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Does sustainable jewellery exist? An expert guide to buying better for the planet

Photography By @releasedfromlovejewellery, Monarc
Published 20.01.22

It’s no secret that the jewellery industry has some ethical issues. (I mean, we’ve all seen Blood Diamond, right?)

The ugly truths behind our prettiest things don’t just stop with humanitarian issues: the production of fine jewellery also presents a lot of environmental challenges. Considering the fact we’re talking about an industry worth 228 billion US dollars, which is massively dependent on mining rare minerals, it’s hard to imagine how earrings, necklaces, rings and the like could ever be sustainably produced.

Here’s the thing: environmentally responsible jewellery does exist. But honestly, the industry is a complex minefield that anyone would understandably struggle to navigate. While putting this piece together, we ran up against murky definitions, controversial certifications and complex production processes. But with input from a sustainability expert, and listening to the brands we trust, we’ve come up with a guide to buying jewellery that is better for the planet (and hopefully as easy to digest as a Leonardo DiCaprio film).  

First things first: what is sustainable jewellery? 

Like just about everything to do with sustainability, there’s no universal definition or industry standard when it comes to sustainable jewellery. This is frustrating on many levels, but mainly because it means it’s open for interpretation by both brands and buyers. And we know anything unregulated or open for interpretation is ripe ground for greenwashing. 

In light of that, we asked sustainability expert, Celeste Tesoriero, to tell us how she defines sustainable jewellery. She says jewellery is environmentally sustainable if it uses recycled and/or responsibly sourced materials, is produced with a minimal impact on the environment and is made using conflict-free resources. 

Tesoriero adds that transparency is the most important thing to consider when deciding whether a brand is actually sustainable or not. Basically, that means assessing how much information it is providing about the products it sells and how they were made. Her checklist includes materials used (raw or recycled), where those materials were sourced (particularly when it involves diamonds or gemstones), whether a brand has a sustainability roadmap and what certifications are included. 

The co-founders of artisan jewellery brand Released from Love, Hannah Roche and Lachlan Malone, consider these things but also look deeper into the “why” when measuring a product’s or brand’s sustainability. They do this by asking basic questions: Why was this jewellery made? Who made the jewellery? Where was it made? 

“[Our brand] defines sustainability and ethics by our actions,” Malone says. “We create lifelong art objects by using artisanal and moral manufacturing practices. This means everything is designed and handcrafted in Australia using traditional, fine and contemporary jewellery-making techniques, alongside recycled precious metals sourced via the Responsible Jewellery Council.” 

 

How to buy sustainable jewellery

Once you’ve got a sense of how to define sustainable jewellery, and a set of criteria by which to measure the brands you choose to support, it’s time to start shopping. Here are some simple steps to follow before you outlay what might be a considerable investment.

Read the brand’s “about” page 

This is an incredibly obvious thing to state, but hear us out. Reading a brand’s “about” page should be the first step of any purchase you make, especially if that business is marketing itself as sustainable.

When looking at jewellery, this is where you should expect to find information about a brand’s values, manufacturing methods, supply chains, materials, carbon footprint, certifications, and social and environmental commitments. (We created our own criteria to measure brands’ sustainability claims, which you can read more about here.) 

Keep an eye out for non-specific language here. If you come across descriptions that feel purposely vague or confusing, or even words and terms that feel hard to define, press the brand for more information. It’s all well and good to claim a product was “made with the planet in mind” or “consciously crafted”, but if there’s no further explanation then those phrases are meaningless. Even a polyester sweater from H&M could be “consciously crafted”. Always make sure a brand that says it’s doing good by the environment is explaining exactly how. 

Consider the price point 

Similar to buying clothes, jewellery should be seen as a lifelong investment. You want to purchase something made from high-quality materials with the mindset that it is going to last – so you should expect to pay more upfront. “Even though cheap, knock-off jewellery products don’t seem like real metals, they are still taking resources from the earth and they don’t last. So anything cheap or mass-produced is a red flag,” Tesoriero says. “Just like fast fashion, we want to avoid fast jewellery.” Yes, that means you need to stop buying those multipacks of earrings that turn green after two weeks. 

Roche says she is always mindful of cost and material. “The cheaper something is for me usually means someone is suffering…or the consumer is being sold something made from hazardous materials that are not good for their skin in the long term. 

“I always look for non-toxic precious materials, which is also why we only use silver and gold in our jewellery.” 

 

Opt for recycled materials 

Both Roche and Tesoriero say the use of recycled materials is the biggest thing to look out for when buying sustainable jewellery. Precious metals like gold and silver can be recycled (melted into a new piece of jewellery) without losing their quality and, when they are, they have a much lower impact on the environment than newly mined materials. 

If you do have to buy something that requires raw or virgin materials (like diamonds), Tesoriero says to look for brands exploring low-impact innovations. “Above-ground diamonds are a much better alternative for ethical and environmental sustainability to earth-mined diamonds,” she says. “Brands like Aether are a good example of this. They make diamonds from excess CO₂, which is really cool.”  

Look for certifications 

If a brand has certifications, it doesn’t automatically mean it is the pinnacle of social and environmental sustainability. The reason we say that is because, while it’s better than nothing, many certified organisations have their own internal issues and criticisms. So don’t treat a certification as a silver bullet. 

In saying that, some good certifications to look out for include Fairtrade, the Responsible Jewellery Council, the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) and Fairmined. If a brand doesn’t offer further explanation about why it has that certification, make sure you do your own research so you actually know what these things mean. 

Look for brands that offer repairs and circular solutions 

If you are paying more or a premium price for jewellery, it’s not out of the question to expect a brand to offer restoration or repair services. These kinds of circular solutions point to a more genuine commitment to environmental impact and also mean a business is making products it believes to be worthy of improving or giving a second life. (FYI, Released from Love offers restorations and repairs.) Tesoriero adds that “keeping things in circulation as long as possible is the most sustainable thing we can do”. 

Get old pieces remade

Jewellery is a popular accessory to hand down to family members or close friends, but personal style and preference are not always suited to antique pieces. If you’ve been given something that you don’t wear (and don’t want to hang onto as a keepsake) consider getting it remade into a custom jewellery piece. You could take the gemstones or diamonds from an old necklace or ring and have them put into a piece that is more your style, or you could have the materials melted down and upcycled into something new entirely.

Buying made-to-order or customised jewellery is also a great way to ensure businesses aren’t producing excess stock or creating unnecessary waste. And you’re simply guaranteed to get exactly what you want and know you will wear. 

Buy second-hand  

We say this every time but, hey, it never gets old: buying vintage or second-hand jewellery is the most sustainable way to shop. No virgin materials needed, no extra emissions for the production of the product and no items ending up in landfill unnecessarily. Plus, who wouldn’t want to brag about wearing a ring that was made 50 years ago? Vintage jewellery is better for the environment and, more often than not, way cooler than the stuff you buy from shops. 

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