The environmental impact of jewellery is often left out of the ongoing discussion about fast fashion. Recent events have shone a light on the deeply problematic systems behind the manufacturing of clothes, particularly regarding the conditions of garment workers. Unfortunately, the human rights violations and shocking treatment of the planet’s natural resources do not stop at clothing.
Online sales have soared during lockdown, highly established fashion brands have raked in millions over the past year, but as a society we’ve also become more aware of who is suffering elsewhere for this indulgence in the Western world. We are starting to understand that ‘cheap’ fashion probably stems from exploitation, but with a little more research it’s not difficult to find that while high end jewellery brands may prevail in quality, they have the same unethical practices down the line. But what do we mean by ‘down the line’?
Tens of thousands of African, Asian and South American adults and children work in gold mines to try and escape poverty. The lack of sufficient health and safety measures injures and kills a large number of them, from explosions and collapsing of tunnels. They are exposed to a high level of noise, harsh chemicals, reduced ventilation and are constantly at risk of serious long-term health problems.
The environmental impact of mining is equally as tragic, the toxic waste filled with cyanide is poured straight into natural waters, destroying aquatic life, and the mercury used to recover small pieces of gold is burned straight into the atmosphere (and inhaled by the workers along the way…)
There is a huge demand for gold, so unethical organisations have been finding cracks in the systems that are in place to protect workers. Artisanal mining is small scale, and therefore harder to trace. They are not forced to adhere to any safety guidelines, and due to the lack of transparency, large corporations often find themselves without knowledge of the initial sourcing of their materials. It’s hard to find ethically sourced gold, and even if it is claimed to be, it’s almost impossible to trace it back to the very beginning. Recycled Gold is the most ethical option, as pre-existing offcuts or spare pieces are melted down to form new materials.
Yes, Sterling Silver is also mined and does have issues, but it exists in higher quantities so requires less damage to retrieve it. Although again, Recycled Silver is a much better option!
It’s important to consider that pearls can be ethically sourced. But as with all fashion, the higher the demand, the more unsustainable the practices. And there’s a pretty high demand for pearls.
Pearls form when an Oyster secretes Nacre due to stress. There are guidelines in place to extract the pearl from the oyster sustainably, but these are often ignored when they open up Oyster shells and insert an irritant, or move the Oyster between water temperatures to boost stress. So many do not survive this process, which is awful. Normal, ethical farming is fine, because oysters do naturally produce pearls and they can be farmed without harm, but the problems occur when there is pressure on mass production.
There are many pearls that are already out there. They can easily be found in charity shops, or online selling platforms such as Ebay, under the ‘used’ section.
Beautiful semi-precious/glass stones come from all over the world, as we don’t really find them here in the UK. Unethical mining aside, it involves a massive journey just to get here. Importation causes so much pollution due to the methods of travel, and there are so many unwanted pieces around us that have made that journey anyway! This goes for almost all materials involved in jewellery making (chains, findings, wire, beads), the country of origin is from another continent, most likely China, India or USA.
It's difficult to be perfect when looking for sustainable fashion. Second hand is always the most appropriate option if you’re looking to be 100% sustainable, but when buying new, the best thing to do is ask questions! Companies are making changes, Pandora have recently made the transition to eco-gold and silver, but keep pushing for full transparency down the supply chain.
Also, whilst buying from small, independent businesses is important, it’s still okay to question where their materials come from. They may have created the product, but they didn’t create the materials. There is power in taking control over your purchases, and a lot of beauty in wearing a piece of jewellery that has had very little or 0 footprint.