Many of us today question whether our clothing is made of organic cotton, or has been produced by child labour or in sweatshops. Ethical clothing brands, from Ali Hewson's Edun line to H&M's recent launch of its "Conscious Collection," are aimed at increasing the number of eco-shoppers. So, the lack of concern people seem to have regarding where their jewellery is produced is rather surprising.
Sure, there has been some consciousness-raising on this issue. The film Blood Diamond (2006), starring Leonardo Di Caprio, endeavoured to make people aware that the origins of certain diamonds may be connected to human rights abuses, militia funding and even genocide. A system known as the Kimberley Process was enacted in the early 2000s to help consumers feel more confident that their diamond purchases were "clean." However, despite the fact that some estimate that diamonds from conflict now only account for one per cent of such gems in the world, few today deny that the Process is far from a watertight solution. Despite increased awareness of how diamonds fuel conflict, the companies that were implicated in "dirty trading" during the wars in Angola, Sierra Leone and Congo - and the tycoons that head them - are still thriving. Ian Smilie, one of the founding officers of the Kimberly Process, resigned out of concern of its effectiveness. He was quoted in a BBC article as saying, "I could no longer, in good faith, contribute to pretence that failure is success."
Miners dig for diamonds in Marange,
But blood diamonds are just the tip of the iceberg. There are myriad ethical issues with the creation of jewellery, and most of them start at the primary stage of industry: mining. Diamonds are especially "dirty." Even if they are conflict free, arsenic and mercury are needed in the diamond mining process, and 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.
Of course, to find metals and gems, mining companies often have to destroy pristine natural environments in order to tear the Earth open for excavation, but they also usually need to create roads, railways or shipping ports to help transport products from their source. Extraction often involves the use of heavy chemicals and these often find their way into the water table. In short, mining is never good for the planet.
Because of all these issues, an increasing number of jewellers, such as Choo Yilin, have decided that it would be more ecologically friendly to create jewellery by recycling silver and gold as a base. Choo also refuses to use endangered animal products, such as ivory, shark's teeth or coral, and has even created an "Alternative to Coral" project that aims to raise awareness of coral conservation. "We hope to inspire the consumer mindset that while coral is undoubtedly beautiful, there are other tangible ways to appreciate its beauty," she says. Instead, she offers consumers "pieces based on actual coral species, embellished with precious gemstones."
Ah, but there's the rub. Even super ethical Choo admits that though she tries to source all her gems from "small, artisanal mines," knowing the origins of all stones is not always possible. While there may be fewer blood diamonds in the world, emeralds, sapphires and rubies may not be so clean - it's well known that Burma's military junta was boosted by ruby production, and emerald trading financed a number of paramilitary groups in Colombia in the 1990s, for example.
However, tracing the origins of metals is much easier, as jewellery designer April Doubleday knows. Rather than using recycled metals, Doubleday decided that she "could not morally work with metals or semi-precious stones without knowing the source and story behind them," so chose to gain her eco-kudos by using Fairtrade and Fairmined gold in her classically designed wedding collections. Born out of the 2004 Oro Verde movement in Colombia, Doubleday proudly explains that this "green gold" is mined in accordance with the standards set by Fairtrade International (FLO) and the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM). These groups monitor the gold and in certifying it, acknowledge that the gold is derived from mines that offer a guaranteed minimum price, have been extracted responsibly under strict ecological restoration requirements using less harmful chemicals, and are not associated with conflict or violence. Any certified organisations located within known conflict areas are responsible for increasing economic stability within the area, as well as negotiating and maintaining the peace and ensuring the production process is transparent throughout.
While bijou jewellers like Doubleday pride themselves on only buying ARM certified metals, today, even large jewellers like Tiffany's have pledged to do the same, and De Beers prides itself on selling guaranteed diamonds that have been ethically sourced and responsibly crafted.
Small Wave from April Doubleday's
While ethical jewellery is undoubtedly an improvement on previous practices, not everyone is so sure. One employee of Rio Tinto mining told me "the idea that recycled gold" is somehow ecological is just ridiculous - it's always been "recycled." It's too valuable to waste! Of course, monitoring all mining practices is just common sense. But keep in mind that most mining is for essential metals and minerals, like iron ore. If people really want to care for the environment, maybe they should just stop buying the inessentials, like diamonds." Ah. Perhaps easier said than done, especially when gazing at Choo and Doubleday's original creations.
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