Go Green: How Jewelry Makers Are Reducing Their Environmental Impact

Behold the mighty power of the phrase “carbon footprint.”

Prior to Al Gore rolling out An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, it’s a fair bet that the majority of people had never heard the phrase or given it much thought. Since then it’s become a convenient buzzword, has garnered a lot of interest in the media and among the general public, and has in many cases become a potent marketing tool that can enhance a company’s image. But what does it actually mean?

The term is an offshoot from the broader “ecological footprint,” a measure of man’s impact on the environment. It was coined in 1995 by Mathis Wackernagel, a sustainability expert and the executive director of the Global Footprint Network. In the 2007 paper “A Definition of ‘Carbon Footprint,’” authors Thomas Wiedmann and Jan Minx of Integrated Sustainability Analysis UK Research & Consulting (isa-research.com.uk) note that “despite its ubiquitous appearance there seems to be no clear definition of this term and there is still some confusion what it actually means and measures and what unit is to be used.” Painted with a broad brush, a carbon footprint is the volume of gaseous emissions—largely carbon dioxide—created in the course of a person’s daily business, whether it be automotive emissions or the gaseous byproduct of a manufacturing process. Wiedmann and Minx suggest that the definition be stated thus: “… a measure of the exclusive total amount of carbon dioxide emissions that is directly and indirectly caused by an activity or is accumulated over the life stages of a product.”

Environmental impact, however, is not simply a matter of gases. It’s a function of everything that is done on a daily operational basis, from melting metal to sending a memo. Fire up a Google search on the phrase “reducing carbon footprint” and the number of suggestions (mostly tailored to individuals) is staggering: They range from changing your light bulbs to taking a local vacation as opposed to flying to a distant destination. One thing, however, comes up quite often: using resources responsibly. As awareness grows, more companies are looking at how each daily task impacts the planet and how they can change what they do to make their own footprints that much smaller.

THE JOURNEY TO GREEN

As a jewelry maker, there are many steps you can take to achieve a greener operation. But according to Alan Bell, managing director of Rio Grande in Albuquerque, N.M., you need to begin the process with the basic step of simplifying your day-to-day operations. “A great byproduct of simplifying is that you use less of everything,” says Bell. “Less electricity, less water, you name it.” He suggests starting the process of reducing your carbon footprint by asking a series of questions: “What is going out of your building? How much dirty water? Dirty air? Cardboard? Scrap? What if your goal was to eliminate anything leaving your building except finished product? Is that impossible? Maybe, but it has a way of radically challenging your assumptions.” When you isolate different areas of your manufacturing and business operation, you can assess the impact of each on the environment, and find ways to minimize that impact for the better of the Earth—and, often, your business. The following are some actions to consider.

Reduce chemical use. Not only is the disposal of hazardous chemicals bad for the environment, but it can be a costly process that poses significant health risks to employees if not done properly. When Superfit Inc. in King of Prussia, Pa., was ramping up to produce its new finished jewelry line CliQ, which debuted at the 2008 JCK Las Vegas Show, the company took into consideration the environmental impact of its operations. “When we were investing in new tooling, we decided to go with a CNC process that is run on pure ethanol instead of the more traditional petroleum-based coolant,” says Eric Alulis, vice president of product development. “After cooling, the ethanol simply evaporates, making for a much simpler and more cost-effective refining process.”

The company no longer has to dispose cleanly of petroleum-based coolant, nor does it have to separate precious metals from petroleum-based coolant, which ultimately results in a higher rate of reclaimed material. And as good as it is for the environment, it’s also good for the pocketbook: Alulis reports that the greener CNC process has saved the company about $10,000 a year.

About five years ago, Hoover & Strong Inc. in Richmond, Va., developed a refining process that uses 80 percent less chemicals than its former process. “We don’t have to deal with what to do with the spent chemicals,” says Torry Hoover, president of Hoover & Strong, the sheer volume of which is considerable for a company of Hoover’s size. Although the company is now saving around $10,000 a year in chemical disposal, it cost it between $400,000 and $500,000 to implement the process. “It will take up to 10 years to recoup the investment in decreased costs and increased throughput,” says Stewart Grice, the company’s mill and refining director, “but it was the right thing to do in line with our long-term view to become a more environmentally friendly company.” But even small process changes can be good for the environment. For example, Superfit eliminated the use of cyanide in its operation and switched to biodegradable buffing compounds and tumbling solutions. At Suna Bros. in New York City, the small high-end jewelry manufacturer recently eliminated ammonia from its ultrasonic solution. These efforts may seem small, but they add up to a bigger picture of environmentally conscious jewelry manufacturing.

