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If there was an upside to the current global economic meltdown – and there may be a few – perhaps it’s that the ‘bling’ bubble has finally burst. Since last year, the jewel-encrusted have become slightly more discreet about flashing their rocks; over-the-top is officially soooo 2008.
Finances aside, there are serious environmental and ethical questions around the jewellery industry. A peek behind the scenes is shocking. Do you love the gleam of gold? The release of cyanide in the extraction process is just the tip of an environmentally dirty iceberg. Dazzled by shiny gems? Much of the fiddly work cutting and polishing the world’s precious stones, such as rubies and sapphires, is done by children.
There is a profound disconnect between where a metal or stone is sourced and how it finally adorns our fingers, wrist or neck. Digging for answers (no pun intended), you get a sense that from the environmental to the ethical, the big picture is worryingly bleak.
“There are a lot of problems with jewellery,” says Cameron Neil, from Labelling Australia and New Zealand (FTLANZ) “There is good stuff going on, but there aren’t large amounts of good news.”
“In the industry, nearly every stage has an environmentally detrimental impact,” says Ben Manning of Utopian Creations. The Adelaide-based jeweller makes every effort to ensure his products are people, planet and animal friendly.
“To start with, metals are mined from the ground. For every wedding ring, 20 tonnes of waste are produced, and large amounts of land need to be cleared for the mine, which can lead to a breakdown of the ecology in the area,” he says.
One of the UK’s first ethical jewellers, Greg Valerio, from Cred Jewellery, believes it’s wrong for the industry to continue this way. “We cannot sell a product which carries a luxury tag and is romanced and sold exclusively as a luxury, aspirational commodity, yet is 100 per cent dependent on the most environmentally damaging and polluting industry in the world.”
But the concerns aren’t purely environmental, not by a long stretch. When Queensland jeweller Melinda Nugent first learned about the issues of child labour and practices of jewel cutting factories, her ethical radar went on high alert.
“I realised I was involved in something I couldn’t stomach. In India child labour is used for cutting work,” she says. “Children are so young that the rods and cones in their eyes are not fully developed, and because they are doing such close work for hours, their eye development is interrupted. Many children are blind by twelve.”
“Sustainable” and “ethical” jewellery may be two different beasts, but the terms are often used interchangeably, perhaps partly due to the times we live in: the fair trade movement is gaining increased market acceptance at the very time we are struggling to address global environmental challenges. It is inevitable, then, that for many people, humanitarian and environmental considerations are increasingly intertwined.
“To me, they are one and the same,” says Manning. In purely ethical terms, decrying conflict diamonds is a no-brainer for most of us. These diamonds are sold by rebel groups (most famously in Sierra Leone) to fund terrorist activities, human rights abuses, or the purchase of guns.