When we finished our posting on Global Warming and Organic & Recycled Clothing, we thought that we had touched on much of what needed to be said about the fashion industry’s relationship to global warming. How wrong we were.
A major component of fashion is jewelry. Diamonds, emeralds, rubies, precious and semi-precious gem stones, gold, silver, platinum, and even more common metals such as copper have been a cornerstone of jewelry for millennium. The mining industry delivers these elementals to jewelry artisans, but the mining industry is also the second largest contributing industry to greenhouse gases and global warming. To fully appreciate the world of eco-fashion and eco-awareness, it is helpful to understand the consequences of conventional jewelry and the promise of eco-jewelry that is more socially, ethically and environmentally responsible.
We will journey together in a two-part series into the world of jewelry from a socially and environmentally responsible perspective. This first part will explore conventional jewelry, and part two will dive into eco-jewelry in our next post. Here we go.
The Trouble with Conventional Jewelry. Even when dripping with elegance, conventional jewelry made from gold, silver or platinum and studded with precious and semi-precious gemstones such as diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires is often forged in the fires of human rights abuses and environmental destruction. It is not that these precious metals and stones are inherently nasty. Far from it. When gained and used properly, their purity and clarity are reputed to have beneficial effects for mind, body and soul. It is just that mining and processing these precious metals and stones can be very dirty – ethically and ecologically.
Because of their large size and high visibility, mining industry spokespeople and company representatives for mega-corporations such as De Beers, the South African diamond giant, have spent huge amounts to publicize their efforts and successes in sourcing conflict-free diamonds and improving the lives of miners and their communities. In recent years, De Beers has bowed to South African government pressure to allow more benefits of the diamond industry to trickle down to local black-owned business such as local diamond cutters and polishers and even to provide more South African government ownership to selected mines of the DeBeers dynasty in South Africa. The intent of the South African government is to pressure the large diamond mining companies to share the country’s mineral resources through broad-based black economic empowerment.
On a global level, organizations such as Global Witness have been working tirelessly at demanding and shaming the diamond industry into actively working to resolve the problems of human rights and environmental abuses caused by the diamond trade. Global Witness is now striving to improve transparency and accountability from diamond mines to diamond retailers globally. De Beers, though, dominates the world diamond trade and controls the Central Selling Organization which handles more than 70% of the global rough diamond sales. Given the size, power and lack of transparency with the De Beers diamond cartel, no organization and no government – including the U.S. – can effectively monitor or even influence De Beers’ corporate policies and practices.
Conventional Jewelry Trouble #1 – Blood Diamonds and Conflict Diamonds. In our culture, diamonds have become the cool stone, the ice that sizzles. Marilyn Monroe singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes secured Marilyn Monroe and diamond jewelry as cultural icons of desire. Diamonds are hidden in the earth’s crust on every continent except Europe and Antarctica and are actively mined in about 25 countries with most diamonds mined in Australia, Russia, Canada and Africa. But, diamond mining is a very dirty business – ethically and environmentally.
The 2006 movie Blood Diamonds with a strong cast including Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly and Leonardo DiCaprio gives a voice to the forced labor, mutilations, killings, and human rights abuses in some diamond mines of the West African nation of Sierra Leone. These are diamonds that were mined and sold with the blood of miners and local villagers in the African countries of Liberia, Ivory Coast, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly known as Zaire), the Republic of Congo, and Sierra Leone during the 1990’s to finance weapons for rebel groups, criminal warlords, brutal government regimes, and international and regional terrorists organizations. Because diamonds are an easy currency for fueling insurgencies and wars, blood diamonds are also called “conflict diamonds”.
