Fashion, Life & Style

Ethical Jewellery: The Greenwashing To Be Wary Of

Greenwashing in the jewellery industry, particularly the ethical jewellery industry, is a huge issue. Here’s how to navigate the greenwashing maze with the key points to look out for when shopping for ethical jewellery, including diamonds and gold.

When it comes to buying ethical jewellery, it turns out there is a myriad of issues. From misleading claims of recycled metals to the misleading labelling of jewellery as vegan. When you include the many issues surrounding the diamond trade, as well as misleading accreditation schemes, there are many ethical pitfalls to be wary of.

Thankfully, Edward Fleming from Ethical Jewellery Blog is on hand in this guest post for Moral Fibres readers. Here Edward tells us about the greenwashing that occurs in the jewellery industry, so you don’t fall foul of misinformation.

Flat lay of gold jewellery or jewelry on a pink background with a blue text box that says what to look out for when buying ethical jewellery

Is Recycled Gold Jewellery Ethical?

The biggest greenwashing issue in the jewellery world today is the misinformation spread about ‘recycled gold’. Claims by some brands, selling platforms, and even well-respected publications about the positive effect that using recycled gold has is simply greenwashing.

It may seem obvious, that using recycled gold instead of mined gold is beneficial as it stops gold from being mined. However, unfortunately, this isn’t true. It is true that gold mining can be incredibly destructive. It is in fact the overall demand for gold, on a global scale, that keeps it going.

In short, while demand for gold outstrips supply, taking gold out of the supply chain means that new metal will be mined to make up for that shortfall. Using gold for jewellery takes it out of the supply chain. This means that other consumers of gold, like central banks and electronics, will consume freshly mined gold. The overall amount of gold mined globally does not decrease.

Demand for gold from the jewellery industry accounts for approximately 45% annually. If this demand disappeared overnight then demand for gold would basically halve. This would have a dramatic effect on the amount of gold that is mined. 

It’s Nothing New

Gold has always been recycled. Unlike plastic, people have never thrown away gold. And unlike plastic, our seas and soils aren’t awash with discarded gold. As a result, any jeweller could say they use recycled gold and it would be true. ‘Recycled gold’ has always been a part of the jewellery supply chain and there is a well-established recycling infrastructure surrounding it, known as refining.

Understanding this is important because if you feel that things need to change, then just doing what has always been done isn’t going to affect that change.

The only way to reduce demand, and therefore reduce mining, is to put that gold back into the supply chain, and not use it for jewellery. Using gold (or silver or platinum) in jewellery means it cannot be used for anything else.

What’s The Best Option When It Comes to Buying Gold Jewellery Ethically?

The best option for using gold that has a reduced human and environmental footprint is by buying Fairtrade and Fairmined gold. Here, organizations work with small-scale miners to help them develop their communities and implement best practices for mining. It also ensures sustainable and ethical sourcing.

What About Vegan Jewellery?

The only animals used in the jewellery supply chain are muscles and clams. This is where all-natural pearls come from. Though horses used to be used in coal mines, gemstone and gold mines tend to be much smaller. This is why people, and often children, end up working in gem and gold mines rather than animals. 

Labelling jewellery as a vegan is basically a way of marketing to vegans without changing anything about the processes that exist in the jewellery industry. A gold ring with a sapphire that is labelled vegan could still have been made in a sweatshop. It could still have been made with materials that have been mined by children or adults in extreme poverty. They could be being working in mines that cause damage to the environment.

In short, labelling jewellery as vegan that was never animal-based in the first is a form of greenwashing.

What About Ethical Diamond Jewellery?

Now we’ve covered recycled gold and vegan jewellery, you might be wondering about diamond jewellery, and if this can be bought ethically. Unfortunately, there are a number of issues when it comes to diamond jewellery that makes it far from ethical.

Aren’t Conflict Free Diamonds Ethical?

You might have seen jewellery retailers selling ethical conflict-free diamonds. However, just because a diamond hasn’t funded conflict, doesn’t mean your jewellery has been ethically sourced. This is because funding conflict isn’t the only issue with diamond production. Environmental damage and exploitation of workers, including children, affect the trade too.

