Why I Care About Ethically Sourcing Gemstones and Why You Should Too

ethical gemstones, ethical sourcing, sustainability - | by: Sarah Dizon Sowinski

Why I Care About Ethically Sourcing Gemstones and Why You Should Too

Are your ‘healing crystals’ doing more harm than good? In many cases, yes. 

I love rough-cut gemstones and crystals. I especially love incorporating them into my handcrafted jewellery for my brand, The Groggy Owl. They’re gorgeous rocks reflecting the incredible beauty mother earth has to offer. What I don’t love are the horrendous environmental and human rights violations attached to many of them. 

The Dark Side of “Healing Crystals”

Despite promises of “good vibes only”, many crystals and gemstones have a dark origin story. The multi-billion dollar gemstone industry is wrought with environmental degradation, pollution, dangerous working conditions, child labour, low wages, and violence. 

Conventional gemstones found at retailers in the West and across the globe are largely mined in the world's poorest countries with lax labour laws and environmental regulations. The gemstone industry largely profits from the exploitation of vulnerable, marginalized people around the world. Often, the conditions are dangerous for workers, with little safety equipment, and low wages. 

The mining and distribution of gemstones are also linked to conflict and violence. Myanmar (formerly Burma), for example, is the source for many of the world’s gemstones, especially rubies. Myanmar's military, who is responsible for systemic violence and genocide against the Rohingya people, controls and profits from the country’s gemstone mines.

Environmental atrocities within the gemstone mining industry is also abundant. Large-scale mines use up huge portions of land, often displacing people and critically impacting biodiversity. Larger mining operations have a massive carbon footprint, often contaminating waterways, and contributing to air pollution in the process. This is even the case with large-scale US mines who have been known to contaminate ecosystems. 

Not only is there abuse when it comes to the mining of gemstones, but the processing of gemstones can be terribly unethical as well. Often, the conditions are dangerous for workers due to the lack of regulation and proper health and safety equipment. In Khambat, India, a city known for agate processing for centuries, approximately a third of agate workers develop silicosis due to the lack of proper safety equipment. 

The Complicated, Unregulated Supply Chains of the Gemstone Industry

A large part of why I started The Groggy Owl is because I wanted to make jewellery that was not tainted by human rights violations and environmental destruction. However, finding “ethically-sourced” stones proved to be a challenge. Unlike with diamonds, which has the Kimberley Process Certification System (even this has problems), there are no standardized regulations on what constitutes an ethically-sourced gemstone.

Complicating things further, crystal mining is often a byproduct of large-scale industrial mining for gold, cobalt or copper. These industrial mines often have terrible track records full of environmental abuse and human rights violations. These “byproducts” and who they are sold to are rarely disclosed in annual reports, so it’s difficult to assess how many gemstones are coming from these sources. 

To make matters worse, the industry is highly fragmented with complicated supply chains. Once extracted from the earth, gems will pass through many hands. Where gemstones are mined and where they processed are often two very different things. Once mined, the rocks are often sent elsewhere for processing, as far as other countries. There are so many “middle-men”, so by the time gemstones reach most retailers, it’s extremely difficult to track where they came from. There are no regulations for tracking gemstones, so retailers mostly rely on the word of their suppliers on their origins. 

In short, if you do not know where your crystals are coming from - there is a high probability it was tainted by environmental and human rights violations along the way. 

What Makes an Ethically-Sourced Gemstone?

"Ethical" is such a vague term, and can be used by anyone to mean a number of things. Because there is no standard certification process for what makes a stone ethical, I have outlined my own criteria of what I mean by “ethically-sourced gemstones”. I believe that for a gemstone to be ethically-sourced, it must satisfy the following criteria:

  •  All workers involved in processes the stones must be paid a fair, living wage. This includes all workers involved in every stage of the supply chain.
  • The working conditions must be safe for all the workers at all stages of the supply chain. This also means no children or underage workers are involved at any stage. 
  • People were not forcibly displaced off land due to mining activities. 
  • The stones should be conflict-free, which means it doesn't fund or fuel wars and violence.
  • There should be little to no negative environmental impact. 

What Am I Doing to Make Sure The Groggy Owl’s Gems Are Ethical?

How do I make sure that the gemstones and crystals I use to make my jewellery are not tainted by environmental and human rights abuses?

I ASK ALL THE QUESTIONS

You know all that criteria I outlined earlier? Whenever I purchase from a supplier, I ask the necessary questions to ensure that the gemstones I am buying meet my “ethically-sourced” criteria. Where does this come from? Who mines this? What are the conditions of the mine? How is it processed? 

I BUY DIRECTLY FROM SMALL-SCALE MINERS

After much searching, I am so happy and thankful to be able to source all my rough-cut, tumble polished, and hand-faceted gemstones directly from small-scale miners. They do not get their stones from the traditional mining industry, but instead dig them at small sites that are fairly low-impact. These miners do not only mine the stones themselves, but they also process them as well. As mentioned before, this is important because even if a stone is mined ethically, the processing stage is often outsourced elsewhere, where unsafe labour conditions and human rights violations occur at this stage.

