I’ve always loved jewellery; it’s an affordable indulgence. Clothes inevitably wear out sooner or later, but jewellery is often for life.
And jewellery is personal and unique in so many ways. I rarely know who’s made my clothes; but I tend to buy jewellery directly from individual designer/makers at events and open studios. It’s not that unusual for people with an interest in jewellery to recognise who made, say, a particular pair of earrings I’m wearing. Each jeweller has their own distinctive style. Yet, when jewellery is handmade, there are also often subtle differences within a batch of the same design, making each individual piece unique.
What is ethical jewellery?
“As jewellers it’s important to address the unanticipated consequences of our dream making” (Ute Decker)
I’d imagined that jewellery is an inherently sustainable occupation: after all, it provides a livelihood for small-scale artisanal jewellers, and it preserves traditional techniques and innovates new ones. As opposed to identikit mass production jewellery, which Gerald Ratner jokingly described as “crap” back in 1991 (an unusual piece of honesty which resulted in his resignation, and a change of name for the chain of Ratner stores).
But now more and more jewellers are describing themselves as ‘ethical’, I was curious about exactly what that entails . . . So I went along to City Lit‘s ‘Jewellers Talking: Ethical Jewellery’ (led by ethical jewellery pioneers Greg Valerio and Ute Decker). I was keen to find out what jewellers think are the key issues, and how they’re tackling them.
It turns out that some ‘ethical jewellery’ claims don’t amount to much. It’s telling, for example, that the first Fairtrade standard for gold wasn’t introduced until as recently as 2011 (on Valentines Day!).
So this is a brief overview (inspired by what I found out at City Lit’s event plus some additional research) with suggestions for easy ways to choose jewellery which helps make the world a better place.
(If you want to explore ethical jewellery in more detail, I’ve added extra information, and links to resources, at the end of this post.)
Why should we care about ethical jewellery?
Jewellers’ needs for precious metals and stones can link them directly to unscrupulous global supply chains.
“Jewellers stand on the shoulders of millions of impoverished people working in appalling conditions, and earning less than a couple of dollars a day”. (Greg Valerio)
The Fairtrade Foundation found that around 16 million small-scale miners worldwide work in extremely dangerous conditions, handling toxic chemicals such as mercury and cyanide, with few health and safety measures in place. Often there are no other employment options available to them.
And companies are unlikely to change the way they treat miners trapped in poverty unless, as consumers, we ask more questions about where gold, silver, and precious stones come from. The Fairtrade Foundation estimate that we spend “around $135 billion a year on gold jewellery!” so, collectively, consumers could have a big impact by pressurising global corporations to trade more responsibly.
Blood diamonds and conflict minerals
The question of responsible sourcing is about more than just the working conditions of miners, vitally important as that is. Campaigning organisations such as Global Witness have compiled compelling evidence to show how illegal trade in gold and diamonds funds violence and armed conflict around the world.
Recycled gold and silver
Use of ‘recycled’ gold and silver is one of the top messages in the modern ethical jewellery world. But how much difference does it make in practice? Well, first of all, it’s nothing new. ‘Scrapping’ is the term jewellers use for the process of sending leftover metals back to a refinery to reprocess for future use. Standard practice for thousands of years, its simply been rebranded as recycling.
However, this reprocessing usually involves melting and blending a mixture of metals from different sources including new metal. So, unless gold or silver is verifiably 100% post-consumer waste/scrap, there’s no guarantee any particular batch is made entirely, or at all, from recycled sources. And, coming back to the previous point about illegal trade in precious metals, melting down gold is a perfect way of disguising origin from illegal sources. Hence traceability is crucially important.
Also, because the refinery carries out the process and collects the fee, there’s no benefit for impoverished mining communities. Recycled gold or silver isn’t necessarily a bad choice, but there are other options which have much more impact in tacking exploitation, hardship, and environmental degradation.
Fairtrade and Fairmined gold and silver
It was a surprise to learn that fairtrade (with a small ‘f’) and Fairtrade (with a capital ‘F’) aren’t just different presentation of the same word. Fairtrade and Fairmined are both third party accreditation schemes, giving you confidence that registered jewellers are meeting high ethical standards.
Fairtrade Gold was the world’s first independent ethical certification system for gold. When you buy Fairtrade Gold jewellery you know that mining communities been paid a fair price for their gold, and that they’ve also received a premium to invest in whatever projects are of most benefit to them; perhaps education, medical care or environmental improvement schemes.
And Fairmined is ‘an assurance label that certifies gold from empowered, responsible artisanal and small-scale mining organizations who meet world leading standards for responsible practices’.
Whereas ‘fairtrade’ is simply a term that anyone can use to describe their company without needing any evidence to prove their claims. Unfortunately, the description ‘fairtrade’ is sometimes just greenwash, aimed at attracting consumers who care where stuff comes from but don’t have time to verify marketing claims for each and every purchase they make.
The good news!
You can make a real difference, and it doesn’t have to be difficult.
- The best way to make a difference is to seek out jewellers registered as Fairtrade or Fairmined. Both organisations have online directories of jewellers (links in the Resources section below).
- If your favourite jeweller isn’t registered with either of those scheme, ask why not. (They may simply be too small or too newly established to warrant the time or cost). If they aren’t registered, ask what steps they take to source ethical materials, and how they obtain proof of origin from their suppliers.
- Check if your jeweller has an ethical policy. Take a look – it might be interesting! If they don’t, ask them if they’ve considered creating an ethical policy?
- Are you getting engaged or married? Your ring may be one of the most significant pieces of jewellery you ever buy. Remember that there’s a huge range of ethical jewellery engagement and wedding rings available. Again, check out the Fairtrade and Fairmined Directories.
- When other people admire your jewellery, tell them it’s ethical. Spread the message!
Find a Fairmined Gold jeweller.
Fairtrade Foundation – additional information on Fairtrade gold.
Fairmined – additional information on ‘gold to be proud of’.
Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) – on ‘transforming mining into an active force for good’.
City Lit – offer a range of one-day workshops on jewellery topics and techniques, as well as more advanced courses at advanced and professional levels.
More detailed background information
Why is gold so much more expensive than silver?
It’s complicated and expensive to mine gold. But, although silver can obtained from mining, the silver used for jewellery is usually a by-product of refining other metals.
What’s Fairtrade silver?
There are very few artisinal silver mines. Because silver is so cheap such mines simply wouldn’t be commercially viable. So Fairtrade certified silver is usually the by-product of Fairtrade certified gold.
What should I look for in an ethical jewellery policy?
Every jeweller works with different materials and different techniques. So there’s no standard template that will work for all jewellers. But you should definitely expect to find commitments on ethical sourcing of raw materials, and Fairtrade or Fairmined accreditation. You might also find commitments to environmentally-friendly techniques which minimise use of chemicals, and alternatives to traditional but toxic materials; efficient use of water and energy; re-use and recycling of waste; sustainable packaging; and sustainable business practice generally when it comes to choosing, say, website hosts or IT equipment.
My jeweller mentioned the Kimberly Process but I’m not sure what this is?
The Kimberley Process was the first initiative designed to stem the flow of conflict diamonds. It’s an international certification process established in 2003. Critics suggest that it’s simply a customs and exchange procedure designed to preserve market confidence and to protect economic interests, without actually addressing worker exploitation or transparency on origin of individual diamonds. This 2014 Guardian article, written by David Rhode (co-founder of ethical Fairtrade jewellers Ingle and Rhode, explores some criticisms of the initiative.