‘Conflict free’ refers to a diamond that has been certified by the Kimberley Process. The Kimberley Process was set up in the early 2000s as the response to the Blood Diamond scandal. Here diamonds were used to fund civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, The Democratic Republic of Congo, the Ivory Coast, and Angola. This process was only ever set up to stop diamonds from these areas from entering the global diamond trade. As such, it was never set up to address the environmental and workers’ rights issues in the diamond trade.

Even the Kimberly Process’s ability to prevent diamonds funding conflict has been called into question. Consequently, the Kimberley Process is considered by many to be deeply flawed. As such, it has been abandoned by many of the NGOs who were involved in its creation.

Still today many jewellery companies try and associate the Kimberley Process with ‘ethical sourcing’. This tricks customers into thinking this process means a diamond has been ethically sourced. However, there are many efforts that go beyond the Kimberley Process. Diamonds can be traced to the exact mine they came from, for instance. This traceability offers the most responsible choice for choosing an ethical diamond.

Are Lab-Grown Diamonds A Better Choice?

Given the issues we have discussed with diamond mining, lab-grown diamonds may seem like a default better alternative. However, they need to be treated with the same skepticism and suspicion that regular diamonds do as many of the same issues affect them.

The process of growing diamonds in a lab is very energy-intensive. Although some producers claim to offset this, many of these claims are not independently verified. Furthermore, a mined diamond could have a significantly smaller carbon footprint. This is because alluvial artisanal diamond mining requires no machinery and is entirely human-powered. 

A lot of the content pushed by lab-grown diamond producers tries to portray a simple narrative. This being lab-grown diamonds are good and mined diamonds are bad. This narrative demonises many small-scale diamond miners who rely on income from diamond mining. It also dismisses the fact that often lab-grown diamonds are cut and polished in the same places that natural diamonds are. Here working conditions and pay can be very poor.

It’s also important to remember that all lab-grown diamonds are grown from a sliver of natural diamond. A fact that lab-grown diamond companies seem to forget when promoting the harm the natural diamond industry does.

Our Tips on Buying Ethical Diamond Jewellery

Pre-owned or second-hand diamonds are available but the same issues with gold exist. The diamond industry is demand-driven. By taking a second-hand diamond out of the supply chain, then it may mean that somebody else ends up buying a newly mined diamond.  If the goal was to reduce diamond mining then sadly, shopping secondhand does not have that effect.

Canada Mark diamonds are considered the best ethical option currently. Ocean diamonds, which are picked off the seafloor in South Africa are another more ethical choice. There are also some efforts to bring traceable diamonds from Botswana. All diamonds mined by De Beers, which come from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, or Canada are also considered to be reasonably safe sources. However, there is nothing available in the diamond trade that brings the level of transparency and overall benefit that Fairtrade or Fairmined bring to the gold sector.

What About Organisations Such As the Responsible Jewellery Council?

Instead of looking at their supply chain and becoming involved in improving it, many companies like to hide behind trade organisations that purport to be at the forefront of the change that the industry needs. Chief amongst these is the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC). This is a trade body run by, and for the interests of the largest jewellery companies.

In 2013, an international coalition of unions and environmental NGOs called for a major overhaul of the RJC. In a 124-page report, the group alleged the RJC’s certification system is flawed, saying the RJC fails to consider the source of products, certifying companies as a whole, not individual sites or facilities. The report also branded the organisation a poor imitation of the Forest Stewardship Council and cited various loopholes – including a failure to ban developments in conflict zones, to demand limits on air or water pollution, or to require members to obtain the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous peoples.

Therefore, seeing the Responsible Jewellery Council logo, or seeing a brand talk about it in content is a greenwashing red flag.

To Sum Up

There are many misleading claims when it comes to the ethical jewellery sector. From claims of recycled jewellery being ethical, to conflict-free or lab-grown diamonds being a more ethical solution to mined diamonds. Whilst normal advice would be to shop secondhand, this doesn’t bring about the change the jewellery industry needs. Instead, our advice would be for gold jewellery to seek out external and impartial certification schemes such as fairmined and fairtrade. When it comes to diamonds, there are a number of more ethical options available. However, there is nothing on the scale or impact of the gold certification schemes.

