Why Buying Sustainable, Ethical Jewelry Matters - Bario Neal

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Why Buying Sustainable, Ethical Jewelry Matters

With our dedication to responsible sourcing and handcrafting ethical, sustainable jewelry, Bario Neal celebrates our many clients who look to use their purchase power for social and environmental good. Yes, we know people also want beautiful, meaningful jewelry that shines, but many also want to be part of supporting a fine jewelry industry that contributes to making our world fairer and healthier for all. 

“We make choices every day, and that’s what speaks,” says Kristin Mitsu Shiga, the education director of Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) and a jewelry maker herself. “The industry is driven by demand. If we switch where our demand is then negative streams will stop.” 

SNAG works to help independent metalsmiths and jewelry makers establish financially viable careers. During the organization’s 2020 conference in Philadelphia in May, which will be attended by about 800 to 1,000 people, Page Neal, Bario Neal Principal + Lead Designer, will speak about how Bario Neal has gone about building a successful sustainable business practice. 

“When I hear the phrase ‘sustainable jewelry,’ the first thing that comes to mind is how most jewelers begin - asking questions about where materials are mined and manufactured," says Anna Bario, Bario Neal Principal + Lead Designer. “There's a lot of work to do around transparency. In the jewelry industry, a lot of the work that's been done over the last 10 years is just understanding what was happening in traditional supply chains. Now, some companies and individuals have a much deeper understanding of their supply chains and are acting on that knowledge.”

What Is Sustainable, Ethical Jewelry? 

As conversations on the topic evolve, the Jewelry Glossary Project is working to establish set definitions for such terms that the entire industry can share, but here are the basics on how Bario Neal applies “ethical” and “sustainable” to jewelry. 

  • “Ethical” gemstones and metals are procured without harming people, their communities, or the environment. We believe miners, gemstone polishers, and everyone along the supply chain should be paid fairly and have safe work conditions.   
  • “Sustainable” gemstones and metals are procured with as little damage to the environment as possible, so our planet and everyone living on it are healthier. All extractive industry impacts Earth. That’s unavoidable. However, by fostering less harmful practices and buying recycled gemstones and metals, we can minimize negative effects like pollution and maximize positive human economic impacts

The jewelry market in the U.S. alone was valued at about $279 billion in 2018. Gemstone and metal mining occurs on multiple continents and jewelry materials travel global supply chains through dozens of countries with disparate labor standards and economies. When there’s a lack of government oversight (or corruption) or a lack of awareness about problems, mining can contribute to the poisoning of rivers and land and natural resources being stripped away without any benefit to surrounding communities. This sounds complex — and it is — but whether you want to understand more about the impact of “blood diamonds or conflict diamonds” and “blood gold,” or start by learning more about where the jewelry you wear comes from, there are many designers and artisans who love to educate clients about why buying sustainable, ethical jewelry can make a difference. 

Kristin notes that independent jewelry makers play an important role in educating the public when they sell their work. “They can explain to people the importance of knowing where their gemstones come from to avoid damage caused along the supply path,” she says. “Yes, certified Fairmined gold might be a little more expensive than other gold but here’s why it’s important.”

Bario Neal is taking our decade-plus of research and activism in ethical jewelry, and preparing to release our first sustainability report in 2020. As we’ve worked hard to document our own process — interviewing dozens of our suppliers and formalizing how we onboard new gemstone and metal suppliers — we’ve already published several guides on our site that cover our responsible sourcing. In these guides, you’ll find details about the harmful impacts on people and the environment that occur amid large-scale mining and gemstone polishing operations — and the steps that Bario Neal takes to secure sources that we and our clients can feel good about:

You can also read more about how partners we support are working toward mercury-free gold mining, and how we work with clients to incorporate heirloom stones — because when you create a new ring with old jewelry that has been passed down to you, no new gemstone mining is required. Read on to find out why ethical, sustainable jewelry matters to 1) our clients and 2) our local craft and manufacturing community partners.