During the peak of conflict and war in Africa during the 1990’s, an estimated 10% of all gem-grade diamonds mined worldwide were believed to be illicit conflict diamonds smuggled from Africa and quietly merged into the international diamond trade industry. To choke the global market in illicit conflict diamonds, the United Nations, most countries, and relevant non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) adopted the Kimberley Process Certification System to certify that each diamond exported by member countries is a conflict-free diamond. While a significant improvement in removing conflict and blood diamonds from the international diamond market, the Kimberley Process is not independently monitored and opportunities arise for conflict diamonds to be smuggled into certification centers where they are certified as conflict-free and allowed to enter the global diamond trade. Diamond industry cheerleaders such as Eli Izakoff, chairman of the World Diamond Council, claim that more than 99.8% of today’s $13 billion rough uncut diamond industry is conflict-free diamonds. Diamond industry skeptics including Amnesty International suspect that it is somewhat lower and that more effective monitoring is necessary.
Troubles with Conventional Jewelry #2 – Diamond Processing Human Rights Abuses. Labor abuses always victimize the most vulnerable – the children and the poor. Diamond cutting and most stone polishing is still done by hand. In India, where more than half the world’s supply of diamonds are cut and polished, children are commonly used with little pay for the grueling, demanding cutting and polishing of the smaller stones which require far less training and specialized skill than a larger diamond with few flaws. When the young eyesight fails from the tedious strain and long hours, the child worker is simply replaced by another child, often a younger brother or sister.
The world’s major diamond cutting and polishing center flourishes in the northwest state of Gujarat in India where more than 800,000 workers cut and polish 80% or more of the world’s diamonds. These workers are scattered across a handful of Indian cities in this cottage industry where most of them work from sweatshops and small cutting houses for wages as low as $0.60 to $1.00 per stone. India cuts, polishes and exports an estimated one billion dollars of gems each year and in April 2006 the Gujarat state government decided to exempt the diamond-cutting industry from the state’s Value Added Tax (VAT). A few gain vast wealth; many remain in desperate poverty.
An interesting point of fact is that when you mention the diamond industry, most people will think of DeBeers and Africa, or the diamond bourse houses in Antwerp, or New York City’s diamond district but seldom do people think of dusty India, the land of swamis and sadhus. And yet, the first recorded discovery of diamonds anywhere in the world was around 800 BC in what is now India, and India remained the only know source for diamonds until 1844 when diamonds were discovered in Brazil. In the 1620’s when the Pilgrims were struggling to raise corn and carrots in the New World, the rich diamond mines of India were producing 50,000 to 100,000 carats annually. The rise of diamond mines in Africa in the late 19th century marked the decline of diamond production in India. In the 1980’s, the growth of economic globalization due to low wages in developing countries triggered India’s reemergence in the diamond industry as a major diamond cutting and polishing center.
Troubles with Conventional Jewelry #3 – Mining Human Rights Abuses. But conflict and blood diamonds are not the only diamonds clawed from the earth on the backs of human rights abuses. Miners, especially miners in remote and conflict-free locations working in small to medium sized mines, can also be subjected to brutal and dangerous working conditions, poor safety, sub-poverty living standards, harassment, child labor, and inadequate health care.
Global Witness, the NGO that first brought conflict diamond issues to light, estimates that there are about one million diggers in Africa who earn less than a dollar a day from mining diamonds. Much of the mining is carried out by illegal miners in very poor and dangerous conditions. A recent study found 46% of miners in Angola are under the age of 16, with many of the children working because of war, poverty, and the absence of education. And it’s not just miners of diamonds but also gold, silver, copper and other precious stones such as emeralds. And the problems are found not just in Africa but in countries all across the globe.
Mine safety for employees is too often weak resulting in needless worker deaths and making mining one of the most hazardous occupations. Fueled by recently escalating prices of precious metals, mining is becoming even more dangerous as open pit mines become larger and shaft mines push deeper into the earth seeking richer gold veins.
Michelle Faul, in an outstanding Associated Press article carried by the International Herald Tribune, voiced the growing concern over mining safety in South African gold mines. While mining operations in most of the world are moving towards open pit mines, South African shaft mines are boring ever deeper into the earth – to depths of almost 2.5 miles below the surface of the earth – to tap the richer gold veins.
