Whether future heirloom or fun trinket, jewellery is one of life’s luxurious pleasures. Even if you aren’t decked out in multiple carats, a bit of bling can make you feel a million dollars. But the path your jewellery takes to reach your earlobe, neck, wrist or finger can be harrowing.
They say diamonds are a girl’s best friend, but these sparklers are fuelling plenty of hate in war-torn areas of Africa, where the trade in illicit rough diamonds and gold has funded rebels in decades of devastating conflicts aimed at undermining legitimate governments in places like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (download pdf here) was set up in 2003 to prevent these ‘conflict’ – or ‘blood’ – diamonds filtering through to the mainstream market. ‘Conflict-free’ diamonds are now widely available, but sadly jewellery production is still an ethical minefield. Check out www.conflictneutral.com for more information on avoiding conflict stones.
Clean Canadian sparklers?
To avoid the bad publicity of African diamonds, there’s been a huge rush for stones from Canada – one of the world’s biggest producers – which some companies are promoting as a ‘clean’ alternative. While these mines aren’t funding bloody conflicts, many would argue that some of them are damaging the livelihoods of the indigenous communities living in mining areas, and the fragile ecosystems they depend on.
Sweat behind the sparkle
Worldwide, the people – including about a million children – employed on minimal wages to mine and process supposedly legitimate diamonds, gemstones and precious metals often endure some of the worst working conditions imaginable. Toiling in Asian and African countries with little or no union support means health and safety precautions are slender at best. There’s a serious risk of work-related death, injury or chronic illness as workers scratch out a living in remote mines extracting precious and semi-precious stones.
Once out of the mines, jewellery is often manufactured in sweatshop conditions. Most of the world’s diamonds are cut in India, often by child labourers working 12 to 14-hour shifts to pay off family debts. And in China many migrant workers are crippled by silicosis, or ‘dust lung’, after cutting semi-precious stones.
A toxic minefield
The jewellery industry’s impact on the environment is far from sparkling. Gold-mining can leave a shocking trail of destruction, with the production of a single gold wedding band leaving behind up to 20 tonnes of mine waste. Cyanide and mercury compounds are used to separate gold from its ore. As well as harming workers, they can pollute land and water, often affecting an area long after the local mine has closed. Then there’s the ‘acid-rock drainage’ of acidic water – out of gold and silver mines and into local groundwater. One bar of gold looks much like any other, so it can be near impossible to track the green credentials of specific pieces of jewellery.
What’s the alternative?
The British Ethical Jewellery Association is being set up to help jewellers and customers navigate the ethical jewellery minefield. It will set clear and externally audited standards to help customers make ethical choices. Meanwhile, to sparkle with a clear conscience, insist on certified non-conflict diamonds, look out for recycled metals, and try out some of the alternative materials used by the new breed of ethical jewellers.
Author: Joanna Yarrow is a broadcaster, writer and consultant specialising in green living. She’s GMTV’s eco expert and presented BBC Three’s Outrageous Wasters
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