The Crystal Industry and Why It’s Nowhere as Luminous as the Materials it Produces
June 9, 2021 • 10 min read
When we think about mining, our minds are sharply directed to precious gems like diamonds and rubies, the finer of metals like gold and silver, and the everyday alloys we find in our products and packaging, from aluminum in cans to copper in electronics. Globally, the mining industry is known as one of the most environmentally destructive operations on the planet, causing deforestation, mountaintop removal, toxic tail dam failures, and horrendous human rights abuses.
According to Earthwatch, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, metal mining is that nation’s #1 toxic polluter. Mine waste contains toxic substances like arsenic, mercury, and cadmium that are harmful to public health, fish and wildlife when released into the environment. Meanwhile, the seemingly less insidious and sparkly earth cousins that are crystals, fly by under the radar of this extractive giant.
Shrouded in mystery from small shops on bohemian corners of urban centres to large-scale crystal trade events in the desert, the rugged enchantment of crystals should no longer stop us from questioning their origins. In our pursuit towards personal and planetary regeneration, the crystal has remained a symbol of purity and energy cleansing. Yet, in mainstream health and wellbeing, the widespread use of crystals has continued to grow exponentially.
According to The Guardian, demand for crystals and gemstones doubled between 2016 and 2019, and this burgeoning industry is now worth billions. People use crystals with positive intentions, however, our reliance on self-healing crystals may be doing more collective harm than good. As Cosmopolitan so eloquently states, “But while these rocks are supposed to help boost your intuition and cleanse your space of bad vibes, their journey to your apartment often involves labor practices that would make you shudder.”
Whether we’re in the full crystal embrace – purifying our amethysts under the moon, religiously rolling rose quartz on our face, or keeping our lapis lazuli coveted in our night drawers, the reality is that no matter the degree in which we use these stones, we should be concerned with the impact of their production. The clarity of this industry is nowhere as luminous as the materials it espouses, which is what needs to inform the lifestyle and systemic changes we make to shift the crystal sector to sustainability.
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Cultural Appropriation and Usage
When I was young, my grandma had a treasured rock tumbler. She would take the everyday quotidian stones that could be found around our lakeside property, and through her machine, turn them into intricate works of wonder. She used what was around her, honoured the process of transformation, and would treasure these homemade gems for the rest of her time.
Looking back before my grandma, how have crystals been used historically and culturally? According to Point to the Sky, “the first historical references to the use of crystals are from the Ancient Sumerians (4th millennium BC), who included crystals in magic formulas. Crystals were (and are) also used for healing in Traditional Chinese Medicine, which dates back to at least 5000 years. The Ancient Egyptians used lapis lazuli, turquoise, carnelian, emerald and clear quartz in their jewelry. They used some stones for protection and health, and some crystals for cosmetic purposes”. It’s clear that many ancient cultures across the world revered precious and semi precious gems, and harnessed them for health and cultural purposes.
The first crystal that I was allured by is turquoise, an opaque, blue-green mineral that is a hydrated phosphate of copper and aluminium. I often came across this gem at local Anishinaabek and Ojibwe First Nation’s Pow Wows that I attended on Manitoulin Island. I later found out that this crystal is significant to Indigenous Nations across the Americas, from the Maya, Azuni, Navajo and Zuni, and continues to be used culturally and economically today.
Turquoise and other crystals were mined ethically on a small scale amongst Indigenous Nations. In considering Indigenous uses of crystals, the book First Nations Crystal Healing spells out the general ambience of usage: “Crystals and stones come from Mother Earth and Indigenous medicine people have been using them to help and to heal for millennia. Their techniques, although simple, have proven effective through the innumerable healers who have handed down these teachings across the generations.” In Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge, the water, soil, fire, air and rocks are sacred, are teachers, are healers and are thus transformative. In this way of knowing, the interconnection between all beings, whether they’re considered biotic or abiotic, is emphasized. From this perspective, rocks inevitably impact our reality in both subtle and non-subtle ways.
From the sacred and cultural use of crystals in ancient and Indigenous cultures, the global commodification of crystals has risen, promising a variety of virtues by countless suppliers the globe over. The Affiliation of Crystal Healing Organizations state “When crystal healing became part of the New Age movement in the 1980s, crystal shops started popping up all over the place. This created a larger market, and with this heightened demand, crystals began to be imported in large amounts from around the world. Since the turn of the 21st century, crystal therapy has become more mainstream, and crystals have risen in popularity through the health and wellbeing industry.”
What used to be local extraction and use of crystals has turned into a global market, the relationship of acquiring stones both instant and transactional – this is a significant departure from the origins of crystal use, their local contexts, how they were traded, and how they were passed down between generations.
