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Sustainable Jewellery: What is it and Why Buy it?

28 June 2021 6 min read

At illi, our mission is to create beautiful jewellery that is kinder to the planet. Sustainability is at the heart of everything we do.

When it comes to how we spend, today’s consumers are looking more closely at what’s behind the curtain. Whether that’s food production, fast fashion or, in our case, fine jewellery.

We want to know what we eat, wear or buy isn’t coming at the cost of harming our planet and its inhabitants. We want to make sustainable choices.

What Does Sustainability Look Like When it Comes to Jewellery?

In 2019, the global jewellery market clocked in at 330 billion USD.

It’s an age-old industry that is still woefully under-regulated, with historically poor environmental and humanitarian records. And while steps have been taken to minimise the negative impact, it isn’t enough.

Have you ever wondered where the gold for your favourite earrings originated? Or how the diamond adorning the third finger on your left hand was extracted from the earth? Perhaps not. And honestly, even if you did some digging, you wouldn’t find much.

The truth is, it’s almost impossible to trace the true origin of your jewellery. Every mined stone passes through dozens, if not hundreds, of pairs of hands. Across countries and continents, each with their own standards and practices.

Why is This Important?

It’s this lack of transparency that’s at the heart of the problem.

A clear supply chain is the only way to know for certain that the product you end up with is ‘clean’, and not involved in things like corruption, environmental degradation, or even violent conflict.

Unfortunately, when it comes to gemstones and precious metals, this is exactly what we’re dealing with. The current jewellery industry is a minefield of ethical and environmental concerns and any real sustainability is hard to achieve.

Problems with the Industry

Environmental Concerns

Mining takes a huge toll on our earth. It’s estimated around 250 tonnes of earth are shifted for every single diamond carat. According to the Diamond Council, an eye-watering 148 million carats are mined each year.

Unsurprisingly, mining for diamonds, gemstones and other precious metals takes up a lot of space. That’s putting it mildly. In fact, some of these mines are so vast, they can be seen from outer space.

To make way for these mega-mines, huge swathes of land need to be cleared. Harsh mining processes wreak havoc on local biodiversity, impacting soil and water quality and releasing harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

Diamond mine in the Kimberley region in Western Australia

Diamond mine in the Kimberley region in Western Australia

At the other end of the process, most of the world’s jewellery is cheap costume jewellery, worn a few times, then discarded. These fast fashion pieces inevitably end up sitting in landfill. And, as most jewellery isn’t biodegradable, it’s destined to stay there forever.

Social and Humanitarian Concerns

Sadly, it’s not just the land that suffers the impacts of mining. What about the people who live on the land? Thousands are displaced, forced to resettle elsewhere, while those that remain suffer the effects of pollution. Livelihoods wither as soil is no longer usable and water sources are unsafe.

Across the globe, millions of people make their living from the jewellery industry. From mining to production to transportation. Most of these people live in some of the world’s least developed economies, countries with little to no regulation or protection.

For employees, this means working in potentially dangerous conditions with risky chemicals and a lack of health and safety support.

Mining is one of the most dangerous professions in the world. Miners face higher mortality rates and risk of injury or illness. While many gem cutters lack proper ventilation to protect them from lung damage and other long-term health conditions.

Exploitation is rife. Human Rights Watch estimates around 1 million children work in the industry. Not only are they missing out on education and essential opportunities for development, but they are also subjected to the same poor conditions as adult workers, putting their health, wellbeing and even their lives at risk.

In many of the areas where mining occurs, armed groups often profit from the trade of so-called ‘blood diamonds’. Such groups are associated with violence, massacres, kidnapping, sexual abuse and more. The Kimberley Process sets an international standard for diamonds, but many argue it doesn’t do enough to stop the sale of conflict diamonds.

Clearly, this is not an ethical or sustainable process. Far from it.

To stem the tide of inequality, exploitation and environmental devastation, brands are innovating more sustainable jewellery-making practices, in a bid to transform the industry for the better.