We’d also advise you to be wary of claims such as vegan when it comes to jewellery that you wouldn’t expect to contain any animal-based elements. And finally, be wary of retailers that cite trade bodies that are run by, and for the interests of the jewellery industry.

Fashion, Life & Style

What Is BCI Cotton and Is It Sustainable, Ethical or Organic?

Have you heard of BCI Cotton when you have been shopping for ethical clothing, but don’t know what it is? Let me break down what BCI Cotton is, and if it is actually sustainable, ethical, or organic.

Have you noticed the term BCI being used when it comes to cotton? You might be wondering what this means exactly. Is BCI cotton actually sustainable, ethical, or organic, or simply greenwash? Let me break it down for you. First I’ll explain what BCI means, if it is actually sustainable, and if not, what better ethical alternatives are out there when it comes to cotton.

What Is BCI Cotton?

Firstly, you might be wondering what BCI stands for. BCI stands for the Better Cotton Initiative. This is a global not-for-profit organisation, based in Geneva and London, that seeks to make the cotton industry more sustainable. They say their aim is to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in, and better for the future of the cotton industry. In fact, it is the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world.

There are seven principles that BCI farmers should follow:

  • Farmers should minimise the harmful impact of crop protection practices
  • They should promote water stewardship
  • They should care for the health of the soil
  • BCI Farmers should enhance biodiversity and use land responsibly
  • They should care for and preserve fibre quality
  • They should promote decent work
  • And BCI Farmers should operate an effective management system

In order to help follow these principles the BCI offers support to farmers. This support includes training cotton farmers to use water efficiently and to care for natural habitats. It also includes support on reducing the use of harmful chemicals, and in respecting the rights of workers.

Which Brands Are BCI Members?

Members of BCI that promote sustainable cotton production include global fashion behemoths. These include H&M Nike, Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Diesel, Inditex (Zara), Asos, Urban Outfitters, and Ralph Lauren.

Members also include big UK high street and online names. These include Next, Tesco, House of Fraser, JD Sports, Missguided, Sainsbury’s, Ted Baker, John Lewis, Fat Face, Aldi, Asos, and Boden.

What I found interesting about this list of brands that source BCI cotton is that they are not sustainable brands. And some of the BCI members, such as H&M, Zara, and Missguided, have been seriously questioned over their sustainability efforts.

Is BCI Cotton Sustainable, Ethical or Organic?

Image of white skeins of cotton with a blue text box that says "what is BCI cotton and is it sustainable or ethical?"

When it can take around 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton needed to make a single t-shirt, it is undoubtedly important that brands source cotton that uses less water, and care for the health of the soil. However, BCI principles have raised some red flags for me around how sustainable its cotton actually is.

The first sustainability red flag is the use of the non-binding “should” in all of their seven principles. Having non-binding principles means you cannot know if farmers operating under BCI principles are indeed promoting water stewardship, caring for the health of the soil, or promoting decent work.

The other sustainability red flag is there are no direct principles on pesticide use. According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, cotton covers just 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land. However, cotton uses 6% of the world’s pesticides, and 16% of insecticides. This is more than any other single major crop.

And my third red flag when asking if BCI Cotton is sustainable, ethical, or organic, my question is why is BCI so popular with typical fast fashion brands? Why are ethical clothing brands not purchasers of this cotton? This immediately suggests that BCI principles cover the bare minimum of environmental requirements, at low cost.

I wanted to investigate these red flags and what I found only backed up my fears.

Driving Down Demand for Organic Cotton

In 2018 the Changing Markets Foundation published a report about the BCI. It said the rapid growth of the Better Cotton Initiative is driving down sustainability standards in the cotton industry. The report also concluded that of all the textile certification schemes that BCI is the worst.

This damning conclusion was drawn because, according to the report, the BCI scheme has undermined the market for the most environmentally friendly cotton option – organic cotton. Organic cotton uses 92% less water than conventional cotton, and uses no synthetic pesticides or fertilisers. BCI, meanwhile, tolerates the use of pesticides and genetically modified seeds.