Along with many other tools of the health and wellness industry, the misuse of crystals is also a form of cultural appropriation. The Native Governance Center shares on their website that cultural appropriation runs amok within the $4.2 trillion global wellness industry. Examples of how cultural appropriation takes place in wellness spaces include the misuse of spiritual objects, including scriptures, statues of Buddha, smudge kits and palo santo sold by non-Indigenous people, and, of course, crystals. The Center states, “Cultural appropriation denies BIPOC communities access to wellness practices (due to high prices and toxic power dynamics, among other elements). In addition, it strips wellness practices of their authenticity and sacredness. When a practice is appropriated, we no longer understand its origins and true intent. Without the sacred, we feel displaced from our ancestors and othered in spaces that are supposed to bring us healing.”
Read more about cultural appropriation versus appreciation here.
On top of cultural appropriation, whatever the supply of stone is, there is no shortage of environmental impacts. These impacts involve irreparable environmental harm, environmental racism and labor violations. Mining for precious gems, metals and other minerals is achieved at a much grander scale than crystals, but at least they have a degree of regulation. According to She’s Lost Control, an online spiritual shop who specialize in sustainable stones, “There are no worldwide regulations when it comes to the mining of healing crystals”, like we see with certification schemes for diamonds. A majority of crystals come from small-scale artisanal mines, which are often informal and migratory by nature, but still cause environmental impacts, especially with the rate of crystal mining ballooning in recent years. Environmental impacts include contamination of rivers, lakes and groundwater, loss of soil, erosion of soil and land, deforestation, increasing poaching where roads are built to access new mines, loss of habitat and subsequent decrease in biodiversity, and the alteration of groundwater due to water used in the mine.
Compared to the large-scale industrial mining of precious gemstones and metals like gold and silver, chemicals are not used, so the overall impact is less disastrous. However, studies from around the globe show that crystals are often by-products of industrial projects, and unfortunately, the adverse ecological and social impacts of these projects are also then responsible for the presence of most of the crystals in circulation. Mine Digital puts this into context further, “Stephen Wells from Kacha Stones, a crystal brand that prides itself on its ethical sourcing practices, likens the new emphasis on crystal mining as scolding a child for dropping a sweet wrapper when a mountain of plastic has been dumped by larger corporations. Many, probably the majority, of commercially available crystals are by-products of larger mining [operations], everything from construction materials to metals.”
From small-scale artisanal mining to crystal byproducts from industrial endeavours, it’s positive that the crystal industry still needs stronger regulations and transparency to move into the sustainability spectrum.
Crystal mining is also a cause for labour abuses, particularly in developing nations, which is propping up the Western healing and wellness trend. We see this from Myanmar’s jade industry that, according to The New York Times, “helped finance a bloody ethnic conflict and unleashed an epidemic of heroin use and HIV infection among the Kachin minority who work the mines” in 2014, to the uncovering of child workers, as early as age 7, working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo crystal mines.
The Guardian also published an investigation into the crystal industry in Madagascar, where around 85,000 children work in mines. Following this shady extraction, crystals also need to be cut and polished, and are often outsourced to places like India and China where worker safety regulations are severely limited. This includes lack of masks and other improper personal protective equipment which can lead to the inhalation of harmful elements, like silica. This can lead to silicosis, a fatal lung condition.
Emily Empel, futurist, and founder of the vision studio Advance Notice, shares, “the whole reason humans use crystals is to shift our energetic field at a nuanced level – spiritual micro-tweaking that’s been relied on for centuries by Indigenous cultures across the globe. In the crystal community, each stone is thought to absorb and pass on energy from other humans. So, if we truly believe that crystals carry vibrations and hold experiences energetically within them, where we mine them, how we mine them, who mines them – all of that deeply matters. Otherwise, there’s a stark gap between our intention and our actual lived practice. Many individuals who use crystals in their lives treat them with care: taking the time to research the exact crystal to purchase or charging their collection by moonlight each month. I wonder how the world would be different if this same level of spiritual labor was spread across the entire process of crystal sourcing. How could we materially impact how our global community members’ work each day or our collective relationship with Mother Earth?”
Crystal sourcing is a holistic experience, from their creation to our consumption. If we’re not interested or sensitive to how the crystals came to be in our possession, we have to wonder how deep our practice goes, and what benefit we’re really looking for.
What the Industry Needs to Do
What can the fortune teller’s crystal ball tell us about the future of sustainable crystals? To address this issue on the systemic level, we need regulations enacted in the crystal industry so that supply chains become more transparent, ethical, and fair, while environmental conditions are improved. “Reform should be implemented at two levels: correct enforcement of regulations and, more importantly, increasing the efficiency of mining operations. Improving mining techniques and environmental technology (e.g. drilling, use of explosives, pitting techniques) at artisanal and small-scale levels would make extraction both more efficient and less harmful to both the environment and worker safety” (Laurent E. Cartier). With this in mind, a certification scheme for crystals would support these regulations while incentivizing companies to move to better practices.