What is Sustainable Jewellery?

The UN defines sustainability as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

So, what does sustainability mean in terms of industry, in particular, the jewellery industry?

A simple way to put it is: meeting demand while avoiding or offsetting negative impacts on our environmental, social and economic systems.

At illi, we are among a new wave of ethically-minded companies seeking out another way of doing things to make a positive impact on the world around us.

By creating jewellery in a way that is sustainable, that has less of an impact on our environment, we are helping safeguard the future and transform the industry.

There are two main components of sustainable jewellery: recycled metals and lab-grown diamonds and gemstones. 

Recycled Metals

Recycled jewellery is a big win for the environment.

Using recycled metals avoids the need for mining which, as we already know, is harmful to the planet. It also rescues old jewellery from the waste heap.

This gives new life to unloved or unwanted jewellery, by melting it down and transforming it into high-quality pieces that will bring joy to someone else, without the environmental cost.

(It’s important to note that many jewellers will advertise jewellery made using recycled metals, but this often means only a portion of recycled metals has been used. When looking for recycled jewellery make sure it’s 100% recycled, like all illi jewellery.)

Lab-Grown Diamonds and Gemstones

Like mined diamonds, lab-grown diamonds are real diamonds created through heat and pressure, making them indistinguishable from their mined counterparts. High Pressure High Temperature (HPHT) and Chemical Vapour Deposition (CVD) systems produce the right conditions to create beautiful looking diamonds and other precious stones, without the heavy footprint.

Plus, with lab-grown diamonds, you can trace exactly where they’re from. So, you can trust that they’re sourced ethically.

Lower Environmental Impact and More Sustainable Practices

The 2014 Frost & Sullivan Environmental Impact Analysis compared the environmental impact of lab-grown versus mined diamonds. They discovered lab-grown diamonds have seven times less the negative impact, using only 0.028 grams of carbon emissions per carat, compared with 57,000 grams for mined diamonds. The report also declared the chances of an environmental hazard occurring as ‘non-existent’.

Doing Our Part

On top of using 100% recycled metals and lab-grown gemstones, ethical jewellery companies actively work to minimise their environmental impact.

At illi, our commitment to sustainability doesn’t end with our jewellery. We have an ongoing commitment to making the best choices for people and the planet in every business decision we need to make.

Our packaging is already largely recyclable and made using sustainable materials but we are working hard for it to be 100% plastic-free and fully recyclable soon. Read more about our packaging.

We offset the carbon created by shipping each order through tree planting and we are working hard to make our business practices as sustainable as possible. It's an ongoing process but one that we are fully committed to. 

Of course, no brand is perfect and, as a relatively new company, there are still plenty of kinks to work out. Creating lab-grown diamonds uses a lot of energy and, with a lack of data, it’s hard to say exactly how much. Some companies are addressing this by only using renewable energy and becoming certified carbon neutral, which is one of many areas that we are actively pursuing.

The diamond and precious metal mining industry employs millions of workers. The rise in popularity of recycled and lab-grown jewellery will ultimately impact their livelihoods so this is also something that needs to be considered.

Mining for diamonds in Sierra Leone

Mining for diamonds in Sierra Leone

Defining sustainable or ethical jewellery is far from clear cut. As more and more people seek out ethically-minded brands and increased sustainability, others are jumping on the bandwagon to declare themselves as eco-friendly, also known as ‘greenwashing’. Be sure to do your homework before you invest to ensure you’re buying from a company that is truly committed to sustainability - like illi!

Why Buy Sustainable Jewellery?

2020 was a stark reminder of how the way we live impacts the planet.

Who can remember photos of the Himalayas, seen, for the first time in decades, unobscured by a thick haze of smog? Or crystal clear water filling the previously murky Venice canals?

The power is in our hands to protect our environment and stop damaging practices putting people at risk. By making responsible choices, including where we buy from, we are consciously choosing to do just that. It’s time to turn the tide.

Shop our range of sustainable jewellery now