The Environmental Impact of Jewellery and What Ethical Jewellery Is

The Environmental Impact of Jewellery and What Ethical Jewellery Is

A lot is being done by associations like Kimberly Process (KP) in the area of “conflict diamonds” or “blood diamonds” to address issues surrounding human rights violations. Similarly, with regard to gold, groups like Fairtrade International and Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) monitor the origins of the gold they certify to be from mines that provide a transparent and traceable supply chain, employ fair and safe labour standards, prioritise community development, and pay a stable minimum commodity price. Buying-ARM certified metals and KP-certified diamonds would be a good step in the right direction for people concerned with ethical sourcing of precious metals and diamonds. However, there are a lot of questions about whether enough is being done with regard to environmental concerns surrounding mining-operations of diamonds and precious metals like gold, silver and platinum. As regards diamonds, a cue could perhaps be sought from the fact that environmental organisations have been asking for KP’s definition of “clean diamonds” to encompass the environment as well. So far, this has not happened, which makes one wonder, “Is there really such a thing as completely ‘ethical fine jewellery’?”

The Environmental Impact of Diamond Mining and Gold Mining: Each year, over 150 million carats of diamonds are extracted from the earth through mining. 1750 tons of earth has to be extracted to find a 1.0 ct rough diamond. 20 tons of mined waste is said to be produced to make one simple gold ring to hold a solitaire diamond.

Delving into the history of diamond mining has shown that it can and has been catastrophic to the local environments, including wildlife and people. Besides the logging that results from moving earth, the leakage of harmful chemicals considerably affects the health of the human and animal population around.

To dissolve gold or silver from the earth mined ore, it is mixed with Cyanide, a known toxic poison, making the land and waterways around the mining area poisoned. In fact, all forms of mining can cause long term water and soil contamination that affects not only the plant and animal life around a mine, but the surrounding communities too.

So, what is environmentally ethical jewellery?

The rising consciousness about environmental issues surrounding materials used for fine jewellery as well as the human rights abuses, have witnessed a rising clan of international jewellers, who use only recycled materials. Such jewellers believe that working with pre-existing pieces of jewellery with say gold and silver, or sourcing metals from recycling plants is more ecologically friendly. Other jewellers have been using synthetic stones. Although these practices are indeed commendable, this is not a workable solution for the production needs of the wider industry. So, how do we as manufacturers and consumers of fine jewellery ensure that we are making or buying jewellery that is as “clean” as possible?

There are quite a few processes in place today, which promote clean production along the chain.

The Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) is a global industry standard set up in 2006 by the diamond and jewellery industry. It is a voluntary initiative that promotes responsible ethical, social and environmental practices throughout the diamond and gold jewellery supply chain, from mine to retail. The RJC Code of Practices covers a wide range of business, human rights, environmental and management criteria, encompassing such issues as product integrity, fair pay and working conditions, environmental protection and legal compliance.

Bodies like ISO independently certify diamond, gold and silver mines to see that they meet international environmental management standards.

Mining companies in some countries are required to follow environmental and rehabilitation codes, ensuring the area mined is returned to close to its original state. Countries like Canada and Australia have strict codes of conduct to govern diamond, gold and other mining activities. Although in past decades, diamond mines in Canada have met with criticism for social and environmental impact, today, it is pretty much recognised that Ekati and Diavik diamond mines in Canada's Northwest Territory (NWT) hold some of the most progressive mining operations in the world. Diamond and gold mines in Canada have to comply with Canada’s strict environmental laws.

Even Botswana, at present, is considered as Africa’s success story, with regard to giving back to the community, reducing environmental impact and protecting wildlife. Diamonds are mined with due regard to environmental sustainability and protecting the ecosystem of the Kalahari Desert. Leased mining lands help maintain biodiversity by providing habitat for endangered species such as cheetahs and rhinos. Sites are rehabilitated after use. In Namibia, where diamond mining is done offshore and in coastal areas, special care is taken to protect marine ecosystems. In South Africa, diamond mines have launched wind and solar power projects to reduce their carbon emissions.

There are those that believe that no matter how vigilant specific mining operations may be towards environmental concerns – diamond and precious metal mining is extremely detrimental to the environment, and that mining companies downplay the effects of mining. Consumers and jewellers often do not like to delve into this subject too much – Perhaps for the former the facts are an uncomfortable thorn in the way of one’s desire for jewellery; Perhaps for the latter, they are an itchy but necessary side-effect of a lucrative business. For those of us concerned with environmental impact of mining, the truth is that the very nature of mining, which disturbs the natural environment to extract valuable commodities from the ground, begs the question “can this pursuit really be sustainable?” Well, it can to an extent, as we are witness to this modern age where mining companies have been working in various areas – they have been applying new technologies to see that minimal toxic substances leak into surrounding soil and water-bodies, they have been restoring excavated land to the extent possible, they have been rehabilitating wildlife, and they have been giving back to communities surrounding mines.

With regard to “ethical jewellery”, on our part, the best we can do is to be conscious about the origins of our materials. We need to be able to trace materials we use to their very source, ensuring all sources are those that are governed by and adhere to ethical norms and practices with regard to the environment.

The need of the hour is to stir our individual and collective conscience into making sure we do not tolerate a disregard towards the social and environmental impact that “dirty mining” operations have. Let’s always look at where our raw materials and the products we buy come from. Let’s educate our consumers about how important it is to STOP BARGAINING FOR DIAMONDS & JEWELLERY! There are costs involved with doing the right thing. It’s time we make our consumers realise this!

And, most importantly, as members of the jewellery trade, let’s never stop pushing towards higher and higher levels of excellence in environmental protection in mining operations. We have miles to go before we rest!