Designers / Industry

Jewelry Industry Must Help Fight Climate Change, Panelists Say


Jewelry businesses—especially those that source materials from poor countries—must do their part to help mitigate the ongoing crisis of climate change, said speakers at the daylong State of the Art Jewelry Summit, held June 23 at Harvard University’s Mineralogical & Geological Museum in Cambridge, Mass.

“Everything around us is made of materials that came from the earth,” said Charles Langmuir, a Harvard professor of geochemistry. “How often do we really feel this appreciation for the world that sustains us? Jewelry is beautiful. It touches everyone’s life. How can we use it to make a positive contribution to the planet?”

One way to do so, Langmuir said, is through the alleviation of poverty. But the industry also needs to think about its legacy in countries that it sources from.

“We in the U.S. emit 72 times the amount of greenhouse gases as people in the Global South,” he said.  “A person subsisting on $2 or $3 has a very different view of the world than we do. We need to deal with global poverty and look at how can we take care of people who emit 72 less times carbon dioxide than we do. How can we lift their standard of living?”

Another speaker—Harvard energy professor Daniel Nocera, inventor of the “bionic leaf,” a new form of agricultural technology—agreed. “You can’t have a sustainable earth with poverty,” he said. “In the Global South, there’s 3 billion people who don’t use energy, but we don’t see them because they’re poor.

“But soon, in the emerging world we will have billions of new energy users,” Nocera commented. “If you think you have problems now, just wait.”

He urged companies that work in those countries to provide ways of accessing renewable energy. “The idea is, can I get new science or technology [for those countries] that doesn’t rely on a centralized infrastructure?” he said. “So by using sunlight, air, and water, can we give energy and also food to the poor?”

Other panelists at the summit talked about the mining sector, both its good and bad aspects. Yang Shao-Horn, a professor of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noted that gold mining and platinum mining have heavy carbon footprints. “This industry can have a very powerful voice to make that more sustainable,” she said.

Jo Becker, advocacy director of the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, said her group has found that many gold mines have serious problems, particularly child labor. But she added: “When we find abuses in the artisanal sector, we don’t want companies to disengage. This is a source of livelihood for millions of people.”

Monica Stephenson, founder of Anza Gems and the former head of Ethical Metalsmiths, said she’s been to East Africa 17 times and has seen how programs like Moyo Gems can benefit local communities.

“I have a hard time when people say we’re not going to source diamonds from Africa,” said Stephenson. “We don’t want to wipe out an entire continent.”

Jewelry designer Thelma West said she often has to educate her customers about the positive impact the diamond industry can have in countries like Botswana. “People see a hole in the ground, and say it’s a hole in the ground. But if it’s doing a lot of good, then give me a hole in the ground,” she said. “It gives people health care, education, things we in the West take for granted.”

Added Cristina Villegas, director of sustainable markets at PACT, which oversees the Moyo program: “Most artisanal and small-scale miners are people trying to make a living. I can’t think of a greater irony than to move supply chains away from the Global South to the Global North on the grounds of sustainability.”

In his closing remarks at the summit, Langmuir said everyone can contribute to improving the situation. “As we go through our lives, there’s a feeling that there’s not much we can do. We think the government needs to do something, business needs to do something. But sometimes it just  takes one person to change their attitude.

“I recently saw someone at Starbucks saying, ‘I don’t need a plastic lid.’ And now when I go to Starbucks, I don’t get lids. Through our individual action, if we are able to influence five people, and then those five people are able to influence five more people, then the actions of the individual become extremely powerful,” Langmuir said.

“I would make the argument it’s not ‘What can I do to help?’ but ‘What I can do that is helping?’”

The jewelry summit was presented by the Mineralogical & Geological Museum, the Responsible Jewellery Council, and GIA.

(Photo courtesy of the State of the Art Jewelry Summit)

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By: Rob Bates

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