According to May Hermanus, director of the Centre for Sustainability in Mining at the University of the Witwatersrand and a former South African government chief inspector of mines deep shaft mining requires "very, very special oversight and supervision and methodology" that often is absent. Miners are among the lowest paid industrial workers in South Africa and their jobs are among the most dangerous and becoming more dangerous as mines go ever deeper.
In 2006, South African mines produced 275 tons of gold at a cost of 113 mining deaths – one miner’s life for each 2.4 tons of gold. South Africa is the world’s largest gold producer. If you don’t know where the gold in your jewelry came from, it’s a good bet that it came from one of South Africa’s deep shaft mines.
Troubles with Conventional Jewelry #4 – Displaced Indigenous Peoples. In their quest for new sources of precious metals and gems, mining companies are expanding into more and more remote locations, often in third world and developing countries where government regulations and oversight is frequently non-existent. Local populations and indigenous communities are displaced to make way for large mining operations and from resulting ecological and environmental damage from mining operations. Worldwide today, more than half of all the gold mined comes from the tribal and ancestral lands of indigenous peoples which are often displaced without compensation to buy other lands.
A short article by Robert Nick in The Mining News about the effects of gold mining on the environment reported that 30,000 local and native people were displaced in the 1990’s by mining operations in the Tarkwa district of Ghana. An excellent report titled “Dirty Metals: Mining, Community and the Environment” published by Earthworks and Oxfam is a very careful and thorough examination of the global consequences of mining metals from aluminum to gold from several perspectives. A Wikipedia article outlines the displacement of 30,000 to 50,000 people in 120 downstream villages from their ancestral lands without compensation due to environmental devastation resulting from the Ok Tedi Mine in western Papua New Guinea – a trend that has been labeled “ecocide” indicating the mass destruction of the environment and the peoples who depend upon that environment for their livelihood.
This ecocide is occurring globally in countries as disparate as Peru, Romania, New Guinea, Indonesia, Philippines, Kyrgyzstan, Bolivia, Canada, Argentina and the United States according to NoDirtyGold.org, an organization designed to awaken public awareness to the socially and environmentally disastrous business of mining. Native and indigenous peoples have faced the brunt of this assault on the land. They have been forced from their lands, jailed and beaten if they refused to move, have seen their farm lands and native rivers and waterways poisoned and devastated, and their traditional lifestyles and cultures destroyed … and for what? For every once of gold mined, 79 tons of “mine waste” are ripped from the earth and laced with toxic cyanide to leach the gold flakes from the rock and ore.
Even when local and native people are not displaced from their homes, their traditional livelihoods of farming, hunting and fishing are often lost due to the disruption and pollution surrounding the mines for tens of miles or for hundreds of miles for downstream rivers.
Troubles with Conventional Jewelry #5 – Environmental Destruction. Mining is not only a dirty business; it also has a big environmental boot print. Two-thirds of all active mines worldwide are open pit mines. The largest mines, such as the Bingham Canyon mine in Utah, can easily measure 1 mile deep and 2 miles from end-to-end and can employ hundreds or thousands of workers. Most mining is done in open pit mines simply because it is less expensive than shaft mines but the environmental destruction is vastly greater.
Open pit gold mines create about 10 times as much waste rubble as a shaft mine. After a mining company’s geological team has identified a potentially rich site, explosives and heavy earth moving equipment are used to remove mountains of rock and earth. Two primary methods are used to extract gold hiding in the ore and rocks: cyanide leaching and smelting.
In cyanide leaching, the high grade ore is crushed and heaped in large mounds. A highly toxic and deadly cyanide solution is poured over the mound of crushed ore and rocks. The cyanide solution leaches the gold from the ore and it collects in a pool at the bottom of the pile. This process of dissolving the gold to separate it from the rock is called heap leaching. An electro-chemical process then extracts the gold from the cyanide solution and the waste solution is then stored in “tailings dams” – large, often unstable dams that can burst and flood downhill lands, streams and rivers with sludge contaminated with cyanide and toxic heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium. The lands and mountainsides surrounding gold mines are marred with large, toxic mounds of cyanide-laced rubble which will continue to bleed cyanide and sulfuric acid into the earth and ground waters for decades.