  • All of my amethyst is from a local, Ontario-based miner who mines all her amethyst from a small, family-run mine near Thunder Bay. Her name is Jean Wolfe, and I had the opportunity to interview her over coffee. Read the blog I wrote about her. 
  • I source from an incredible Ontario-based couple who have been “rock-hunters” for over 15 years. They travel across Canada and the US to mine stones themselves. From them I get my quartz (clear, white, rose and smokey), tourmaline, aquamarine, peridot, labradorite, calcite, opal, jade, garnet, prehnite, moonstone, auralite, turquoise, citrine, and Herkimer diamonds. All of the gems I get from them are actually from small mines across Canada, with the exception of the turquoise and Herkimer diamonds, which are from the US. 
  • Apart from the Canadian jade I use (found in BC), I source from the incredible couple noted above, I also source jade from a California-based miner who is local to the relatives I have in California. My mom was able to meet them in person on a recent trip, and learned all about how they mine and process the jade themselves locally in Big Sur. 
  • I also source Canadian Shield rocks from someone based in my own town, who hand-collects them himself in Muskoka-Parry Sound areas. He polishes these billion-year old rocks himself in his home studio.  

 

I SHOP SMALL AND LOCAL

Most of the small-scale miners I source from are local, and get their rocks primarily across Canada. If I can’t source the gemstones from the miners directly, I source from small, local businesses who can tell me where they get their gemstones from. Supporting other small businesses is very important to me. It helps give back to my community, and also means less money going into the pockets of greedy large-scale corporations that are the cause of many environmental and human rights injustices. 

I’M COMMITTED TO CONTINUOUSLY DO BETTER 

I have always been committed to “buying ethical”. However, I didn’t always ask the right questions when starting out. I have stones in my inventory that I purchased from suppliers who promised me that the stones are “ethical”, but after reaching out to them later - they could not tell me exactly the conditions of the mine, or where exactly the stone came from. I have stopped purchasing from these suppliers since, only using up the remaining inventory. 

While I am trying my best, I am human and I am still learning. If you notice something that I could be doing better - I welcome you to tell me. I would love to improve. I am dedicated to my values of social responsibility, and will gladly do better. 

What Can YOU Do?

  • Educate yourself. 
  • Spread the word.
  • Ask questions. Where does this come from? Who mined this? Who processed this?
  • Only shop from reputable brands that can tell you exactly where their crystals are coming from. (Such as The Groggy Owl *wink wink*)
  • Demand your local government to hold mining corporations accountable for their violence and injustice, and enforce mining regulations that protect the environment and people. 

There are no simple solutions, but in order to tackle these issues we need to be aware of how our role as consumers impact the lives of people across the globe.

As the multi-billion dollar gemstone industry continues to grow, we need to put a stop to the violence. We all need to start asking how these gems are extracted from the earth, and demand that these processes do not harm people or the environment. We need to make sure the marginalized communities impacted also do not lose their livelihood. Of course, the situation is complex, tied to systems of oppression that go beyond the scope of the gemstone industry. Much of what we use on a regular basis is somehow tainted with human rights abuses, from our laptops to our cellphones. Protecting the people who are directly affected by the injustices of the mining industry requires both regulation and dismantling the oppressive structures in place. Systemic change is necessary. There are no simple solutions, but in order to tackle these issues we need to be aware of how our role as consumers impact the lives of people across the globe.

For The Groggy Owl, I plan to continue to learn and constantly re-evaluate my own processes, suppliers etc. to ensure that I am conducting my small business as ethically as possible. 

 

 

References

Atkin, E. (2018, May 11). Do You Know Where Your Healing Crystals Come From? Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/148190/know-healing-crystals-come-from

Earthworks. (n.d.). Copper Sulfide Mining. Retrieved February 4, 2020, from https://earthworks.org/issues/copper_sulfide_mining/

Elliot, J. K. (2018, November 4). 'Genocide gems': Highly-sought Burmese rubies and sapphires may be enriching Myanmar's military. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/4571806/burmese-ruby-genocide-gem-myanmar/

McClure, T. (2019, September 17). Dark crystals: the brutal reality behind a booming wellness craze. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/sep/17/healing-crystals-wellness-mining-madagascar

Overdorf, J. (2013, March 21). How the shiny "agate" stones in jewelry and rosary beads are killing workers. Retrieved from https://www.pri.org/stories/2013-03-21/how-shiny-agate-stones-jewelry-and-rosary-beads-are-killing-workers

Rhode, D. (2014, March 24). The Kimberley Process is a 'perfect cover story' for blood diamonds. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/diamonds-blood-kimberley-process-mines-ethical

Willow, F. (2018, August 29). Are Your Gems Funding Genocide? Here's How To Buy An Ethical Engagement Ring Instead. Retrieved from https://ethicalunicorn.com/2018/05/15/are-your-gems-funding-genocide-heres-how-to-buy-an-ethical-engagement-ring-instead/

Winter, L. (2019, July 27). Drop your jade roller! There's a hurtful side to healing crystals that you NEED to know about. Retrieved from https://www.glamourmagazine.co.uk/article/crystal-industry-dark-side

Wiseman, E. (2019, June 16). Are crystals the new blood diamonds? Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/jun/16/are-crystals-the-new-blood-diamonds-the-truth-about-muky-business-of-healing-stones


About the Author: Sarah Dizon Sowinski

A self-taught artist and jewellery maker, Sarah Dizon Sowinski is the founder, designer and maker behind The Groggy Owl. Sarah completed her BA in International Development Studies, where she focused on ethical business practices and social responsibility. She is currently working on a post-grad in Business and Human Resources, with an emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion.


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