jewellery is sustainable fashion’s final frontier
An investigation of the damage our jewellery is really doing to the planet.
Fashion is a big, dirty business. Big because it's worth $2.4 trillion dollars globally and dirty because it's widely considered the second most polluting industry after big oil. As the once-hidden environmental impacts of this mammoth machine become increasingly clear though, we find ourselves looking down at our hands and wondering about jewellery. These pieces might seem innocuous, but ultimately your simple gold stacking rings or silver studs are inextricable from a broader industry sector that represents a whopping $316 billion dollars. And just like fashion before it, the business isn't exactly clean. So why is there still so little awareness around the environmental impact of our jewellery and why aren't we more concerned about where we're buying these products?
Speaking with Kelly Elkin, an ethical fashion consultant and co-founder of responsibility-driven e-commerce platform Well Made Clothes, she explains that "there's a real disconnect between final product and where it actually comes from" with jewellery. Metals like gold carry a certain prestige, which tends to obscure any questions about how that metal was obtained. Clothing is quite different, simply because the tactility of the fibres forces us to contemplate. Think about the last time you wore a super scratchy sweater, for instance, or a breathable organic cotton tee — we can literally feel the difference in sources. It's understandable that from there, a conversation around the ethics of producing these fibres seems a little less abstract.
The gap between materials and their origins doesn't operate in such a straight line with jewellery — especially for the average consumer, who isn't buying diamonds on the regular. As the Responsible Jewellery Council points out, there is some knowledge about the issues involved with conflict stones thanks to movies like Blood Diamond. Beyond that though, responsibility issues in the jewellery industry are largely invisible. This underscores a lack of consciousness that's in harsh contrast to the fact that mining metals can actually have devastating environmental consequences.
Fashion is designed to distract us from logic, but jewellery can be even more deceptive. Drawn as we are to the glint of shiny things, it is arguably easier to overlook the fact that mining gold and silver causes erosion and soil contamination, as well as heavy metal leaching and loss of biodiversity. It not only affects the ecosystems surrounding the mines themselves though; it can also have flow-on effects for the planet more generally. This is because the world's smelters add 142 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere every year; equating to a staggering 13 percent of global emissions.
To make matters even worse, mining metals means sapping the earth of finite resources. "The fact is that resources like gold and silver are depleting," explains Kelly Elkin. "We don't have an endless supply, but people aren't necessarily thinking about it in this way." Which is why so many brands are now turning to recycled metals as an alternative. "I think there's this weird perception that recycled metals are somehow impure and that's just not true," explains Australian designer Holly Ryan — who uses all recycled metals. "Sometimes mum and I go to op shops and buy silver rings to melt down," she adds.
Leo Sachs-Michaels is the designer behind New York based label Leo Black and she, too, is committed to creating sustainably by working with all recycled gold. It's not just important from an environmental perspective, she explains, but adds a whole new character to the jewellery as well. "Not only do I love the fact that new metals aren't being pulled from the earth to make my work," she says. "But it feels like each piece I make already has a history to it as well." As consumers, it is this history that we need to return to if we wish to improve the environmental footprint of our jewellery.
But consumer action is just one aspect of the key to combatting the unsustainability of this major industry. When i-D asked Ryan why we're not talking about these issues more, she puts it down to "a lack of knowledge and education". Which is why improving awareness must first start with better training for designers. "Pratt Institute provided me with an extensive sustainability course called Alternative Materials," explains Sachs-Michaels. But unfortunately not all universities are quite so progressive. Ryan, for example, says this wasn't really a focus throughout her studies, but instead something that was instilled by her jeweller parents.
Once jewellers do have the educational means and curiosity to improve their practices though, we also need to work on fostering a more visible supply chain, similar to what we have seen with clothing. As Elkin puts it, we need to "aim for the shortest supply chain possible — because the simpler it is, the easier it will be to trace and the more confident you can feel that it's an authentic product." Accreditation is also a big part of this process, because it helps consumers know what they are buying and designers to understand where they're going wrong. Yes, there are already standards around Fairmined metals, but they tend to be the purview of bigger luxury brands. So perhaps the accreditation process needs to become broader and more accessible for brands of all stages and price points.
To reiterate the responsibility of the consumer though, none of these structural changes will mean anything unless we decide to think twice about how we personally approach jewellery. Once viewed as the perfect way to mark a special occasion, Kelly Elkin explains that the plethora of "cheap knock offs in jewellery" has largely stripped it of this sentimentality. Which is only made worse by the fact that these imitations are often made of plastic, which means they were derived from harmful petrochemicals. So perhaps we need to question the need for imitation products in the first place and then start to value the history, craftsmanship and sentimentality of jewellery again.
Because here's the thing about jewellery: it can actually be inherently sustainable when you approach it in the right way. The rising trend for recycling metals proves that the raw materials rarely lose their value. Which should make it easier to justify the slightly higher price tag for ethical jewellery. To do that though, Elkin says "it's really just about opening the conversation up." Once you start thinking about adding value rather than bargain hunting, these pieces take on whole new meaning. As Sachs-Michaels points out, "working in sustainable materials informs your creative voice. It can impact your work in beautiful, unexpected ways." The same is true for personal style too, because there's just something inherently stylish about knowing the backstory of your accessories.