Our Clients

Brazil’s Kayapo tribe, featured in The New Yorker’s 2019 article “Blood Gold in the Brazilian Rain Forest,” may seem very far away from your doorstep, but the dangers in their community reverberate around the world. While the clearing of trees in the Amazon has made headlines as environmentalists highlight the connection to climate change and natural disasters, gold mining is devastating too. According to The New Yorker: “Loggers usually harvest valuable trees and leave the rest; miners cut everything. Mercury, used in the refining process, leaves rivers poisoned, and the pollution can spread hundreds of miles downstream.” If you’ve ever been pregnant or know someone who has, you know about mercury. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children to avoid fish like bigeye tuna and swordfish because of high mercury levels that may cause developmental delays. 

We partner with artisanal miners who are trying to avoid what’s happening to the Kayapo tribe. As documented in The New Yorker, hundreds of thousands of acres around them in the Amazon have been “destroyed or degraded by illegal mining and logging.” The gold rush is irrevocably changing the region’s communities, as those arriving to mine “bring prostitution, alcohol, drugs, and violence.” When you purchase jewelry from ethical jewelry makers like Bario Neal, you help to strengthen the artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) sector — which directly supports 40 million people and indirectly supports 150 million miners and their families. According to the World Bank, artisanal mining “represents an important livelihood and income source” and “ensures the existence for millions of families in rural areas of developing countries.” Small-scale miners also pilot programs that “model clean supply chains or fair trade minerals.” ASM isn’t perfect, but when compared to large-scale mining, there are many pluses. Around half of the ASM workforce in Africa are women. Empowerment of women throughout the supply chain can support gender equality, improve families' capacity to earn, and strengthen communities.

Our Local Craft/Manufacturing Partners

Bario Neal jewelry is handcrafted in house at our small Philadelphia studio. This approach, Anna notes, gives us the flexibility to change sourcing as necessary to underscore our ethics, and to introduce new ideas for sustainable operations quickly. If someone on the Bario Neal team has a water conservation idea for the workshop, they don’t have to go through five layers of managerial approval! We can also maintain greater oversight on material origins and design jewelry around materials with really strong ethical sourcing.

We do partner with other craftspeople, some on Philadelphia’s historic Jewelers’ Row, for certain steps of the production process (such as enameling). And we believe everyone benefits when local artisans thrive.  

Kristin says the universe of ethical independent jewelry makers is really a “small world,” and when you purchase from one ethical jewelry maker, there’s a positive ripple effect in the industry. “You're supporting a larger community that is dedicated to ethical supply chains and sustainability because they all communicate with each other and learn from each other,” Kristin says. “Everyone’s choice along this chain is important and has an impact.”

Many clients find Bario Neal while searching for “sustainable jewelry” or an “ethical jewelry maker.” We know that greenwashing in the jewelry industry can slow real progress toward sustainability, and we believe it’s crucial for consumers to really engage with companies to see if their “eco-friendly” claims are true. That’s why we encourage our clients to always ask where materials are coming from and how we vet our sources. We are putting our values into practice and thinking deeply about our responsibility as jewelers. 

“The traditional linear production model is 'take, make, waste,' but right now in sustainable design, circularity is the goal. We’re moving toward 'take, make, remake,' instead,” Anna says of the jewelry industry’s chance to lead positive environmental and social impacts. “Even if you are extracting metals from the earth, and can’t avoid the effects of that, you can choose to make something with it that never becomes trash.”

Anna says she hopes the work Bario Neal has put into the forthcoming sustainability report can extend well outside the showroom. “Hopefully this aligns with future efforts of other companies and individuals in the industry. We can share some of this knowledge and information,” Anna says. “Together, with suppliers and clients, we have the potential to dramatically improve environmental impacts, increase benefits to source communities, improve safety of mining operations, and reduce the presence of corruption in jewelry supply chains.”