Originally published on Global Garbs in November 2019
LET'S START HERE.
The stories of an earth grown diamond and a shiny 14k gold band both begin in a mine. Mining is the extraction of minerals and other geological materials from deposits far beneath the earth’s surface. Gold, diamonds and other gemstones are mined around the world with the vast majority coming from small-scale “artisanal” operations often within the informal sector.
It’s estimated that about 90 million carats of rough diamonds and 1,600 tons of gold are mined for jewelry every year, generating over $300 billion in revenue. When sustainability is a top priority for a consumer or brand, the highly inadequate environmental regulations and unethical human rights abuses involved with mining, make it very difficult to navigate within the jewelry industry
We understand this because we are a jewelry brand that cares very deeply about sustainability. But before we knew better, we felt stuck between a rock and a hard place (no pun intended) and now that we know better, we can do better.
WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF GOLD AND DIAMOND MINING ON OUR PLANET?
Spoiler: It’s all pretty bad.
Mining is an invasive process that adversely affects the land and biodiversity of the area. It’s estimated that for every carat of diamond that is mined, nearly 100sq ft of land is disturbed and almost 6,000 pounds of mineral waste is created. Some countries expect companies to rehabilitate the area after mining operations are shut down but violations are common and the land is rarely transformed back to its original state.
The deforestation, land disruption, toxic pollutants and sometimes explosives used all lead to loss of biodiversity in the area. Birds and other animals that depend on the trees for food and shelter are lost, plants that rely on the shade from trees die. Mining leads to a massive habitat loss for a diversity of flora and fauna ranging from soil microorganisms to large mammals.
Unrefined materials like cyanide and mercury are released into the soil, air and water due to exposing deep deposits in the earth. Small-scale gold mines annually emit around 1,400 tons of mercury, making them the largest source of mercury pollution on earth.
WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF GOLD AND DIAMOND MINING ON HUMANS?
Spoiler: This is also pretty bad.
According to the Humans Right Watch group, an estimated 40 million people work in unregulated artisanal and small-scale mines, which operate with little or no machinery. One-third of laborers are women who often bring their children with them for help.
Many children work in dangerously deep, unstable pits, sustain back injuries from carrying heavy rocks and suffer respiratory disease from inhaling toxic dust. In Nigeria, artisanal gold mining has caused unintentional releases of lead that has killed over 400 children.
During periods of war and conflict, civilian miners suffer as abusive armed forces seek to exploit the gold and diamonds found in mines. Since these precious materials and stones are mined in dozens of countries around the world, and are then typically traded, exported, and processed in other countries, it can be very difficult to know whether they are tainted by human rights abuses.
HOW CAN WE DO BETTER?
Some good news!
Although there are laws and regulations in place that are intended to minimize the damage caused by mining, they are not enough and loopholes are easily utilized. Still, some big name jewelry companies have made some steps in the right direction and should be noted
Here are some examples:
Tiffany and Co. can trace all of its newly mined gold back to one mine of origin and conducts regular human rights assessments with the mine.
Bulgari can trace its gold to two refiners that are certified under the RJC’s Chain-of-Custody Standard.
Pandora minimizes risks of abuses in their gold supply chain by using almost exclusively recycled gold and also independently audits suppliers and visits mine sites where “red flags” have been identified.
De Beers has launched Lightbox, a direct-to-consumer subsidiary that exclusively sells lab-grown diamonds.
With demand from consumers for environmentally friendly products and a growing number of young people that want to be sure the jewelry they purchase has been produced under conditions that respect human rights, companies need to understand they have a responsibility to adopt better practices and regulations and also prove that change is in fact, possible.