The ethical dilemma

I get asked about ‘ethical sourcing’ a lot.

Many places claim to ethically source crystals, minerals, fossils, etc, but how ethical is it really?

There are numerous points we need to consider and address in order to answer the question.

• Where is the specimen sourced?
• Who mined the specimen?
• How was the specimen mined?
• Who cut and polished the specimen (if applicable)?
• How did the specimen get from there to here?
• Did any of them lie?
• Is everyone along the route paid a reasonable wage?
• Is it ethical to collect minerals, crystals, fossils, etc?
• Does the collection of this specimen potentially harm scientific understanding of an area?
• Is it legal to export/import this particular specimen from the country of origin to this country?

Quite a few questions to answer, right?

 

To be ‘ethical’ is always a sliding scale, it is not a binary yes/no. The most ethical thing you can do is to consume less of the planets natural resources via any means. 

 

Are you talking about exploitation of humans? Animals? Damage to the world and the environment?

Can it ever be considered ethical to blast, quarry, and mine stones, minerals, rocks and fossils from the Earth for our pleasure? It all adds to emissions and pollution, even if it is small scale mining in the UK.

 

We all know of blood diamonds, the name given to diamonds which were/are mined in order to finance violence, warlords, or terrorism. As a response to the sheer number of blood diamonds on the market, a scheme known as the ‘Kimberley Process’ was created.

The Kimberley Process did help to legitimise some of the industry, but ultimately has a number of flaws. The natural resources charity Global Witness stated “Nearly nine years after the Kimberley Process was launched, the sad truth is that most consumers still cannot be sure where their diamonds come from, nor whether they are financing armed violence or abusive regimes”

There are other ‘conflict minerals’ too – minerals which finance violence, slavery and misery. The EU and USA consider the main four conflict minerals to be tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold.

However, in the crystal/mineral/fossil collecting world, there are many other minerals and fossils that come from locations and situations that would (or should) be considered contributing to misery.

There are dozens of countries (if not most, frankly) around the world that are currently engaged in civil wars, human rights abuses, genocides, slavery, state sponsoring of terrorism, or other things that a western nation may consider intolerable or criminal, but may be legal, common, and acceptable in other cultures.

For example, Lapis Lazuli and other minerals from Afghanistan will now, in all likelihood, contribute to taxes or bribes paid to the Taliban.

 

It is extremely difficult for any company to decide whether or not to do business with certain countries. Even in countries with ethical issues, there may be areas of peace. In countries which appear to be relatively pleasant, there may still be ethical issues.

Lets use an example so you can see how complex the sourcing channels for minerals can be, and highlight all of the potential ethical issues.

 

A miner in the Swat Valley area of Pakistan finds an Emerald crystal.

• We can already consider that Pakistan is not a particularly well ranking country on human rights lists.
• We then need to consider whether the stone was actually mined in Afghanistan and smuggled into Pakistan for sale.

In all likelihood, the miner works for a mine owner. The mine owners often pay a percentage rather than a wage, but this can vary. From here, a representative of the mine owner will take a large amount of stones to a gemstone/mineral trading city, in Pakistan it is often Peshawar.

Swat is reasonably close to Peshawar, but other areas famous for their gemstone mines are further away – for example, Skardu. If a stone was to come from Skardu, it would travel several hundred miles, potentially through regions which require permission or payments to cross, or with ongoing conflicts.

Upon arriving in Peshawar, the representative will sell it to a larger trader. The larger traders typically have agents who either sell stones via their small shops, or, more recently, offer the stones for sale online – sometimes via eBay, Etsy, but quite often simply by Facebook. Internet access has increased the ability of smaller traders to export and sell quite drastically, as before they would potentially have to wait for gem markets abroad, or for international buyers to visit.

This means, by the time someone posts a photo and location of the stone on Facebook, it could have changed hands four or five times already. The person selling the stone online has no information at all about the actual miner, and likely has not been given the full location of the mine either – these are often a guarded secret.