The other major method of separating gold embedded in rock and ore is smelting. The rubble rock and ore is transported to nearby smelters where it is heated in large furnaces to very high temperatures to melt the gold and separate it from other compounds. Besides using enormous amounts of energy, most smelters and especially those in developing countries release huge amounts of air pollution in the form of nitrogen and sulfur oxides, lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, zinc, and persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Persistent organic pollutants are carbon-based pollutants that do no easily decompose and they tend to bio-accumulate in fatty tissues. Smelters also release significant amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and perfluorocarbons (PFCs) which can be carried for hundreds of miles by wind and water.
Acid mine drainage (AMD) is another common and insidious environmental problem. Acid mine drainage results from oxygen and rain water running over crushed waste rock and reacting with naturally occurring sulfides that have been freshly exposed to form sulfuric acid. Sulfuric acid is a constituent of acid rain and implicated in the destruction of aquatic life in streams and rivers polluted by acid mine drainage.
The production of one gold ring generates 20 to 60 tons of toxic waste and the fugitive dust raised by the massive blasting, earth moving equipment and swarming trucks operating in enormous open pit mines blankets surrounding areas destroying native vegetation, wildlife habitat, and farmers’ crops.
Studies estimate that the mining industry uses approximately 10% of the world’s energy outputs every year and is the second largest contributor to greenhouse gases.
Troubles with Conventional Jewelry #6 – Public Health Failings. NoDirtyGold.org poignantly stated the public health failing of the mining industry in one community:
“In the Peruvian town of La Oroya, site of a smelter operated by the US-based Doe Run Corporation, a study by the Peruvian Ministry of Health revealed that 99 percent of the children have severe lead poisoning, and 20 percent of these children needed urgent hospitalization. The smelter produces gold bullion bars, silver, lead, cadmium, zinc, and copper.”
“Mining is usually considered a big economic opportunity for any community, but the reality is that local communities usually bear the costs of mining in the form of environmental damage and pollution, loss of traditional livelihoods, long term economic problems and deteriorating public health. The benefits of the mine usually go to investors overseas and the central government, with little of the profit passed back to the community.”
“Water and air pollution create long-term public health problems for some mining communities, sometimes forcing families to spend significant amounts of their income treating chronic asthma, skin diseases, lead poisoning, and other ailments related to the mine's impacts. Industrial accidents involving spilled chemicals near towns can be devastating for communities.”
The story of the public health of mining communities and especially the young being put to risk by mining operations is a story with chapters all across the global and not just in developing countries. For example, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a public health agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, classified two mining sites as public health hazards due to heavy metal contaminants permeating the waste rock and mill tailings throughout the mine sites. These heavy metal discharges of arsenic, cadmium, manganese, zinc and iron have adversely impacted wildlife and fish in nearby streams and jeopardized the health of local young children (less than two years old) through increased levels of lead and arsenic in surface soils and to adults through an increased risk of cancer due to elevated levels of arsenic.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 40% of the headwaters of the western U.S. watersheds are contaminated by pollutants from hard rock open pit mines. These polluted headwaters contribute to the rivers and streams that are used by downstream cities for drinking water and by farmers for irrigating their crops and watering livestock. In the West, these waters flow a considerable distance. The Colorado River, with its headwaters in northern Colorado, provides water to cities as far away as Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Tucson and Phoenix. A 10 million ton radioactive pile of mine tailing from a uranium mine in Moab, Utah sits just 700 feet from the Colorado River. No radioactive seepage has yet been detected but the possibilities are significant.
After the rich veins of precious metals or stones have been stripped from the earth and the mine abandoned, the public health risks due to the polluted environs surrounding mining operations last for generations and can only be cleaned and removed at huge expense. Few mining companies are willing or capable to bear this expense. Also, there are no national standards requiring mining operations to clean mining sites after the mine is closed. Cleansing the earth often falls to governments, Mother Nature and time.
