What Is Ethical Jewelry? Everything You Need to Know

Discover conflict-free diamonds, legally mined gold, sustainable stones, and more.

Gold jewelry laid out aesthetically on marble background

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Jewelry making has long been tied to slave labor, exploitation, pollution, deforestation, and war. (You've probably heard the term "conflict" or "blood" diamonds—diamonds that funded rebel militias in Africa in the '90s.) Supply chain transparency is a crucial step toward making sure each piece is mined and produced legally and responsibly, thus making the industry more ethical on the whole.

All this makes the market incredibly daunting if not nearly impossible for the everyday consumer to navigate. That's where ethics and sustainability certifications come into play—doing the hard work of vetting and interrogating to put their stamps of approval on a jewelry product, indicating that it's safe to buy.

Learn more about the social and environmental concerns surrounding jewelry, where the materials come from and how they're sourced, which certifications to look for, and how you can become a more ethical jewelry consumer.

What Materials Are Used in Jewelry?

Jewelry can be made from most durable materials but is commonly crafted with:

  • Precious metals: Gold, silver, and platinum group metals (PGMs)
  • Gems: Diamonds, sapphires, rubies, turquoise, and pearls
  • Plastic: A synthetic material derived from crude oil
  • Glass: Non-crystalline solids used as an alternative to gems

Social Concerns Around Jewelry

Materials used in jewelry—metals, gems, minerals, etc.—are mined from "dozens of countries," Human Rights Watch said in a 2018 report. Then, they are "typically traded, exported, and processed in other countries," then "transformed into jewelry in manufacturing plants and artisan workshops" before they finally reach retailers. With supply chains so inherently complex, dodgy practices down the line can easily go unnoticed.

Worker carrying heavy bag out of concession pool in Angola

Olivier Polet - Corbis / Contributor / Getty Images

Perhaps the most notorious of those practices is right at the start of production: mining. As of 2017, 100 million people globally, including miners and their families, relied on "artisanal" mining versus the 7 million that relied on industrial mining. Artisanal mining, according to one report, is "generally carried out illegally by [a] large number of people who extract and sell small amounts of a mineral to survive to poverty." This practice is widespread across 80 countries. Throughout Africa, where 22% of the world's gold comes from, artisanal mining is almost always illegal.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says illegal mining and trafficking of precious metals—and presumably gems, too—can disrupt "peace, stability, security, development, governance, the rule of law, the environment, and the economy." On a more micro level, the absence of a legal framework subjects workers to abuse and robs them of their rights to fair wages and a safe working environment.

Reports over the past decade have revealed that slave and child labor are still omnipresent in these types of illegal mining operations. Miners face life-threatening conditions; they sometimes die in collapses, diving accidents, or of malaria and other diseases contracted in the makeshift camps they live in near the mines.

Sustainability Concerns

Sustainability concerns surrounding the jewelry industry are vast and varied. Of the major ones is deforestation—specifically in the Amazon Rainforest. Amazon Aid Foundation claimed in its 2016 documentary "River of Gold" that a single gold wedding ring requires 20 tons of earth to be mined. Between 2005 and 2015, 4,500 square miles making up about 9% of the Amazon were lost to mining such minerals.

Overhead view of large gold mining operation in Amazon Rainforest
Overhead view of large gold mining operation in Amazon Rainforest.

Tarcisio Schnaider / Getty Images

For years, reports have said the Amazon is approaching a tipping point, one saying that rebuilding will be required "if the Amazon is to continue to serve as a flywheel of continental climate for the planet and an essential part of the global carbon cycle as it has for millennia."

Deforestation due to precious metal mining is not limited to the Amazon, either. It's happening everywhere, from Europe to New Zealand. Another prominent example, the Madagascar "sapphire rush" of 2017 resulted in thousands of acres lost in the Malagasy rainforest.

Then, there's the issue of pollution. Since the '70s, the leading method for gold and silver extraction (silver often being coextracted with gold) has been cyanidation: Cyanide is mixed with ore in water, the metal binds to it and, therefore, separates from the rock. Cyanide is extremely toxic and wreaks havoc on drinking water, agriculture, and aquatic life when spilled, discarded, or leached into groundwater.

Pollution from gold mining in a lake
Lake pollution from gold mining.

Cucu Remus / Getty Images

Cyanide aside, gold and silver mines are the dominant source of atmospheric mercury pollution, as mercury is used to recover small particles from soil and sediments. Crushing and grinding the ore also releases lead-laced dust that further contaminates the water, poisons animals, and ripples up the food chain.

As is the case with all environmental issues, those surrounding the jewelry industry always link back to human welfare concerns. In one example, lead pollution from gold mining in the Nigerian state of Zamfara poisoned 400 children to death over just a six-month period.

How to Know When Jewelry Is Ethical and Sustainable

The jewelry market is a minefield, both literally and metaphorically. There's hardly a one-size-fits-all accreditation for the many materials that go into jewelry making, but the global Responsible Jewellery Council certification is perhaps the most comprehensive, applying to precious metals, diamonds, and other gemstones.

Here's a breakdown of ethics and sustainability by material, plus certifications to look for.

Precious Metals

Chunky gold chain-link bracelet

Alena Frolova / Getty Images

The precious metals used in jewelry are usually gold, silver, and PGMs. These materials come from the earth's crust and must be extracted through mining. Fairmined is an organization that vets and certifies metal mining operations (of gold but also silver and platinum, as metals are often mined together) based on environmental protection and worker rights. Fairtrade also has a gold standard, and both invest money back into communities impacted by mining to improve health care, education, and more.

