Jewelry can make for a timeless gift, a defining style of a wardrobe and a cherished heirloom. So choosing a new piece of jewelry should be done with care. Here, we offer some considerations so that the jewelry you buy today sustains the Earth tomorrow because, unfortunately, precious metals and stones are extracted at a sometimes high cost to the environment.
Also see these green wedding gift ideas.
1. Do you really need it?
While this question holds for many purchases, buying jewelry is one of those luxuries that is rarely needed, often desired and sometime necessary (it's the rare couple that gets engaged or married without a ring). In general, separating your "wants" from your "needs" is a good first step toward reducing the environmental impact of your purchases (not to mention the financial impact on your wallet). The environmental impact from buying comes primarily in the use of natural resources to manufacture the products in the first place. If you don't buy it, you eliminate its impact.
In the case of jewelry, the mining of precious metals and gems has one of the biggest environmental and human impacts. For instance, gold mines represent the largest U.S. sources of mercury pollution, a potent toxic metal that attacks the brain. In Alaska, watchdogs fear that a proposed mine upstream of Bristol Bay would threaten the millions of salmon that spawn there. Diamond mining is notoriously tied with slave labor and the funding of systemic violence in Africa. Beyond that, mining anything involves not only tearing up a landscape, but also processing that typically uses toxic chemicals and metals. Avoiding unnecessary purchases avoids those impacts.
Try some sexy green lingerie for an alternative gift.
2. Do you have to buy new?
When it comes to jewelry, antique and vintage pieces can be found in the estate section of many jewelry stores. The workmanship of past decades of centuries is often unsurpassed, when it comes to filigrees and detail, so don't assume that newer is always better. Buying antique jewelry means avoiding the use of newly mined natural resources. Conveniently, Etsy.com is now selling a lot of antique jewelry, so you can browse styles with your computer.
Check out these incredibly creative pieces of jewelry made from recycled materials.
3. How was it made?
Particularly if you're buying new, consider how the piece was made: what materials were used, who made it and how were those workers treated? It's often not you, the buyer, who suffers if a product isn't made in an ethical, sustainable manner; it's the workers and the communities at the source. Like other products, you can look for Fair Trade-certified jewelry to ensure that workers were treated well. (eBay has made this step easier by bringing together ethical buyers and sellers via World of Good, which uses independent certifiers to ensure that only products that adhere to high environmental and human rights standards are offered for sale.)
Beyond that, you have to ask some serious questions about the choice of materials. Recycled gold, silver and other metals made by melting and re-forging existing unwanted jewelry is a good choice because it avoids the use of newly mined minerals. It's estimated that 80% of newly mined gold ends up in retail jewelry, so the No Dirty Gold lists retailers that support better human rights and environmental protections at the world's gold mines.
Diamonds, as Leonardo DiCaprio brilliantly reminded us in Blood Diamond, have often reached the consumer market only after a violent march across Africa, and the money spent on diamonds has ultimately fueled wider bloodshed. Unfortunately, the problem didn't end with the movie, so Amnesty International and Global Witness have published four questions consumers can ask jewelers to get some assurance that the diamonds being bought are "conflict-free":
- How can I be sure that none of your jewelry contains conflict diamonds?
- Do you know where the diamonds you sell come from?
- Can I see a copy of your company's policy on conflict diamonds?
- Can you show me a written guarantee from your diamond suppliers stating that your diamonds are conflict-free?
4. How is it packaged and shipped?
The making of a product is only part of what contributes to its environmental footprint. The materials used to package it, and the fuel used to transport it, are two other biggies. Studies have generally endorsed the proposition that online purchasing has a smaller environmental footprint than buying from a brick-and-mortar store, in large part because of the reduced energy costs associated with lighting and heating. With jewelry, however, customers often want to hold the piece in their hands not a bad idea, if you're making a big purchase (some online retailers allow for returns, though it doubles the environmental footprint of shipping).
Jewelry is often packaged to extremes, with boxes, ribbons, bags and then more boxes, ribbons and bags. So you can ask for minimally packaged items. Ask your parents for a jewelry box that has sentimental value, for instance, or otherwise look for ways to re-use the boxes you already have. Another idea: Start a tradition by giving a new piece of jewelry in the same box, year after year. The thrill of discovery won't be hurt a bit, and may even be enhanced.
Check out these incredible homes made from shipping containers.
5. How easy is it to maintain?
The environmental impact of newly purchased items doesn't necessarily end when you get them home. Most jewelry is infinitely mendable that's what jewelers are for. The important thing is to take the effort to make the repairs. Remember: Fixing a left-for-broken heirloom makes for a great gift.
For jewelry, also, think about how you will "recycle" it when you no longer need it. Reselling it is one option that puts value in your pocket and keeps precious metals and stones in circulation, so fewer new materials need to be mined to meet the demand. Keeping special pieces as heirlooms, and passing them down from generation to generation is also something to think about.
6. What will you say about it?
A signature piece of jewelry is a conversation piece. What story will you tell about it? Don't stop with the story of the gift giving, or the style and size of the stones: tell your friends why you purchased what you did. Discussing a sustainable purchase helps spread the word about ethical buying decisions, and a piece of jewelry presents the perfect conservation starter.
Check out these 11 powerful environmental ads.