What is Sustainable & Ethical Jewellery?

Precious gems and metals, such as diamonds and gold, are considered a symbol of affluence and romance but, now more than ever, there's an increased awareness around the human and environmental harm that sourcing such materials can cause.

By Scéona Poroli Chauveau, Founder of Scéona Jewellery

Jewellery can create memories that last a lifetime. From bold statement pieces to a delicate collection, a gift or a family heirloom, jewellery has long been used to express ourselves and how we feel about one another. And Jewellery has something to offer everyone, from fast-fashion and luxury diamonds, celebratory pieces and vintage designs, it appears that there is no end to the increasing demand. But not that glitters is gold..

Human casualties and environmental losses are a devastating side effect of the mining industry and, as the media continues to bring these issues to light, it becomes difficult for us to turn away.

Human Rights Watch reported that around 90 million carats of diamonds plus over 1,600 tons of gold are mined for the jewellery industry each year. This alone generates over $300 billion US in profit. Many of these minerals come from some of the poorest regions in the world: artisanal mining involves over 100 million people and human rights violations are all too common.

What about diamonds?

In 2018, the value of the diamond jewellery market was $76 billion U.S. dollars. The majority of the world’s diamonds come from Russia, Bostwana and Canada. Those mines often have a huge negative impact on the environment and local communities.

  • Mineral waste: Mineral waste is created during the extraction process and then disposed of through a waste management system, in the best case scenario. Most of the time, this waste is a threat to the environment and poses major contamination risk for the surrounding ecosystems, especially to groundwater and rivers.
  • Carbon emissions: The data comparing the carbon emissions (CO2 released into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming) from mined vs. lab grown diamonds isn't clear cut. This is because the calculation of carbon emissions can vary hugely, depending on what is taken into account, and from which stage of production.

    However, it is generally believed that lab-grown diamonds generate significantly fewer carbon emissions than mined diamonds, because lab-grown diamonds don't require any field research or mine contruction, and there's no industrialised extraction process. Frost & Sullivan, a global research and consulting firm, carried out an extensive environmental impact assessment for both mined diamonds and lab-grown diamonds, and their findings concluded that per carat of diamond, mined diamonds produced 57000 grams CO2 vs. 0.028 grams for lab grown diamonds.
  • Human rights: The diamond mining industry still fuels a wide array of human rights abuses. Its supply chain is often very opaque and is a source of conflict and serious human rights violations, as highlighted recently by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. One of the main issues is the traceability of diamonds, as a diamond will likely change hands eight to ten times from the country of export to the final consumer.

What about gold?

It can take up to 20 tons of waste to produce a gold ring. And gold mining faces many challenges related to:

  • Human rights: A recently published article from Human Rights Watch highlights some of the key human rights abuses that can take place in the gold mining industry. For instance, in Venezuela, a high number of reserves of precious metals, including gold, is controlled by armed rebels. Those syndicates “exert strict control over the populations who live and work there, impose abusive working conditions, and viciously treat those accused of theft and other offenses.”

This waste contains toxic chemicals which can contaminate the nearby water supply and soil. In some cases, local residents are exposed to chemicals such as mercury, which results in serious long-term illnesses. Mercury is a cheap product used to reveal the gold from the rock. Unfortunately, it causes devastating long-term impacts on the people and the planet. 

  • Acid mine drainage: One major issue with underground gold mining is called Fool’s Gold, or Iron Sulphides. It occurs when the rock reacts with oxygen to make Sulphuric Acid. This acidic process drains from the mine site and can be up to 300 times more concentrated than acid rain. Once this process begins, it is very complicated to stop the spread of contamination in the water. 
  • Air pollution: The electricity produced by burning coal and other fossil fuels in the mining process generates air pollution, smog and greenhouse gases. As gold mines are typically large-scale operations requiring a sufficient amount of heavy machinery and earth-moving vehicles, airborne pollution is a significant environmental issue.  
  • Wildlife: Gold mining destroys local wildlife, habitats and important ecosystems, mostly because of the pollution produced and the vast amount of land each mine requires. For instance, the largest mine in the world, the Grasberg Mine in Indonesia, operates on 27,400 acres of land and has been a source of ongoing friction and conflict due to its negative environmental impact on the surrounding ecosystems.  

Transparency and ethics in the Jewellery industry

The increasing pressure from consumers and activists forces brands to disclose information about their supply chain. Consumers want to know the origins of the materials used to craft their jewellery, and companies should be able to answer any questions consumers may have. 

Despite the complexities of their supply chain, it is important that jewellery companies put processes in place to ensure that the sourcing of their materials does not contribute to human rights abuses, or further damage to the environment. 

Although full transparency seems to be difficult to achieve (due to competitive and copyright issues for instance), jewellery companies can start mapping their supply chains and start publishing those details  for consumers. 

This will help buyers understand the difference between ethical and unethical brands as well as fighting against greenwashing. 