As so many of the world’s largest fashion brands are sourcing BCI cotton, this has resulted in farmers switching from growing organic cotton to genetically modified, non-organic cotton. This answers the question quite clearly: BCI Cotton is not organic. And uptake of BCI cotton has made organic cotton harder to source. It’s quite a damning picture for BCI Cotton. But as BCI Cotton shuns the top tier of sustainable textiles, that being organic fabric, then the scheme is missing an important element in sustainability.

What About Pesticides?

The BCI says that their principles are reducing pesticide usages levels. For example, the BCI says that in the 2017-18 growing season, BCI Farmers in Tajikistan used 40% fewer pesticides compared to non-BCI farmers. The exact figure or a comparison figure is not provided, which makes it hard to establish a baseline. BCI farmers, could, in this scenario, still be using 60% more pesticides compared to organic cotton growers.

What remains clear is that, unlike organic cotton farmers, BCI farmers still use pesticides. And a scheme that endorses and certifies cotton that can harm the health and lives of farmers and cotton pickers, as well as driving down the organic cotton market is categorically not ethical nor is a good thing for the environment.

Why is BCI Cotton Popular With Fast Fashion Brands?

According to India’s Economic Times, BCI cotton is popular with international fashion brands as it is less expensive than organic cotton. This is because, in order for organic cotton to be certified as organic, the entire supply chain – from the growing to ginning (the process of separating cotton fibres from their seeds), to spinning, right up until the product reaches the end-user all has to be traced and certified. In the case of BCI cotton, only the growing and picking level is important.

Meanwhile, standards for organic cotton are the toughest to follow. BCI, in contrast, offers the minimum principles related to water conservation, and soil health. This means it is easier and less expensive to follow for the growers. And as the biggest demand from fashion brands is for the cheaper, lower standard BCI cotton, then it’s no wonder farmers are shunning organic cotton in order to access larger markets.

Brands want to be seen to be doing something for the environment. However, when that something is the bare minimum, then there are dire consequences. The drive to the bottom caused by demand for cheap ‘eco’ cotton by fashion brands has meant that in India alone, the total organic fibre production of the country has fallen by close to 50%.

The dominance of BCI is, according to the same article, also driving down the availability of non-GM cotton seeds. The BCI is neutral when it comes to genetically modified cotton. This means it is harder for organic farmers to source non-GM seeds required to grow organic cotton.

BCI Links to Uyghur Forced Labour

As well as non-binding principles, the BCI has links to the alleged forced labour of the Uyghurs (sometimes spelled as Uighurs) in Xinjiang, China. It’s quite a complex situation, so I will break it down as best as I can.

What Is Happening To the Uyghurs?

Since 2017, human rights organisations have accused China of running forced labour camps for Uyghur Muslims living in Xinjiang, a province in northwestern China. Xinjiang is often referred to as Chinese-occupied East Turkestan – the name Uyghurs prefer to call Xinjiang.

Here, over a million people belonging to ethnic, cultural, and religious groups, including Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Hui, have allegedly been detained by the Chinese government in forced work programmes.

Beijing has repeatedly denied the accusations, despite drone footage of shackled men, with Beijing calling the camps in question vocational training centres. However, human rights organisations say that Uyghur men and women, as well as the other groups, have been forcibly removed from their homes and existing jobs to work primarily in the Xinjiang cotton fields. Here, they are paid at most 15 cents a day to pick cotton, with most paid nothing at all. This cotton is then exported around the world.  Xinjiang cotton accounts for 85% of Chinese cotton production, and 20% of the world’s supply.

BCI’s Response to Forced Cotton Labouring

In response to this information coming to light, the BCI announced in October 2020, in a now-deleted statement, that it had taken the decision to cease all operations in the Uyghur Region. Here they stated at the time: “Sustained allegations of forced labour and other human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China have contributed to an increasingly untenable operating environment, and BCI has, therefore, taken the decision to cease all field-level activities in the region effective immediately, including capacity building and data monitoring and reporting”.

