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.

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