based on the term “whitewashing”, Wikipedia’s definition of “greenwashing” is “a form of marketing spin in which green PR and green marketing are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly.”
Essentially, it refers to dishonest or deceitful marketing about a company or product’s environmental impact.
Companies or individuals who “greenwash” often spend more money on making consumers think their practices are sustainable than actually making them so.
The idea of greenwashing has actually been around since the 1960s, driven by the nuclear power industry’s need to stay competitive during the anti-nuclear movement.
However, the term “greenwashing” wasn’t actually created until 1986 by Jay Westerveld, in response to a note he’d seen three years earlier from a hotel in Fiji, who encouraged customers to reuse towels to help ‘save the coral reefs’, whilst also building new units and killing those same reefs.
Statistically, green sells!
According to a 2015 Nielson poll, 66% of people are willing to pay more for eco-friendly products and 50% of them are influenced by key sustainability factors, such as:
- A product being made from fresh, natural and/ or organic ingredients (69%)
- A company being environmentally friendly (58%),
- And a company being known for its commitment to social values (56%).
Sales and coupons didn’t even make the top 5! For this group of people, personal values are more important than personal benefits – such as cost or convenience.
By making it look like they’re ‘green’ and ‘environmentally friendly’, businesses can retain most environmentally conscious consumers – without actually changing any of their unsustainable practices.
This makes it pretty difficult for those of us smaller businesses, who simply do not have the advertising budget of the larger players, but who ARE trying to be as environmentally responsible as possible – to make a mark.
What is the problem with ‘Traditional Fine Jewellery’?
To consider why you should buy ‘eco friendly’ jewellery, we must first look at what is wrong with the jewellery industry as a whole. The jewellery industry is rife with concerns regarding ethics and sustainability.
Environmental Impacts of Diamond Mining
Although diamond mining can have less impacts on the planet than extracting metals from the earth, the effects are still considerable. Research has shown that mining just one carat of diamonds causes: up to 3.1 tons of earth displacement, 8.9 litres of fuel consumption, and 2534 litres of water usage!
Extrapolating this data, to reach the estimated 147 million carats of diamonds mined worldwide in 2018, the impact of the diamond mining industry is over 455 million tons of earth displaced, 1.3 billion litres of fuel burned and 372 billion litres of water used. There are more than 50 active diamond mines in the world; around 80% of them don’t report on the effects they’re having on the environment.
Environmental Impacts of Mining Other Gemstones & Crystals
Diamonds are not the only gemstone material requiring responsible sourcing. Due to its broad scope, the coloured gemstone industry, estimated to be a US$10–$15 billion (and growing) global enterprise, has yet to establish a responsible, sustainable, verifiable mine-to-market supply chain.
Many of the same problems apply. Mining of coloured (precious) gemstones (i.e. sapphire, ruby & emerald) – and crystals (semi precious – i.e. everything else) – can also impact on:
- Water contamination
- Soil erosion and contamination
- Landscape destruction
- Carbon emissions
- Ground and surface water pollution
- Air pollution
- Ecosystem and habitat destruction
There are ethical miners out there, you just have to look for them (and they tend to be smaller companies.)
Here at Curlicue NZ I haven’t bought coloured gemstones or gold mostly because of the prices associated with them. However I also hadn’t really considered the issues surrounding mining of crystals – until now. For all future purchases of crystals, I will ensure that I buy semi precious stones that have been mined ethically.
Environmental Impacts of Mining Precious Metals
Most consumers don’t know where the gold in their ring or earrings comes from, or how it is mined.
Gold mining is one of the most destructive industries in the world – and Silver (and other precious metals) are no better. They are subject to all the same problems – metal ores often occur together, so they actually come from many of the same mines.
Mining of precious metals can:
- Move huge amounts of earth
- Displace communities,
- Contaminate drinking water,
- Hurt workers (physically, emotionally, mentally and financially)
- Destroy pristine environments and their biodiversity
- Pollute water and land with chemicals such as mercury and cyanide, which are used to help extract the metals – endangering the health of people and ecosystems
- Use huge amounts of water
Most of all, many metal mining operations fail to discard their waste materials responsibly. Often, these harmful chemicals are dumped into rivers, clogging the flow of water and poisoning wildlife – and people.
Many modern mining operations do strive to mitigate potential environmental impacts, and are strictly regulated – in the United States. However most of the mitigation does not occur until after the area has been mined. By this time, many of the worst environmental impacts have already occured. Although mitigation will help with restoration of habitats, it cannot help the air, soil and water pollution with acids that has already occurred.
One of the big problems in the metal industry is that there are so many middlemen, and no way for consumers to tell where the metal comes from. Therefore, there is no pressure on the mining companies to be more responsible.
This begs the obvious question – can we avoid contributing to these problems by buying responsibly mined metals?
Ethical Metalsmiths and No Dirty Gold have made some progress on demanding ‘greener gold’, and trying to pressure jewellery retailers to carry it. Gold is a bigger problem than silver, simply because gold is rarer and more precious. It is present at much lower concentrations in the rock, so more damage is done getting a given amount of gold out of the ground. But as I said above, Silver (and other metals) cause much of the same problems, and often come from the same places.
