Jewellery Ethics … it doesn’t start and finish with diamonds
One of the things that really strikes me in the current dialogue about the shifting interest towards ethically sourced jewellery is the largely singular focus on diamonds.
I’m sure this won’t come as a surprise to many people, but more than just diamonds go into making jewellery!
Right now we’re seeing big industry players like Tiffanys, Diamond Foundry and Goldsmiths talking up their various diamond credentials, but what about the precious metals? And what about non-diamond gemstones?
What’s really important to note, from an environmental viewpoint at least, is that mined diamonds aren’t the worst offenders.
The diamond industry is getting it act together — slowly
No question things are improving in the diamond sector. Though the tens of millions of people directly and indirectly involved in Artisanal Small Mining (ASM) in developing nations still have it pretty bad.
ASMs produce a relatively small percentage of the world’s jewellery grade diamonds yet support a disproportionately large number of people with few alternative sources of income. That means, as an industry, we should be encouraging positive development of the sector.
By comparison, diamond miners aren’t the worst offenders
Don’t get me wrong, diamond mining isn’t good for the planet — certainly not from a habitat destruction point of view. But let’s put it in perspective.
In terms of habitat destruction, diamond mining affects only a relatively small percentage of the Earth’s surface.
According to an article published by Vyom Shah on the Better Diamond Initiative website in 2014, diamond mining displaces approximately 397,000,000 tonnes of rock and soil each year. Lumped together, that would be a pile about one-fifth the size of Japan’s Mount Fuji — according to BDI’s research.
Now, that sounds like a lot (and it is), but when you consider the Earth’s land mass is some 510 million square kilometers, the amount of material displaced by diamond mining each year represents only a very tiny fraction of the total environment. (That said, it can nonetheless be argued it’s still too much — depending on your point of view.)
Another more universal measure of environmental impact is that of carbon emissions. (It’s certainly topical given our increasing concerns about climate change.)
According to a report produced by Frost & Sullivan last year (Environmental Impact Analysis: Production of Rough Diamonds), harmful carbon emissions produced by mined diamonds are in the order of 57kgs per carat.
That’s less than a high-spec mobile phone (which sits at about 80kgs).
And when you consider the relative lifetime cost — a couple of years from a mobile phone versus an essentially infinite lifetime for a diamond — the lifetime carbon cost of a mined diamond is very low.
But, of course, jewellery doesn’t consist only of diamonds.
Precious metals are significantly more damaging
Basically the same social issues exist in the precious metal mining industries as do in the diamond sector. There are ASMs (though only producing gold and silver, not platinum) that suffer in largely the same ways as diamond miners.
Plus, the precious metals mining industry generates disturbingly high levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
What’s the carbon cost of a diamond ring?
Transparency, traceability, habitat destruction and all those things are important when it comes to diamonds, but they’re not the whole story when it comes to jewellery.
Consider a one carat, solitaire diamond ring in 18 carat gold (as an example).
As already mentioned, the diamond will carry a carbon cost of about 57kgs. But what about the gold?
Mined gold (from whatever source) has a carbon cost, on average, of approximately 38,100:1 (World Gold Council, 2017). In other words, for every gram of gold produced, you’re looking at about 38kgs of CO2 equivalents being released into the atmosphere.
When applying these numbers to our one carat diamond ring (with, say, 10 grams of gold in the band), the diamond is responsible for 57kgs of GHGs. However, the band contributes almost seven times as much — 380kgs of GHGs (not including manufacturing).
That is, the total carbon cost of a one carat diamond ring made with mined gold and a mined diamond is upwards of 450kgs — plus manufacturing, transport, packaging and so on.
What about platinum?
ASM is not a thing when it comes to the platinum group metals (PGMs), but there are still social problems associated with large scale mining in developing countries.
That said, there are fewer issues with the PGM supply chain when compared with the gold supply chain.
However, PGM production is far from planet-friendly.
Their production generates almost twice as many GHG emissions by weight as does gold.
That means that if our diamond solitaire ring were made with mined platinum instead of gold, it would have a total carbon cost of over 1,100kgs. (The output is disproportionately higher because platinum has a higher specific gravity. Hence the same sized ring weighs more.)
What’s the solution?
Well, on the social responsibility side, fair-mined gold is a very good alternative compared with gold produced by large-scale mining enterprises. But it doesn’t address the greenhouse gas issue.
As for PGMs, they’re only produced on a large scale, so finding an alternative to mining doesn’t disadvantage ASM communities.
Recycled precious metals are an ethically robust alternative
Efficient, regulated, large scale recycling infrastructures are already in place for precious metals like gold, platinum, palladium and rhodium. Recycled precious metals are readily available and are essentially identical to their mined counterparts.
They also trade at the same price as mined precious metals, so there’s no financial disincentive to use them.
Presently the recycling industry produces around 30% of the gold supply for the jewellery industry and represents around 28% of PGM production. (Around 16% of PGMs go into jewellery manufacturing.)
Importantly, recycling produces only a fraction of the greenhouse gases that mining does.
- Recycled gold produces less than 2kgs of GHGs per gram vs 38kgs per gram for mined gold. (World Gold Council, 2017.)
- Recycled PGMs produce around 8kgs of GHGs per gram vs 77kgs per gram for mined PGMs. (From data provided by the International Platinum Group Metals Association — IPA, and from proceedings of the World Congress on Engineering, 2015.)
Continuing with our diamond ring example, the impact of switching to recycled metals is as follows:
Or to look at it another way …
As you can plainly see, using recycled precious metals contributes far fewer carbon emissions. By that standard, it’s much better for the planet.
Where do Lab-grown Diamonds fit in?
Until very recently, laboratory-grown diamonds were consider the golden-haired children in terms of GHG emissions.
Claims were being made that emissions from lab-grown diamond production are vastly smaller than those of the diamond mining industry. But those claims are now being called into question.
Information has become available that suggests lab-grown diamonds may not have a distinct advantage. In fact, in an article by Rob Bates in JCK Magazine — Just how eco-friendly are lab-created diamonds?, it turns out lab-grown diamonds could well be less efficient than their mined counterparts.
The crucial factor is the source of the electricity used in production.
If the electricity comes from renewable sources, it’s all good. But if the electricity is sourced from coal-fired power stations, then the claims of eco-friendliness evaporate quickly.
As it is with many things, choosing your supplier carefully is critical — assuming you care about such things.
What about coloured gemstones?
Environmental data relating to the coloured gemstone sector (mined and lab-grown) is scarce.
Socially there’s more to tell.
Coloured gemstones are produced in 46 countries around the world. Many of them developing nations. And around 75–80% of jewellery grade gemstones are retrieved by artisanal small scale mining operations. (UNICRI, 2013).
Basically the same environmental and social issues exist for ASMs produced gemstones as those that exist for ASM diamond and gold producers. Exploitation, corruption, child labour, habitat destruction and workplace safety issues are all major concerns.
Hence, transparency and traceability when it comes to coloured gemstones is every bit as important. Yet it gets little attention.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s a subject that’s actively avoided because, unfortunately, some of the world’s most beautiful and valuable gemstones come from some of the most dangerous places on Earth.
Were you to examine the human cost of their production you probably wouldn’t touch some of them with a barge pole.
What’s my point?
My point is, if you want to be an ethical consumer of jewellery, or you want to hold yourself up as an ethical producer, then getting the diamond bit right is, on its own, nowhere near enough.
To be credible, the industry must hold itself to much higher standards. It must enlighten consumers to the whole story, and it must do a lot more than just offer diamonds (mined or otherwise) as the proverbial sacrificial lamb.