No matter what your pleasure—silver, gold, diamonds, or that special birthstone—the jewelry trade, although one associated with glitz, glamor, sparkle, and shine, is an inherently dirty—and dangerous—one. Fortunately, green jewelry doesn't just mean emeralds; it can be recycled gold and other precious metals, diamonds and gems mined with the environment and humane labor conditions in mind, vintage pieces, or for the more adventurous jewelry wearer, an array of items made from recycled and reclaimed materials. So before investing in the jewelry market—a market worth $55 billion in the US alone—read on to get the dirt on how the bling on your finger came to be.
Gold and other metals
Gold mining is one of the most polluting industries in the world, and its biggest threats include acid mine drainage, cyanide spills, and heavy metal pollution. Metals mining is responsible for 76 percent of lead and 96 percent of arsenic emissions in the US. In the western US, mining has polluted the headwaters of more than 40 percent of watersheds. The weight of the waste produced by mines in the US is almost nine times the weight of the garbage produced by all of America's cities and towns combined. Metal mining eats up a disproportionate amount of energy. The industry employs less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the world's population, but it consumes 7 to 10 percent of the world's energy. Mining can also displace local populations.
The production of just one 18-karat gold ring that weighs less than one ounce can generate 20 tons of harmful mine waste. This waste can contaminate nearby water with mercury and arsenic, which is harmful to human health. Two-thirds of newly mined gold comes from open-pit mines, which requires companies to blast an entire site and remove rock and minerals in the area. Smelters used to purify metals like gold, aluminum, nickel, and copper produce 142 million tons of sulfur dioxide to the atmosphere annually, which is 13 percent of global emissions.
Diamonds and other gemstones
Although modern diamond mining in the US takes place on a small scale (the lone American site operates on the Colorado/Wyoming border), diamond mining has taken its toll on ecosystems and populations in other areas around the world.
Even though you may have purchased that rock on a recent trip to Antwerp or at your local shopping mall in Ann Arbor, chances are that it originated in Africa (in Botswana, the Congo, and Sierra Leone, for example) where an estimated 65 percent of diamonds are mined. Australia and Russia are also active producers. Although the diamond trade has proven beneficial in many aspects—revenue has helped combat HIV/AIDS, provide steady employment and health care, and guarantee education in impoverished areas—there are also serious consequences affecting both humans and the environment.
The environmental consequences from diamond mining are significant. To access the diamonds, large amounts of rock and other matter—called overburden—is removed from the earth, disturbing surrounding ecosystems. Acid mine drainage is also a threat. In areas where there are little or nonexistent environmental standards—such as filling in empty pits and redepositing topsoil on reclaimed land—threats to surrounding ecosystems are heightened.
Perhaps even more notable are terrorism and human rights violations in diamond mining Central and West African countries. Some diamonds that come from this region are referred to as conflict diamonds—or blood diamonds—and they continue to be an issue although the Kimberly Process Certification System—a United Nations-backed coalition of governments, non-government groups, and diamond companies initiated in 2002—has been extremely successful in nearly dissolving the conflict diamond trade. Read more about the direct environmental impact of the conflict diamond trade in the article Sparkling Clean?.
In response to consumer concern over diamond mining in strife-torn African countries, jewelers such as De Beers have turned to Canada as an alternative resource for these precious stones. Sadly, Canada-mined diamonds are not without conflict—on both the human rights and environmental front. The issues lie within Canada's 1.4 billion acre Boreal Forest, the largest intact ecosystem on earth. Despite its unspoiled status, less than 10 percent of the forest is protected against industrial development, making mining (and minerals)—along with the forest's rich untapped resources such as timber, oil, and gas—a worrisome issue to many. Aside from potential environmental destruction, mining in the Boreal Forest could negatively impact a large, poverty-stricken aboriginal population. De Beers Canada completed construction of the "Snap Lake Project" mining site in 2007. The impacted area covers around 500 hectares and will employ 500 people at full production.
Madagascar & Sri Lanka
Although the environmental and social ills of the diamond trade tend to get the most press, the mining of other gems also has dire consequences across the globe. Madagascar, an island with a wealth of biodiversity but widespread poverty, has produced around 50 percent of the world's sapphires since their discovery on the island in 1994. Environmental concerns associated with sapphire mining in Madagascar include deforestation, water pollution from inadequate sanitation and sedimentation, and hunting (miners often kill lemurs and other species in protected areas for food, reducing the native population). Non-environmental concerns include illicit trading practices, increasing rates of crime and HIV infection in "boomtown" areas, and perilous working conditions for miners.