In addition to precious metals being an environmental problem, they have also been rapidly increasing in price over the past few years. One of the reasons for the increase, is that there are now “Exchange Traded Funds” for silver and gold that make it easier for investors to buy and sell metals as a stock. This is important because it increases mining activity beyond the demand for using metals to actually produce things – increasing the environmental impact along with it.
After some consideration, I’ve decided that – despite the suggestion that recycled metal is not ethical or eco friendly, due to not knowing its origins – that a business such as Curlicue NZ using recycled silver should still be considered environmentally friendly – due to not being ‘new’ and therefore adding to the waste stream.
SO what ARE the reasons to buy “Eco Friendly Jewellery”?
Based on my decision above, I believe buying ‘eco-friendly’ jewellery is important because:
1) It’s made using responsibly-sourced materials
Sustainable and ethical jewellery brands create their products using materials that have been sourced in the most ethical and socially-responsible way. That means the stones and metals used to craft the rings, bracelets and necklaces are free of any conflict or questions of origin.
At Curlicue NZ, I create my products using locally-sourced materials, recycled metals, Swarovski Crystals and cultured pearls.
When it comes to sustainable luxury – the Swarovski Group really is on the right path. In a recent (2019) sustainability report, it was shown that 35% of Swarovski’s energy now comes from renewable sources! Read more about their sustainability and ethical efforts here.
2) Less waste is generated
- A mine can generate up to 20 tons of waste just to make one small ring.
- Chemicals such as mercury and cyanide are widely used in mining. These products pollute the air, water, soils, people and destroy our planet’s biodiversity.
- A huge amount of water is needed and is also discharged back into the environment – often polluted with acids and minerals toxic to fish (which in turn make it into community food chains!)
Along with being beautiful and original, buying eco-friendly jewellery is a sensible choice and a great way to help our planet and the human race.
Additionally, many jewellers also utilise materials that would otherwise end up in landfill. You’ll love looking through their eco-friendly jewellery collections that are not only exclusive, but great for all styles and budgets. Not to mention the pride you’ll have in wearing a creation made from all sorts of everyday objects!
3) It reduces your carbon footprint
By buying your jewellery from a local business, you are helping to reduce your own carbon footprint. At Curlicue NZ, I use mostly locally sourced and recycled materials. The items I buy from overseas come from long term, family-run businesses. Also, when you buy locally, it helps cut down the distance the jewellery has to travel to reach you.
4) You can support smaller brands
When you support a sustainable and ethical jewellery brand, it means you are offering your support to a small business or an independent jewellery maker. Large companies that mass produce jewellery often end up becoming a part of practices that are not only detrimental to the environment but also to people. Whereas smaller businesses make each product with love and care, which makes the jewellery unique and more meaningful to you.
5) It supports Fair and Ethical Trade
Similar to the above, there are many reasons for you to buy your eco-friendly jewellery from a jeweller that supports fair and ethical trade:
- Fair trade standards ensure that workers are not exploited. They receive a fair wage and work in an environment where safety and cleanliness are excellent. If you are buying direct from the maker themselves, their prices should reflect fair pay for them, at the same time as covering materials, labour time, overheads, admin and packaging.
- Jewellers who support fair trade are saying no to child labour. According to the International Labour Organization, one million children are forced to work in small-scale mines with little or no pay and risking their lives.
- Any form of workplace or trade violence and corruption is condemned.
Ethical trade reinforces strict standards to reduce environmental impacts.
6) There’s more variety and designs
Eco-friendly jewellery items can be prepared in the laboratory or made out of recycled products. This way each piece is handcrafted with unique design and style thereby offering a wide variety of design options to choose from.
Also, small businesses can utilise products that would normally go into the waste stream – such as Curlicue NZ’s repurposed milk bottle earrings, which are made from plastic milk bottles and handmade recycled Sterling Silver wire hooks.
7) It’s budget friendly
Eco-friendly jewellery options are usually more budget friendly than ‘fine jewellery’ made from precious metals and gemstones. (Though they will be more expensive than cheaply made, mass-produced, plated metal jewellery.)
Being made from natural, recycled or lab-grown products can reduce the cost of its production and people can wear their jewellery without as much fear of loss or being stolen.
8) You get personalised jewellery – customised for you
Handcrafted jewellery can be made just for you! It can be customised in size, shape and design. It can be changed to use your preferred colour or stone (such as birthstone jewellery). It can even include personal information or messages – eg when it has been stamped or engraved. You can also use Grandma’s jewellery that has been handed down to you, and have it made into something more your style. Although more difficult than metals and beads, gemstones can also be reused to make new pieces.
To have these options – and know it has been ethically and responsibly made – combines the positive personal and environmental factors.
9) It avoids plated metals
Plated metal jewellery is like the fast fashion of the jewellery world.
It is only designed to last a short period of time. A small percentage of people might get things re-plated, but there is only a certain number of times you can re-plate something.
Therefore, plated jewellery encourages, normalises and promotes a disposable and wasteful consumption culture. This is in direct conflict with looking after our environment!
What to look for when buying Eco-friendly Jewellery?
The best thing to look at first is what materials have been used. Is the metal recycled and where are the gemstones from?
Secondly, look at how long it’s going to last. Jewellery with a longer usable lifespan has a smaller footprint because it’s spread over a longer period of time and it stops you needing to buy more.