Christina T Miller living room sessions

Living Room Session: Ethics and Responsibility in Jewelry, part 2

environmental issues ethics greenwashing living room sessions projects responsible sourcing Feb 03, 2021

Ethics and Responsibility in Jewelry: Navigating Real Decision-Making

“It takes a lot of courage to make the right choice, but we have the power to make these choices - and with support from communities like this, we can make the right choices with more confidence, and we can build our courage to transform [the jewelry industry]” - Prof Mark Wheeler

On January 22nd, 2021 we collaborated with Mark Wheeler, Director of the SDSU Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs, and Ethical Metalsmiths to host our second Living Room Ethics Session on Navigating Real Decision-Making. This session takes an ever-deepening look into what an ethical jewelry practice looks like generally and specifically. Thank you to our co-host - Ethical Metalsmiths, our ethical guide - Professor Mark Wheeler. And, thank you to all participants for your collaboration on this session!


First, we acknowledged that the jewelry industry, as it currently stands, is limited in terms of the responsible and sustainable practices, information, and materials that we can engage with. This knowledge can leave us feeling overwhelmed and lost. It’s a moment to reflect on the concept of humility, as Mark put in, “humility is important, not because it diminishes us to be humble, but because it helps us feel comfortable knowing the limits of our power.” While we can not achieve a perfect system alone, we don’t need to flounder with the complex problems in isolation. Rather, this idea affirms the importance and value of working together to bring more information to light, so that we can collectively do better.

We have to make the best possible choice given what information is available now and use these limitations as motivations to continue asking questions, imagining a different way of doing things, and investing in better systems together.

Because of the imperfect nature of humans and the systems we build, we know that we cannot sit and wait for something perfect to come along. We can address this dilemma by thinking critically about the things we do not like about the current situation including the missteps and errors that happen. When challenges arise, it is not time to turn away, but rather to turn towards the issue and work to find a way to improve it within our means. Perhaps this includes continuing to learn, sharing what you know about an issue with others in the industry, transitioning to different sources, collaborating with new partners, or revisiting conversations with suppliers you’d like to see improve, and perhaps the hardest of all, reaching out to colleagues who aren’t accurately representing the truth. We are not alone in these challenges and we are not beholden to the limits we see.

The systems we have built, the laws we have written, the standards we have created - are all attempts by humans to develop ways of getting along with each other. We use rules whether they are written or unwritten. Every rule is an experiment - a guideline that we develop to govern ourselves. If the rules aren’t effective or aren’t working, it’s important that we rewrite them so that we can achieve what it is that we seek from these rules - together, with a community of caring people.

One approach that can help us assess these systems is to reflect on who has established them.

Who wrote the rules that we follow?

Who do these rules serve?

Who benefits from following these rules?

How do these outcomes align with our personal values and those parts of our lives and our work which we care about most?

One ethical dilemma examined in this Living Room session was the topic of greenwashing - the practice of advertising with environmental claims which cannot be substantiated for commercial benefit. For most of us, the question isn’t, “How do I get away with greenwashing?” Instead, the question we are asking is whether or not certain terms or phrasing, etc. actually constitute greenwashing and how do I avoid doing this myself and how do I avoid being seduced by greenwashing?”

For example, a manufacturer collects spilled raw material and scraps from the original manufacturing process. After a minimal amount of reprocessing, the manufacturer combines the spills and scraps with virgin material for use in the production of the same product. A recycled content claim is deceptive since the spills and scraps are normally reused by industry within the original manufacturing process and would not normally have entered the waste stream. (Source: FTC Green Guides)

Avoiding greenwashing is possible as both a creator of messages and a consumer of messages. Having an ethical decision-making foundation for your business practices helps. From within your business, you can ask, in the context of greenwashing, what is most important to me?

More generally, as artists, as creators, as owners and operators of businesses, hoping to sell our creations, there are many questions: How to convey the truth about the work? How do I evaluate claims other people are making about the truth of their work or their products?

We are in a position to make choices. And no one can deprive us of that choice. How we choose to respond to what we're offered by the world is perhaps our most precious gift and power.

Each purchase, relationship, and conversation is an opportunity to do better. We are the changemakers building a better jewelry industry. We can strive for more and leave this system better than we found it. Find what it is you care about, what motivates you to act with care, and strive to take steps to support that every day.

Want to learn more about developing your own critical lens for ethics in jewelry? View recordings of the first two Living Room Ethics Sessions here.


FTC Green Guides

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