Conserve water. Larger suppliers and manufacturers must be especially careful when dealing with wastewater treatment and disposal, taking care not to let dangerous chemicals—or valuable bits of metal—carelessly leave their facilities. One solution is to keep all the water in. “We’re a zero-discharge water facility,” says Hoover. “We knock the base metals out of the wastewater and then evaporate the liquid so we put zero into the sewer.” This is a particularly attractive proposition in the jewelry industry because it enables manufacturers to recapture those bits of precious metal that might otherwise go into the sewer. In addition, the company recycles all the water from its furnaces throughout the facility, cutting down its reliance on city water and again reducing the wastewater that flows back into public sources.

Even if your company doesn’t produce the volumes of wastewater that are generated by a large firm, you can still do your part to conserve. For example, it’s tradition at most manufacturing firms to use a two-part ultrasonic system to conserve water, says Aron Suna of Suna Bros. in New York City. One is used for pieces straight out of polishing, while the other is used for final cleaning. When it comes time to change the water, the dirtier water is dumped and replaced with the water in the cleaner machine, thus starting only one new bath. In addition to monitoring wastewater from manufacturing processes, you should monitor the efficiency of your climate control systems. Since it replaced its heating and cooling systems two years ago, Rio Grande has saved about 1.5 million gallons of water per year. The change has cut the company’s annual water bill by $28,800 and its gas bill by $17,100.

And in addition to conserving water, some companies are starting to collect it in the form of rainwater. United Precious Metal Refining, in Alden, N.Y., has implemented a rainwater collection and treatment system. “Water is channeled through rooftop drains and stored,” explains Ajit Menon, director of technology for the company. “It is then used for applications such as fume scrubbers or wastewater treatment processes.”

Increase energy efficiency. Being conscious of how much energy you use to run your operation can start with something as simple as how you get to work every day. Corvallis, Ore.–based designer Toby Pomeroy and roughly half of his eight-person staff regularly bike to work. At UPMR, management recently introduced a carpool tracking system for employees, enabling them to see where participating members live and contact them to coordinate carpooling. In addition to minimizing gas emissions from transportation, Pomeroy has enrolled in his local power company’s “Blue Skies” program. “Blue Skies is an option where we buy power from alternative sources,” he says. “We pay a little extra for wind, solar, and biomass energy production. It’s a way of offsetting the non-sustainability of traditional power sources like coal or hydroelectric, and Blue Skies also contributes to habitat restoration in 12 rivers in this state.”

In some states, businesses are offered incentives to be more energy-efficient. “The City of New York’s main electric company, Con Edison, has a program where it will go into your business and do a survey of your lighting,” says Suna. “They will have someone come in and replace your fluorescent lightbulbs with more energy-efficient ones for a small charge. The electric company gives you a partial rebate, and you recoup your costs in less than two years. In the long run, you not only save energy, but you also save money on your electric bills.”

Reduce packaging. If your company still packs with Styrofoam peanuts, you may soon (if not already) hear about it from your customers. Rio Grande made the switch from peanuts to paper 10 years ago, in large part because its customers were concerned about the Styrofoam in landfills. “The move from peanuts to paper actually cost us a little in the efficiency of our packers,” says Bell, “but we listened to our customers and responded to their concerns, which is one of our core values and undoubtedly contributes to our relationship with them.” When possible, opt for recycled packaging products—and ask your vendors to do the same. Bell suggests requesting to have your raw materials shipped to you in returnable or recyclable containers.

Use less paper. Have you ever stopped to wonder about the fate of the various catalogs, flyers, and brochures you send out on a daily, monthly, or yearly basis? Ever wondered how much of that ends up in the hands of people who may not have one of those nice blue recycling buckets next to their desks? Rick Mulholland, marketing director for Novell Design Studio in Roselle, N.J., looked at the amount of money his company was spending on paper, and he knew—from both an economic and an ecological standpoint—that it had to be reduced. Over the last two years he has been actively promoting the availability of the company’s catalog and latest brochures as PDF downloads. Mulholland says that thousands of Novell customers have downloaded the online material over the last few years. In doing so, they’ve helped to reduce the expenses and environmental impact related to collateral production and mailing while simultaneously increasing the reach of the company’s message. “About a year ago, if 100 catalogs were downloaded in a month, that was a good month,” he says. “Now, for some months we see at least 1,000 downloads of fairly large files. And I rarely send out a physical catalog.” Mulholland says his downloads in a 30-day period peaked at 6,636 in November 2007. “Imagine the cost if I had to mail them all out!” he says. Not to mention the paper waste. “If more companies encouraged downloads or electronic distribution, then less paper would be used, and the jewelry industry would be a greener industry to work in.”

Despite its broad applicability as a marketing hook now that it’s a shiny thing catching the public’s eye, reducing your company’s carbon footprint—or more to the point, its overall impact—is a noble cause. Good businesses always have an eye toward the future. It’s just that normally we’re looking at the future in terms of the next new thing or the most efficient piece of equipment. But clearly it’s time we started to take a look at how we’re treating the oldest and most essential piece of equipment we’ve got—our planet.