The level of transparency and traceability of each product through the supply chain are key when it comes to understanding ethical jewellery practices. Indeed, materials’ sourcing and producing have an effect on both the people and the planet.

To be ethical, a company must:

  • Source their materials from suppliers who are committed to sustainable environmental and humanitarian practices.
  • Be able to trace back the original source of their materials 
  • Ensure designers and manufacturers collaborate to produce jewellery with minimal impact on the environment while respecting workers, artisans and local communities. 

In 2016, at the first International Jewellery Summit, the following standards for the industry to become more ethical were discussed and agreed upon: 

  • To procure materials in a way that protects the environment. 
  • To ensure its activities help promote the growth and well-being of local communities where materials are sourced and traded.
  • To promote supply chain transparency. 
  • To adhere to standards that protect human rights and prevent modern-day slavery. 

Sustainable and ethical jewellery is rising in popularity due to the number of compassionate and sustainable shoppers who are questioning where their products come from and who, if anyone, benefits from their purchase. 

What are the Sustainable Jewellery alternatives?

    Lab Grown Diamonds

      Lab-grown diamonds are diamonds cultivated in a laboratory using the latest technology. They are man-made and consist of the same chemical composition as mined diamonds.

      Cultured diamonds used to arouse suspicion and questioning, but during the summer of 2018, the Federal Trade Commission that regulates commercial practices amended its jewellery guide to remove the word natural from the definition of diamond. It continues by clarifying that "it is no longer accurate to define a diamond with the word natural when it is possible to create a product which has essentially the same optical, physical and chemical properties as a mined diamond." 

      In summary, lab-grown diamonds display the same beautiful physical look as mined diamonds. The sparkle without harming the planet.

      Video explaining lab-grown diamonds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dPgP9ZgE8A&feature=emb_title

      Recycled Gold

      It is estimated that for every 1 million cell phones that are recycled, over 34 kg of gold can be recovered. Gold can be found and recycled in many surprising places and, due to this being largely unknown, much of it unfortunately goes to landfill. 

      Currently, around 90% of recycled gold comes from jewellery and the remaining 10% comes from other sources. One of the most exciting innovations is to recycle gold from electronic waste, such as computers and smartphones.

      The world will generate around 52 million metric tons of e-waste by 2021. E-waste is any electrical item which is still operating, generating electricity and can be connected to a plug or has a battery. The main components of e-waste are metals and plastics. Electronics contain precious metals such as silver, gold, palladium and copper.

      According to a recent report on We Forum, “there is so much of it (e-waste) that it would weigh more than 125,000 Boeing 747 jumbo jets or 44.7 million tonnes in total. That’s enough to build 4,500 replicas of the Eiffel Tower every year”. “A large amount of what is labelled as "e-waste" is not waste at all, but rather whole electronic equipment or parts that are readily marketable for reuse or can be recycled for materials recovery”.

      The smartphone, such as the Apple iPhone, is one example of e-waste that contains gold. In one phone there are an estimated 0.034 grams of gold. In 2018, 1.56 billion smartphones were sold to the global market, i.e. 53 tons of gold! Unfortunately, most used phones end up in the landfill. “In 2018, the world produced over 50 million tonnes of e-waste, and it is estimated that only 12.5% of it was recycled.”

      Video explaining recycled gold: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAmDpP9vRgw&feature=emb_title

      About Scéona Sustainable Fine Jewellery

      Scéona’s mission is to offer an alternative to the jewellery industry: more respectful of the environment and the people. Every step of the value chain has been carefully thought through with great craftsmanship and sustainability at heart.

      • Sourcing: We use only recycled gold and lab-grown diamonds to avoid mining. No compromises: we don’t design necklaces simply because we have not found a chain supplier who can assure us that their pieces are made using 100% recycled gold.
      • Production: our collections are designed in Singapore and crafted in India by talented and skilled jewellers.
      • Packaging: our packaging is 100% plastic free. We partner with a New-Zealand based company that creates sustainable hand-crafted jewellery packaging, with the boxes made from a solid piece of beautiful timber, sourced from sustainable forests and managed to ensure that the balance and biodiversity of the surrounding area is maintained. And our shipping packaging uses recycled cardboard.
      • Giving Back: Our workshop, founded in 1917, is ISO certified and has a charity arm that provides drinking water and education to the children of financially disadvantaged communities in Jaipur. We have also partnered with EcoMatcher, an organization that supports local communities in various parts of the world to improve their livelihood by planting trees.
      • Distribution & delivery: we aim to be carbon neutral. When you purchase a Scéona jewellery piece, we calculate the carbon footprint generated by the shipment to deliver it to you and we offset it.

        As a company we try to embrace all of the unique challenges that come with building a sustainable and compassionate jewellery brand. And we want to show that you can make something stunning from recycled gold and lab-grown diamonds, without compromising on quality or style.

        You can see the Sceona Jewellery collection here.

        You can see the full Immaculate ethical & sustainable Jewellery collection here.

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