Compared to the relatively recent sapphire boom in Madagascar, gemstone mining, especially for sapphires, in Sri Lanka has been documented as far back as 334 BC. The entire mining process is an ancient, revered one with ties to religion; mining companies operate on a co-op basis using age-old methods, with miners usually receiving a small share of profits. Despite the relative stability of Sri Lanka's gemstone industry, there are significant environmental concerns. Examples include the spread of malaria due to stagnant water in derelict mining pits, erosion, and the clearing of valuable agricultural land for mining endeavors. The relationship between gemstone mining and the environment has been studied in Sri Lanka more than in other regions due in part to the high literacy rate in the country.
For more on how gemstone mining affects other countries, such as Thailand and Brazil, see Gems and the Environment: Balancing Benefits and Costs.
Although not as coveted—or wallet-busting—as jewelry made from precious metals and gemstones, many stuff their jewelry boxes with baubles made from plastic. A primary concern with plastic jewelry (or anything made from the material) is the impact of petroleum used in production and the volume of waste plastic ending up in landfills where it is very slow to biodegrade. A large amount of plastic waste has found its way into aquatic settings where it wreaks havoc on marine life. In fact, there is a Texas-sized mass of plastic waste floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the result of currents sweeping all the waste into one mammoth formation.
Related health issues
In 2001, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that the hard-rock mining industry, which includes gold and silver, released 2.8 billion pounds of toxic waste into the environment. These toxins include mercury, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and lead. Extended exposure to arsenic has been linked to skin cancer, cadmium can cause kidney disease, lead can stunt the growth of children, and some mercury can damage the nervous system.
Cyanide is used in gold and silver mining to help extract the metals from the rock, and it's used to obtain 90 percent of the gold mined in the US. This toxin will block the absorption of oxygen by cells, which suffocates victims. Cyanide enters the environment through spills, discharges, dam overflows, water runoff, groundwater and mine waste, and it can poison people through inhalation, ingestion, and skin or eye contact. 
- conflict diamonds: Conflict diamonds, also known as blood diamonds, represented 4 percent of the global diamond market in the 1990s but now account for less than 1 percent thanks to swift United Nations-mandated actions. These illicit diamonds were used to fund brutal armed rebel uprisings against legitimate governments in countries like Liberia, Angola, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, and Sierra Leone. The small amount of conflict diamonds still being traded most likely originated in the Republic of Congo or Liberia. Conflict diamonds are the subject of the Oscar-nominated 2006 film, Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou. The film takes place in unrest-ravaged Sierra Leone in the 1990s.
- Enviroblog - Ask EWG: Is there eco-friendly jewelry?
- Organic Clothing Blog - Jewelry: Troubles with Baubles
- the greener side - All that glitters isn't green, but this jewelry is.
- Ideal Bite - Adding to your family's jewel collection?
- Ethical Metalsmiths
- Council for Responsible Jewellery Practices A nonprofit organization that represents over 80 companies involved in the diamond and gold trade. The group's mission statement reads: "Our objective is to promote responsible ethical, social and environmental practices throughout the diamond and gold jewellery supply chain, from mine to retail."
- No Dirty Gold Campaign - FAQs and Fact Sheet about Mining and US Jewelry Market
- No Dirty Gold Campaign - Retailers: Don't let the mining industry tarnish the jewelry business
- OXFAM - No Dirty Gold Toolkit
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Liquid Assets 2000: Americans Pay for Dirty Water
- Inter Press Service News Agency - Gold Jewelry: World's Dirtiest Valentine's Gift?
- Newsweek - Jewelry: Cleaner Karats
- Brilliant Earth - Conflict Diamond and Gold Mining Issues
- No Dirty Gold Campaign - Polluted Air
- Emporia State University - Diamond Mines of North America
- The Environmental Literacy Council - Diamond Mining
- DiamondFacts.org - Diamond Facts
- Diamonds.net - Editorial: Canada's Blood Diamonds
- De Beers Canada - Factsheet: Snap Lake Diamond Project
- University of Vermont - Gems and the Environment: Balancing Benefits and Costs: Madagascar's Sapphires
- University of Vermont - Gems and the Environment: Balancing Benefits and Costs: Sri Lanka's Gemstones
- Mindfully.org - Water, Water Everywhere
- The Environmental Literacy Council - Plastics
- Earthworks - Mining Impacts
- Earthworks - Health Impacts
- State Environmental Resource Center - Banning Cyanide Use in Mining
- Diamondfacts.org - Blood Diamonds: Background