Eco-Friendly Jewelry: Ethics and the Environmental Impact

Is there such a thing as eco-friendly or environmentally conscious jewelry? We look at the facts, and discussed ways to shop ethically.

By Tess DiNapoli

When it comes to sustainable and conscious fashion, you’ll hear a lot about eco-friendly cotton or hand-dyed linen, but oftentimes, jewelry is left out of the conversation. Just because they’re small, doesn’t mean choosing eco-friendly options won’t have a mighty impact. And lucky for us, there are plenty of brands out there that are defining what it means to make eco-friendly jewelry.

From recycled metals and ethically-sourced gemstones to full transparency and zero waste programs, we’ll discuss what makes a piece of jewelry sustainable and how you can shop for it, too.

The Environmental Impact of Jewelry

It can be easy to get distracted by a beautiful piece of jewelry, taking in its shine, sparkle, and luster before one considers a piece’s production, ethics, and sustainability. That’s ok—we’re human. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a responsibility to do better.

The jewelry industry stands as the largest consumer of gold. And when we connect the dots between mining and the jewelry we wear, things get pretty grim. Mining for gold displaces communities, destroys environments, and can contaminate drinking water with hazardous substances, like mercury and cyanide. Because of its scarcity, energy use, degradation, and pollution are also very serious factors to consider as demand for an increasingly rare resource increases.

open mine, scar on the landscape

The mining industry is also exploitative of its workers. You’ve heard of blood diamonds. In practice, labor exploitation extends to all sorts of stones and precious metals. In fact, mining and quarrying are responsible for 4% of forced labor globally, and according to the International Labor Organization, there are tens of thousands of children working in the gold mining industry.

So how can we do better and work to create change in such a previously harmful industry? The good news is that many companies see that the current way of consuming jewelry isn’t working. And thanks to new production standards, sourcing, and supply chain transparency, they’re putting safeguards in place to reduce emissions and prevent environmental destruction and labor exploitation. But ultimately, however, the choice is on us as consumers to make a difference and command change through the power of our purchases.

What is Eco-Friendly Jewelry?

Sustainable and ethically-produced jewelry uses transparent and responsible sourcing practices in its supply chain and opts for the use of eco-friendly jewelry materials, too. But the eco-friendly jewelry industry can look a lot like the eco-friendly fashion industry—increasingly difficult to navigate, leaving the consumer wondering if the piece is actually sustainable, or just the product of another company’s greenwashing.

Luckily, there are several things to look out for as a consumer, so you can get peace of mind that the piece you’re buying is really, and truly, eco-friendly and sustainably produced.

Recycled or Vintage Metals

Did you know that precious metals can be recycled? It’s a relatively simple process to melt down silver and gold and transform it into a new piece of jewelry, creating a closed-loop production cycle that works to eliminate waste. For the company’s benefit, the process of recycling metals doesn’t harm the metal or change its chemical makeup, meaning it’s a great strategy from a financial standpoint.

There is no way around it; recycled metals are better for the environment. Using recycled metals eliminates the need for mining and doesn’t require the use of harmful solvents to clean and separate the metals from the surrounding rock. When searching for eco-friendly jewelry, consider going to a second-hand store or breathing new life (or simply repolishing) a family heirloom or antique brooch. If you’d like to purchase a piece from an eco-friendly brand, look for companies that use recycled metals or even offer a ‘buy-back’ option where jewelry (or old pieces in your jewelry box) can be upcycled.

Eco-Friendly Jewelry: handmade pearl neckalce up close

Ethically-Sourced Gems or Lab-Grown Diamonds

If you can’t opt for recycled metals, ethically sourced gems are the second best option.

Look for brands that offer some sort of transparency surrounding how they source their gems or ask their customer service team to shed light on their practices. If they use ‘ethically sourced’ in their marketing materials, they should be able to give you more information about workers’ rights, health and safety, and fair pay practices. At the very least, they should be able to tell you whether or not these gems have been associated with conflict.

It’s very difficult to ensure that gems are sourced ethically. To combat this, lab-grown gems, specifically diamonds, have surged in popularity. Lab-grown diamonds are produced using machines that simulate the heat and pressure that the earth uses to create natural diamonds. While we can ensure that lab-grown diamonds aren’t produced with destructive humanitarian consequences, there are still some environmental caveats.

It requires a lot of energy to power the machines that create lab-grown gems, and some have even suggested that the emissions from producing them may be higher than actually mining them. Of course, several labs have worked to become carbon neutral and use clean energy in their production processes. It’s a work in progress, but that doesn’t mean that lab-based production is meant to be overlooked.

Ethical Production Practices

Transparency is the key to buying ethical and eco-friendly jewelry. Granted, it’s one of the most difficult things to achieve and even harder to track. This is because different countries have different regulations in place when it comes to mining and workers’ rights, and jewelry often passes through many hands, places, and labs before it reaches your doorstep or brick-and-mortar retailer.

One way brands have been working to increase transparency is by introducing blockchain solutions. You’ve probably heard of blockchains as the technology behind Bitcoin, but it has several other uses. TrustChain™, IBM’s blockchain solution, can track diamonds and precious metals across the whole supply chain and has been increasingly adopted by major retailers.

A much more simple way to learn more about a company’s production process is to take a look at the values driving their sourcing and manufacturing process. You can do this by looking at their ‘About’ page, or by reaching out to their customer service team. They should have information about where their gems and metals come from, as well as a plan for the future when it comes to pollution, waste management, and traceability. If the details are fuzzy, or you’re just not sure, it might be a good idea to look elsewhere for your jewelry pieces.

Certifications That Have an Impact

If you’re having trouble finding information about a jewelry piece’s source or a company’s production practices, you can lean on global certifications for more information. While there aren’t many certifications out there, there are several common ones to look out for as you shop.

The first is Fair Trade. You’ve likely seen this one in your favorite fashion and beauty brands, and it’s great for ensuring that a product’s materials, production, and trade meet high standards in regard to fair working conditions, sustainability, and liveable wages. The Fair Trade logo is a blue and green symbol that is clearly marked.

The Kimberley Process is another great standard to look out for when purchasing larger pieces that use diamonds. Of course, it’s important to note that this resolution is relatively new, and is not without its weaknesses. While it’s a great starting point, it’s important to do your own research first.

The leading standard for the eco-friendly and sustainable jewelry industry is considered to be the Responsible Jewelry Council, which was founded in 2005. This council, made up of 1200+ members, has a code of practice that includes issues like responsible supply chains, safety and wellness for miners and production specialists, and includes regulations surrounding labor rights.

Eco-Friendly Packaging

We’ve talked a lot about the sourcing process, but we can’t forget the last bit, either—a product’s packaging!

Typically, packing materials use plastic or paper, which although may be recycled, often are not. The most environmentally-friendly choice is to look for pieces that come with compostable or recyclable packaging, or even zero waste. Be aware of greenwashing, though; just because a product’s packaging is marketed as ‘eco-friendly,’ doesn’t mean that the entire process is sustainable or ethical.

man paying by credit card

It’s Time to Take Action

Conscious consumerism is all about making purchases that are better for the environment and those around you. Luckily, many consumers are demanding change from the jewelry industry, and companies are listening. From charm jewelry to ethically sourced engagement rings, there are plenty of eco-friendly jewelers to support and purchase from.

Look for companies that support local communities, offer full transparency and tracing, and actively work to prevent excess materials from ending up in our landfills. It’s time to get involved!

About the Author

Tess DiNapoli is an artist, freelance writer, and content strategist. She has a passion for yoga and often writes about health and wellness, but also enjoys covering the fashion industry and world of fitness.