In addition to buying certified responsibly mined metals, you can also choose recycled. Scrap silver and gold from old jewelry, smartphones, televisions—even dental crowns, allegedly, but don't let that deter you—are melted down to create new accessories. This is widely considered to be the most ethical and sustainable option, as it doesn't involve mining, diverts waste from landfills, and produces fewer emissions in the production process.

Gems and Stones

Pair of hands with stacked bohemian rings

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Gemstones, like metals, are also derived from deep within the earth. These, too, come with a slew of ethical and sustainability concerns around mining. Diamonds, specifically, being the most associated with conflict, should be certified ethical and conflict-free by the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme. This process is a collaboration between about 80 governments, civil societies, and the gem industry and prohibits trade between certified and non-certified countries.

On a broader scale, SCS Global Services grants its Responsible Source certification to producers that use "recycled metals and gemstones, and actively avoid conflict metals and materials from questionable or illegal sources." Recycled gemstones are those that have been previously owned and have since reentered the supply chain.

Another emerging alternative to newly mined diamonds is lab-grown diamonds, which contain the same carbon structure as naturally occurring diamonds but are man-made using extreme pressure and heat to mimic the bowels of the earth. Lab-developed diamonds are usually much more sustainable and ethical than the real thing.

Are Pearls Gems?

Pearls are one of the few gems derived from living organisms. Oysters develop them as a natural defense against threats that could enter their shells. Pearls must be removed surgically, which kills the oyster and raises animal welfare concerns. Additionally, the farming of pearls comes with its own environmental baggage: Overstocking oysters for pearl production impacts phytoplankton availability for other aquatic organisms, and microplastics from farming gear often leaches chemicals into freshwater ecosystems.

Glass

Glass teardrop earrings and cut glass on wood background

MichikoDesign / Getty Images

Glass can be used as an alternative to gems and stones in jewelry. Glass is made by melting down natural, raw materials like sand, soda ash, and limestone. Glass is certainly not as sturdy as most real gems—you've probably heard that diamond is the hardest material on earth—but it's endlessly recyclable and takes the controversial practice of mining out of the equation.

Plastic

Colorful plastic beaded bracelets on white surface

Maya23K / Getty Images

Jewelry sometimes features plastic components like beads and pendants. Plastic is, of course, a synthetic material made from crude oil, and the production of it is incredibly harmful, from the process of extracting fossil fuels from the earth to the pollution created while turning it into plastic to the waste it generates. Plastics can take hundreds of years to decompose, so most environmental advocates do their best to avoid it.

How to Shop Ethical Jewelry

The jewelry industry is a colossal, global, and largely corrupt industry with complex supply chains and a harrowing past. Purchasing a ring offhandedly without knowing where it came from is no longer justifiable with all we know about the negative impacts jewelry has on the environment and impoverished communities around the world. Here are some ways to be a more ethical and sustainable jewelry consumer.

Shop Reclaimed and Recycled

The best thing you can do for the environment and social welfare is to buy used jewelry or jewelry made from recycled materials. The brand Brilliant Earth is a leader in the ethical jewelry industry because it uses primarily recycled metals and only traceable diamonds from Canada, Botswana, South Africa, or Namibia—where gem mining is known to be conflict-free.

Other ethical brands include SOKO, a certified B Corp, and Aurate, which uses 100% recycled gold. For used jewelry, scout your local thrift scene or the vintage pages of Etsy for preloved treasures. And, though not reclaimed or recycled, Stefano Navi is an esteemed ethical jeweler for lab-grown pieces.

Know Where It Came From

If you do choose to buy jewelry made from newly mined gems and metals, make sure you can trace the materials down the supply chain. Jewelers should be knowledgable about where their diamonds and other precious stones come from. Ask for documentation, like a Diamond Origin Report from the Gemological Institute of America, that clearly states the origin.

Accreditation bodies like Fairtrade, Fairmined, and SCS Global Services work to vet brands on a broader scale, so look for their certifications as well.

Choose a Jeweler Wisely

When shopping for new jewelry, support brands and jewelers that support a more ethical and sustainable industry. Choose nonprofits and B Corporations that give back to the environment and the communities that rely on mining. Make sure the artisans behind your jewelry are earning living wages. Handmade jewelry from B Corp Raven + Lily, for example, generates direct income for female artisans in Ethiopia and India.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What's the most eco-friendly metal?

    The precious metals used to make jewelry are often mined together from the same ore. The most eco-friendly metal in jewelry is recycled metal: Mined silver produces three times more emissions than recycled silver and mined gold 600 times more than recycled gold, according to some reports.

  • Are small-scale or large-scale gold mines more sustainable?

    Small-scale or "artisanal" mining operations are more likely to be illegal and are therefore linked more to "human and labour rights violations and the activities of organised criminal groups," the World Gold Council says. Either can be ethical and sustainable as long as it's legal and maintains high safety and environmental standards.

  • Is Tiffany & Co. an ethical company?

    Tiffany & Co. says it has a "zero tolerance policy towards conflict diamonds." It sources diamonds only from countries that participate in the Kimberley Process. Of the luxury brands assessed by Human Rights Watch in its 2018 "Hidden Cost of Jewelry" report, Tiffany & Co. received the highest mark.

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