Troubles with Conventional Jewelry #7 – Social Failings. The social exuberance of mining boom towns in the Wild West were immortalized in the western novels of Louis L’Amour and sanitized Hollywood movies such as Paint Your Wagon … although listening to Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood lurch into song is its own special form of social ills. As mines ramp up production, a large influx of miners and their families moving into nearby towns increases the burden on the communities’ social structures with new demands on housing, classrooms and health care. Farmers and indigenous peoples displaced by the mine also flow into the towns seeking jobs.
The effects of pollution from mines and the higher accident rates among miners place greater burdens upon the communities’ health care and social support systems. Studies have also exposed increased rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling and prostitution in mining communities around the world. A report “Social Effects of Mining and the CMC Mine Problem” by Leonard A. Stone, European University of Lefke, examines the negative environmental and social effects of mining in a small mountain village in Cyprus. A YouTube video, while not strong science, gives a window into drinking among Russian miners.
Troubles with Conventional Jewelry #8 – Endangered Resources. The troubles with conventional jewelry are not limited to precious stones and metals. The Syrian and North African elephant population were reduced to extinction from the demand for their ivory tusks to be used for art and jewelry. Ivory comes from the teeth and tusks of elephants, hippopotamus, walrus, mammoth and narwhal. Beginning in 1989, governments began restricting the importation and sale of ivory and ivory jewelry from many countries due to the serious declines in animals which bear ivory.
Coral necklaces and rings, especially in pure whites and blood reds, have been prized for more than a thousand years. Coral jewelry comes from coral reefs found in most oceans around the world but usually within 30 degrees latitude of the equator.
Coral reefs are not rocks or plants but large colonies of very small organisms, polyps, which are only a few millimeters in diameter and grow a calcium carbonate (limestone) exoskeleton that over decades become coral reefs. Coral reefs are complex living ecosystems that are very sensitive to ocean changes in temperature, pollution and divers collecting coral from coral reefs for jewelry, art objects and what-nots. Unfortunately, rising ocean temperatures due to Global Warming and ever-increasing ocean pollution are ravaging coral reefs. Coral reefs are a very important ecosystem to the health of our oceans and many countries are banning coral harvesting and enacting laws prohibiting damaging coral reefs. Coral reefs shelter some of the most biologically diverse habitats on the planet.
Learn more. We hope that this gives you a slight feel for the scope of consequences for some conventional jewelry. To discover more, check out these sources:
- “Hard Rock Mining: Risks to Community Health” a report by Aimee Boulanger and Alexandra Gorman on the social health risks created by mining in North America.
- Global Witness. “Global Witness exposes the corrupt exploitation of natural resources and international trade systems, to drive campaigns that end impunity, resource-linked conflict, and human rights and environmental abuses.”
- Read The Curse of Gold, a detailed report by Human Rights Watch that “documents how local armed groups fighting for the control of gold mines and trading routes (in Africa) have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity using the profits from gold to fund their activities and buy weapons”.
- No dirty gold. The No Dirty Gold campaign is a joint effort by EARTHWORKS/Oxfam America to support the efforts of groups around the world to end socially and environmentally devastating gold mining practices.
- An insightful examination by Ed Kwick, the director and producer of Blood Diamonds, on his experiences, fears and hopes while directing the movie. This is from a speech given by Ed Kwick to the Rapaport International Diamond Conference.
- “Mining and Critical EcoSystems” a study to develop a qualitative framework for identifying communities and ecosystems vulnerable to the social and environmental impacts of mining. Published by the World Resources Institute.
- Amnesty International and Global Witness have combined forces and resources to combat the terror of blood diamonds.
- A United Nations paper on the issues of conflict diamonds.
Eco-Jewelry. In our next post, we will examine the world of eco-jewelry. You do not have to go cold turkey on jewelry. There are socially and environmentally sustainable solutions and alternatives. You can still adorn yourself, even with glittering gold and snazzy diamonds. Just do it responsibly.