The only true way to get around this is to visit the mines in person – and this is both dangerous and extremely difficult to arrange – offered only to those who spend a significant sum year on year, and limited by the seasons given the altitude of many mines.

From the agent in Peshawar, the stone will likely head to one of a few places

• a large lapidary (stone cutting and polishing) house in China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia or Thailand
• a buyer of rough stones who will arrange for stones to be cut, probably in one of the above countries
• a buyer of rough stones who will resell them to collectors

If the stone is to be cut and polished, carved, or tumbled, we need to consider whether the lapidary house provides the correct PPE and equipment for their staff. Often lapidary machinery is handmade or improvised, and things like extraction systems are often overlooked or underpowered.

After cutting, either the lapidary house will use their agents, or the buyer who arranged for the cutting will use their agents to sell the cut stone to a jeweller. This may be online, shipped from the location of the cutting studio, or it may be shipped to another nation and sold by a retailer like me.

At this point, we’re now potentially talking about 5-10 changes of hands, and possibly 2-3 countries too. It is common for minerals to be mined in one country, sent to another to be cut, then sent to a third to be sold. There are countries which do not allow the export of rough minerals – but these still end up on the market.

This likely means by the time that cut stone lands in your hands, its travelled a few hundred or a few thousand miles by truck, might have been to three countries or more, and taken a few plane or boat trips too.

 

Along this chain, we have to consider whether all workers are fairly paid and are supplied with appropriate protections. There is also the possibility of illicit stones from other locations entering the parcel of rough stones at any point along this supply chain.

We are reliant on the word of every single person along the supply chain.

 

Many sellers online claim to ‘ethically source’ their materials but it is rare they truly understand the supply chain or environmental issues potentially caused by mining.

They often buy things from a UK wholesaler and consider that is ‘enough’ effort on their part to consider the stones ethical. It isn’t uncommon for the stones are misidentified – the very first ‘ethical source’ shop on an eBay UK search was selling Opalite without mentioning that it is a form of manmade glass.

I would also briefly touch on some of the claims made by crystal healing stores, which cannot be considered ethical. Many stores state that B crystal does X, Y, and Z. Some of these claims are extremely harmful and exploitative.

 

So what do I do?

I try my best.

  • I buy a lot of second hand collections from collectors, closing down lapidary shops, retirees, etc. I think this helps reduce some of the environmental impact – if I buy a kilo of Amethyst from a UK collector, thats a kilo of Amethyst I’m not having shipped from Brazil.
  • I ask questions of every supplier I buy from. I visit them, too – although with Covid-19 this has not been possible.
  • I try to educate buyers along the way, teaching people about common fakes and scams – heat treated Amethyst, Opalite, Goldstone, and teaching about dangerous minerals too.
  • I never buy anything from certain places – unfortunately Afghanistan is now one of them. I also do not buy any stones that are worked or cut in China, due to their record of using slave labour.
  • I use as much recycled and recyclable packaging as I can. I do sometimes use polybags as mailers, but I’ve never bought new ones – I have a pile of 70000 that were destined for landfill.

 

I do hold some stock of minerals from Afghanistan, but this was all sourced before the collapse of the coalition government. I will no longer purchase from Afghanistan. This is, unfortunately, most harmful to the mineral dealers and miners – their sources of revenue will take a massive hit from the loss of sales from other international dealers like me who do not wish to contribute in any minor way to the Taliban government.

 

I hope this helps, rather than muddles your understanding of what a challenging question ethics are – it is often on a case by case basis!

 

I did want to end with something, though.

Several years ago I spoke with an Afghani mineral dealer, who was quite a straight talking chap.

I asked if I was taking up too much of his time, asking all these questions, and he said his sons were minding the store. His sons were 10 or 11, I’m not sure.

One of the questions I’d asked shortly beforehand was about the age of workers in both the mines and the lapidary studio, and he did say he understood that his children working the shopfront was an issue that Westerners had occasionally raised before. We talked about it for a bit, and I said I’d seen children ‘helping’ in family businesses in the UK too.

Then he said something that I’ll never forget.

“We live in Afghanistan. He’s not going to the playground.”