A piece of jewelry can make for a lovely Valentine’s Day gift, but environmental and humanitarian issues may undermine its beauty. Unless you shop responsibly, the cash that goes to one tiny shiny diamond could contribute to the funding of wars in countries under conflict — particularly in Africa, and with the mining of a single ounce of gold comes 30 tons of waste, some of it cyanide-soaked, as reported in the New York Times.

If environmental priorities affect the way you buy products, choosing jewelry is no different from other items, and buying reused and recycled content — not to mention avoiding harmful components — should be top on the list. “Depending on the item, jewelry products are composites of precious metals, gems, glass and plastics,” said Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist at NRDC, adding, “Acquiring and processing some of the metals and gems that wind up in jewelry involves ecologically disruptive industrial processes, affecting some of the world’s most ecologically irreplaceable bioregions. Occasionally, social conflicts are also worsened because of the way ores and gems are acquired. As with most products on the market today, many responsible jewelry companies are trying to assure that their supply chain is cleaner. More ethical, and ecologically minded consumers should seek out those firms.” Below, we look at better choices for purchasing jewelry.

Buy reused

Choosing from antique, vintage and estate jewelry collections gives you access to high-quality pieces without environmental harm. Because no new materials must be mined, extracted, culled, polished or melted, no new resources are consumed. Vintage jewelry can range from inexpensive baubles to high-end gems, giving the consumer a great variety of choices in price, style and type. Antique jewelry is often finely crafted and highly sought after, so your Valentine should have no reason to be disappointed. Try shopping from antique dealers or auction houses.

Avoid harmful materials

Because the extraction of precious metals and gems can greatly disrupt the environment and host communities, it is worth avoiding these materials altogether. For less formal jewelry, look for pieces made with glass or shell rather than gems. Always avoid pieces made with the plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC), frequently used in children’s jewelry, since its production releases dioxins, among the most toxic chemicals in existence. And parents should take care about paints or metallic jewelry that may contain brain-damaging lead or carcinogenic cadmium. In late January, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a recall of children’s jewelry due to high cadmium levels. Tests of adult necklaces and bracelets from China and India that were bought in the U.S. showed extremely high levels of cadmium, according to the Center for Environmental Health, which has instigated a lawsuit against the American retailers.

Look for recycled content

The next best option is to consider jewelry that is made of recycled or reused materials. If you find a vintage piece with a beautiful gem and simply don’t like the setting, it is usually going to be more environmentally responsible to have the gem reset than to buy a piece that is made of entirely new materials. One popular trend is selling jewelry to be melted down and crafted into something different. “Cash for Gold” signs abound, and many of these companies will buy the jewelry from the bottom of your jewelry box to melt down to make into a new product for someone else (or for you). This circumvents the environmental destruction caused by gold mining and can reduce the transportation of materials, lowering emissions of heat-trapping gases and pollutants associated with shipping. As a consumer, buying any product that contains recycled or reused materials will tend to lessen water, energy and waste impacts and protect valuable natural resources.

Demand responsible sourcing

Finally, if you must buy new, scout out responsibly sourced jewels. Many companies are taking seriously environmental and humanitarian initiatives to lessen the impact of the industry; Tiffany & Co. and Helzberg Diamonds, for example, are both working to increase environmental accountability of their products. Asking for gems that come from countries with stricter regulations, such as Canada and Australia, is another way to steer clear of stones contributing to violence and human rights abuses. If buying jewels from countries of possible conflict, ask your jeweler for a Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) Certificate of Origin. Although KPCS has been criticized for being unreliable, this intergovernmental certification works to ensure that rough diamonds from the 75 participating countries are conflict-free, and it may help you avoid irresponsibly sourced gems.

Among the the most important things you can do as a consumer is talk to the sellers about environmentally responsible products. With jewelry, just as with other products, the more the consumer asks about sourcing and materials, the more likely the nature of the industry will improve. According to Allen Hershkowitz at NRDC, “Asking for a greener product, even if it is currently unavailable, is essential to help inform the marketplace, it is an important part of the greening process that environmentally aware consumers seek to advance. The greening of the supply chain will occur only when the consumer demands it.” So go ahead — ask your jeweler about the social and biological impacts of their goods.

This article was reprinted with permission from SimpleSteps.org.

Untarnished jewelry
Jewelry can come with a tainted past, but better options abound.