Africa produces 8.5 billion dollars in diamonds a year, yet over a million diamond miners live in poverty earning under one dollar a day. For many, this is the equivalent of slave labor.
The demand for jewellery accounts for more than 80 percent of the gold mined currently, yet gold mining is the world’s leading cause of manmade mercury pollution, destroying the world's water and air supply.
Do you sense a disconnect here?
Some of the world’s oldest and most precious commodities are acquired using methods that destroy the environment, devastate land, fish and animal species, and dismiss the human rights of workers around the globe. So what exactly is the cost of these jewels?
While many people are aware of unethical “blood diamond” mining in Africa in particular, gold mining is also especially problematic worldwide. Processing operations called heap-leaching and amalgamation use the harmful chemicals cyanide and mercury, respectively, to extract a minuscule amount of gold from a large quantity of rock. The heap-leaching mines will then store the contaminated ore in dams, often poorly constructed and a danger to the wildlife and water supply if it is spilled (this occurred in Romania in 2000, spilling more than 100,000 gallons of toxic material into the Tisza River).
Mines, using amalgamation, evaporate the leftover mercury with heat; up to two grams of mercury are released into the environment for every gram of gold mined. Mercury vapor is proven to have serious health consequences on humans and animals that ingest contaminated air or water; fish in the San Francisco Bay are still affected by deposits of mercury from mining operations over 140 years ago!
So what is to be done? Ethical Metalsmiths, founded by metalsmiths Susan Kingsley and Christina Miller in 2004, has created a community dedicated to educating both jewelers and consumers about these harmful mining practices, encouraging them to understand the implications of the materials they use, and helping them become informed advocates for responsible, sustainable, and ethical sourcing.
Susan and Christina’s organization helps the metalsmithing community wade through suppliers’ ambiguous certifications and claims to find the most ethical sourcing possible before purchasing materials. They encourage buyers to talk to suppliers directly regarding production process, mining practices and labor regulations before purchasing products. The Ethical Metalsmiths website provides an ethical supplier listing as a helpful resource.
To further the sustainable sourcing process, members of Ethical Metalsmiths can participate in the Ethical Sourcing Consortium of Jewelers to support small-scale mining communities through purchase of traceable and transparent materials. For now, gold is the material with information available, but the Consortium intends to expand to gemstones and diamonds in the near future.
Worldwide ethical diamond, gold, and gemstone mining is certainly not currently a reality, but thanks to the efforts of organizations such as Ethical Metalsmiths, change is on the horizon.