What should we as consumers be aware of if we are buying high end jewellery and want to ensure we make the ethical choice? Rae Ritchie advises
There are times when fact follows fiction. In 2006, Leonardo Di Caprio starred in ‘Blood Diamond’, a film that told the story of the illicit diamond trade and its role in funding civil war in Sierra Leone. Six years later, evidence that Charles Taylor’s staff gave the model Naomi Campbell a bag of gemstones was crucial in supporting the case made by UN prosecutors that the former Liberian leader had traded real life ‘blood diamonds’ to fund a civil war in the neighbouring country: Sierra Leone.
Increased public awareness about the impact of conflict gemstones around the world severely damaged the reputation of the international gemstone and mineral trade as well as the closely connected fine jewellery sector.
Over a decade on, what – if anything – has changed? What should we as consumers be aware of if we are buying jewellery and want to make an ethical choice?
Harming people and planet
Back in 2003, the diamond industry introduced the Kimberley Process, a certification scheme to ensure that the sale of rough diamonds would no longer fund wars by rebel movements against legitimate governments. However despite these efforts, the smuggling and laundering of diamonds continues.
When products cannot be traced, it is impossible to verify the conditions where they came from. Organised crime remains a problem in small scale mines, which is where 90 percent of miners in over seventy countries work. Human bondage is an issue, as is child labour.
Yet boycotting trade with problematic areas of the world in favour of certified materials from developed nations raises other human rights issues. In Canada and Greenland, for instance, there are controversial disputes about mines on indigenous lands.
Furthermore removing precious materials from the ground creates environmental damage wherever it takes place. Some mines continue to use mercury to extract gold, polluting waterways and harming workers, while 80 percent of mined gemstones and 20 percent of mined diamonds come from small artisanal mines where top soil is simply removed, not stored, leading to soil degradation and little chance of rehabilitating the land.
Neither does recycling materials offer a simple solution. Recycling is itself an industrial process that has a carbon footprint and generates air pollution. Moreover, there is relatively available on the market. Recycled material accounts for just 28 percent of the total gold supply and 5 to 10 percent of the diamond supply.
Positive action in the jewellery industry
As these figures indicate, there remains a heavy reliance on mined materials. But it is not inevitable that this means exploitation, at least not for the workers involved. Mining has the potential to be a positive experience too. Miners are relatively prosperous, earning more than they would in the alternative job opportunities available to them. Research undertaken by Estelle Levin-Nally of Levin Sources, a consultancy involved in sustainable mining and sourcing, found that in some parts of Africa, they earn up to ten times more than in agriculture. The presence of mines can also lead to further job creation in an area and bring in additional investment, as with De Beers’ funding for mine hospitals. In 2016, these received 181,000 visitors, 50 percent of whom were local people.
There are also a growing number of individuals and groups striving to raise the ethical standards of the jewellery industry from within. Fair Luxury, for example, provides a platform to discuss and promote responsible sourcing in the jewellery industry. This autumn, they hosted an exhibition in London showcasing a range of jewellers with different styles but whom all pioneer ethical materials and practices. Arabel Lebrusan was among them. She believes that ‘there’s no way back from the moment you’re converted’ to working ethically. Her commitment to doing so has taken her many places, including on a visit to the artisanal co-operative mine in Columbia that she uses.
Initiatives such as this mark a major change in the industry. As recently as 2011, ‘there was a scepticism that there was any demand for ethical jewellery’, jeweller Vania Leles told The Ethicalist. Now the recent Chicago Responsible Jewelers Conference counted the major stakeholders such as the US State Department and World Diamond Council among its attendees.
There is action to accompany this talk. There are Fairmined and Fairtrade certification schemes for gold. As with other fair trade products, these ensure that workers operate in a safe environment and receive a decent wage. The mining co-operatives involved also receive a premium payment, with workers voting about how to spend this. At one site in Peru, they elected to have electricity installed in their village and a mobile phone tower erected at the mine so when they are staying there for weeks at a time, they can still contact their families.
There are also concerted efforts to improve the traceability of coloured gemstones. Companies such as Nineteen48 have led the way on this; they supply fully-traceable, ethically-sourced gemstones that come either from its own mines in Sri Lanka or an exclusive network of approved partners. Now the Responsible Jewellery Council, a not-for-profit standards setting organisation, is developing a certification scheme.
Knowing the history of the stone we are wearing – what could be more luxurious than that?
If you want to ensure that the next piece of jewellery you buy is as ethical as possible, here are two key pointers to keep in mind:
- Even the most committed makers and retailers are still on a journey when it comes to ethical jewellery. Remember that different provenances raise different issues and be realistic about what assurances you can expect.
- That said, ask questions. Enquire about certification schemes and sourcing. With small companies, you may be face to face with the owner who can answer (or not). With larger firms, it is worth asking to see their social responsibility reports. De Beers, Cartier and Tiffany all provide detailed accounts of their efforts across different aspects of ethics and sustainability.
- Feature image credit: Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash