If participants in last month’s summit on the future of the jewellery industry were initially unsure of their role in tacking climate change and inequality, the heavy hitters from Harvard University and MIT left them in no doubt.
First, keynote speaker, Dan Schrag — who holds professorships in geology, environmental science and engineering, as well as public policy, at Harvard, where the event was held — was clear: although the jewellery sector represents a “tiny little sliver” in the global mining industry, “you will be affected profoundly by the changes that are happening around the world.”
But he added: “It’s not just darkness, it’s also light, because there are incredible opportunities to make this world a much better place through some of the work we do.”
This particular opportunity to discuss the latest developments in research, technology, business and art in jewellery was organised by the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), and the Mineralogical and Geological Museum at Harvard University.
Light and dark were present in equal measure. Yang Shao-Horn — who is professor of engineering at MIT, and works on the production of green hydrogen and battery technologies — laid out where the challenges lay: “For the entire jewellery industry, 95 per cent of the CO₂ generated is in the production of metals,” with the extraction of gold, platinum and silver having a much higher carbon footprint than, for instance, aluminium oxide or iron ore.
Her suggestions to tackle the problem involve a mix of a carbon tax (“say $50-$100 per tonne of C0₂ [each tonne of gold produces 38,000 tonnes of C0₂; and about 3,000 tonnes of gold are produced each year]”), which could encourage the use of new technology, including electric vehicles, as well as shifting mining practices away from open site to the development of mobile mining vehicles powered by renewable energy or hydrogen.
Her fellow panellist was Daniel Nocera, professor of energy at Harvard, who has created a “bionic leaf”. This takes “the biological process of photosynthesis and does it more efficiently in the lab”, he told the summit.
“Right now, when you look outside, you think about the sustainable Earth and then you think about technology. What you forget is the human piece of it. So I am going to claim you cannot have a sustainable Earth with poverty.”
Nocera was referring to the 6bn new energy users in the global south who will drive the doubling of energy needs over the next 30 years.
To meet even half of this increase with nuclear energy within that timeframe would require a new nuclear power plant to be built every 1.5 days. “So, if you want to head off a major catastrophe, we need to figure out how to give energy to the poor,” he argued.
Nocera’s message to the jewellery industry was to “start demanding from your suppliers, because you’re taking from the global south, to leave something behind. And the most important thing you can leave behind now is sustainable energy — for you and for them.”
However, Toby Pomeroy, founder of Mercury Free Mining and a jewellery designer, outlined a different route to address poverty.
He believes that the technology exists to remove mercury from mining and, in one sweep, improve the safety, health and profitability of the 20mn artisanal and small-scale miners and the 100mn people who depend on them. His non-profit company is working to eradicate the use of mercury, a neurotoxin, in mining. Almost 5.5 tonnes of the metal are released into the environment every day, he said.
Working with the Alliance for Responsible Mining, with a grant from the GIA, Pomeroy has successfully tested a new, low-cost system for mercury-free processing of gold ore in three communities in Colombia’s Chocó and Antioquia gold-mining regions.
“We are presenting proposals to USAID [the United States Agency for International Development] and the GIA on how we can scale this,” he said. “I don’t think there is a bigger issue for our industry and the business reputation opportunities if we take this on.”
Melanie Grant, executive director of the RJC, warned the industry that it also needed to embrace technology to keep up with new patterns of buying high-end jewellery online — in particular by people under 40. She urged art jewellers to highlight not only their artistry but also their responsible, ethical practices.
The importance of this was stressed by Colleen Rooney, chief communications and ESG (environmental, social and governance) officer at Signet, the world’s largest retailer of diamond jewellery. She said the company was “attracting 22.5mn new customers in the US alone”, following a realignment of its culture to embrace human rights and sustainability, to “use our voice for good”.
However, embracing ESG principles can be daunting, particularly for smaller businesses, which may not always recognise the implications. At the summit, the RJC launched an ESG toolkit that explains what ESG is, how it can benefit business and how that ties in with impact globally.
And there was a further dimension to the discussions at the summit: about how sustainability connects with jewellery on an emotional and spiritual level.
Wallace Chan, a jewellery designer and master craftsman, spoke about how a childhood of extreme poverty taught him to be frugal “and get the best out of every last piece of material”.
“I like to think, when a dream falls into pieces, it multiplies and becomes more bright and beautiful dreams,” he said. “So when a vase broke, I turned it into a bangle. Sustainability is a very long word . . . for me, it is not a buzzword but a way of life.”