China’s Backlash

However, China has attempted to fight back against forced labour allegations surrounding the country’s cotton industry.

There has been a huge backlash by the Chinese government and consumers about Western brands and their decision to ditch Xinjiang cotton. As such, in March 2021, China blacklisted brands associated with the BCI. Some companies’ online shops were blocked from the Chinese internet, and their stores vanished from some digital maps. Initially, H&M and Nike were the sole targets of this blackout. However, attention soon widened to include Burberry, Adidas, and Converse, among other global brands.

While H&M’s physical stores in China remain open, the BBC reported that in March 2021 it was no longer possible to hail a taxi to the shops using an app. Consumers in China were also unable to shop online with the brand.

BCI’s U-Turn

After the backlash in China surrounding Xinjiang cotton, the BCI then deleted all public statements on and references to their previously published decisions to exit the Uyghur Region. They have also not issued any clarifications or further updates on Xinjiang cotton. The only communication on the matter was that the China branch of the BCI found no sign of forced labour in the Xinjiang region.

In response, human-rights advocates have hit out at the BCI for their continued silence on the topic. Advocates say that this silence contravenes its mission statement to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it.

The End Uyghur Forced Labor coalition published a statement in May 2021. Here it said that: “in failing to be transparent and public on BCI’s rationale for exiting the Uyghur region, BCI is putting at risk any credibility it could have in its commitment to ensure that decent work is embedded across its global cotton sustainability program. BCI’s own website states that “BCI does not operate in countries where forced labour is orchestrated by the government.

By continuing to operate in China without being clear on its zero tolerance for forced labour and its rationale for exiting the Uyghur Region, BCI is allowing itself to be used by the Chinese government to claim that business can go on as usual and to deny the ongoing crimes against humanity, including widespread and systematic forced labour, in the Uyghur Region.

Further, continued silence by BCI taints all brands and retailers that use BCI cotton as an ethical alternative in an industry widely tainted by forced labour, as well as the farmers who trust BCI to take a stand for ‘better cotton’ production everywhere.”

It’s not a great look for an initiative already credited with driving down the organic cotton market.

What Should I Look For Instead of BCI Cotton?

If you are looking to avoid BCI cotton there are a few alternatives you can look for:

GOTS Certified Cotton

If you are looking for a more sustainable alternative to BCI cotton, then try GOTS Certified Cotton. GOTS certified cotton is cotton that has been certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard.

GOTS Certified cotton means that a textile product carrying the GOTS label must contain a minimum of 70% certified organic fibres. Meanwhile a GOTS product with the label grade grade ‘organic’ must contain a minimum of 95% certified organic fibres.

However, it is no panacea though. Organic fibre production is not directly covered by the GOTS certification system. This is because GOTS itself does not set standards for organic fibre cultivation. Instead, the cultivation of organic fibres falls under the scope of organic farming standards. As certification doesn’t apply to the growing, farming, or harvesting stage of cotton cultivation, this means there is still scope for forced labour and other humans rights abuse to occur in GOTS Certified cotton.

EU Eco-Label Cotton

The EU Eco-Label is a more sustainable alternative to BCI cotton.

To qualify for the EU Ecolabel, products have to comply with a tough set of criteria. These environmental criteria, set by a panel of experts from a number of stakeholders, including consumer organisations and industry, take the whole product life cycle into account. From the extraction of the raw materials, to production, packaging, and transport. It also extends right through to your use and then the end of a product’s life.

I admit I am finding it hard to find which ethical clothing brands use ECO Eco-label cotton. When I find them I will update this post.

Secondhand Cotton

One of the greenest things that you can do is shop secondhand for clothes. This bypasses the need to look for specific labelling. If you’re looking for some inspiration then check out my guide to secondhand clothes shops online.

The Cotton You Already Own

I can’t end this piece on BCI cotton without saying, that, as with anything when it comes to sustainability, the most sustainable item is the one you already own. When we are wasting the equivalent of one rubbish truck full of textiles every single second, no amount of eco-labels, however stringent, can dig us out of this hole. Those of us with disposable incomes really have to cut back on our clothing consumption to make clothing more sustainable.