Additionally, Laurent E. Cartier at the University of Basel makes another great point, that the entire mining industry needs to be held accountable. They need to lead on the reclamation and remediation of the tens of thousands of unfilled pits that riddle the globe, which includes the informal small scale crystal mines to the massive diamond and gold mines. She states, “Remediation costs both time and workers’ wages and this is the main reason why many pits are not filled after mining has ceased, which means that the financing of reclamation efforts is a central issue, and one that should be explored by industry.” Again, we need our elected representatives to know that this issue is important to us, that stronger regulations and higher accountability needs to be implemented and enforced across all types of mining. For those of us that love and use crystals, we should be advocating for reform within an industry that supplies the world with this resource.
What Individuals Can Do
On the individual level, ethical stone companies like Kacha Stones all echo the same sentiment: buyers need to ask where the stones are coming from as well as where they were cut and polished. The business selling them should be able to provide clear information on this, and if they cannot, we should consider purchasing elsewhere.
Additionally, akin to fast fashion, we should be skeptical of and avoid super cheap stones. Ethically sourced crystals typically come with a higher price tag to the reseller, which is reflected in the retail price. Currently, in health and wellness, gua sha and crystal face rollers, often made from jade and rose quartz, are all the rage. Some Canadian based companies you should look into and check out include Metange Beauty, recently featured in Forage and Sustain’s Sustainable, Asian-Owned Businesses article. They use obsidian stone for their gua sha tools instead of crystals or gems, a more eco-friendly alternative as this stone forms naturally from molten volcanic lava that is cooled and hardened into a black glass. Other companies include InnerVision Crystals – the founder, Mike Eggleston, visits every mine he buys from. Moonrise Crystals is also great as they have an “earth to pocket” policy that provides information on the origin of their stones.
There are also enough crystals in circulation to purchase them used from marketplaces and second hand shops. Considering a share economy, there are now services that also facilitate the renting of crystals. Just like a tool or book library, crystals can be borrowed for specific purposes and then returned. As the founder of Forage and Sustain, Arti Jalan, so succinctly put it, “this not only reduces consumption, it also challenges the idea of ownership around resources, especially within spirituality.”
We can also look to labs that produce crystals (as well as gems), which are chemically identical to their natural companions, yet come without a social or ecological cost. When this isn’t possible, less is more.
Arti goes on to say, “we must keep in mind that at the end of the day, tools such as crystals, sage, and incense simply serve as an amplification of our spiritual practices, but they are not a requirement for personal development and well-being. Everything we need to feel empowered, peaceful and connected to source is already within us, and the real work comes from cultivating our own energetic power from within. The energy exchange crystals provide is helpful and can assist us greatly, however our society, which places a great importance on tangible items (especially seen with this modern boom in spirituality), insists on us consuming our way to our higher selves, when in reality, letting go from the material world and finding contentment within our own beings is where true spirituality and self-acceptance lies.”
Utilizing Our Collective Creativity
Furthermore, as we become a more campaign-oriented society, we can utilize people power and collective creativity to influence structural change in the crystal industry. As The Guardian shares,
“A slow change is rumbling. A petition demanding Paltrow’s Goop sell only ethically sourced crystals runs at almost 17,000 names, under the line, ‘No amount of sage can get rid of the bad vibes that come from human exploitation and environmental destruction.’ The growing number of people who use crystals, whether to “detoxify”, reduce anxiety, or decorate iPhones, must acknowledge their healing crystals are likely to have contributed to human trauma or environmental destruction. If more people knew this, wouldn’t they begin rocking the boat? Campaigning as we have with food and fashion, people could start asking questions, demanding transparency about a crystal’s origins, about the conditions of the mine, and the route it took to arrive in their warming hand. Because the power of a healing crystal is nothing compared with the power of a hundred thousand crystal buyers closing their purses. And now they know.”
As we spiral dance our way down a more spiritual path, we need to move beyond the surface level of metaphysical gimmicks and commercial divination (isn’t this essentially just spiritual bypassing?). It’s illogical for us to use materials for healing when the very healing properties we use them for are swathed in traumatic and degenerative extractions. We need to meditate on what we’re deploying from the earth to facilitate energy shifts and societal change, which, as we now know, leaves no room for well-intentioned crystals that are cloaked in darkness.
About the Author
Living seaside amongst the foggy rainforest of Tofino, B.C., Lilly Woodbury is an environmental communicator, activist and Chapter Manager for Surfrider Foundation’s Pacific Rim Chapter. Surfrider’s mission is the protection and enjoyment of the ocean, beaches, and waves, and this Chapter’s focus is addressing plastic pollution and shifting towards a circular economy. Lilly has an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies from the University of Toronto, and has also worked for Greenpeace New Zealand. Lilly won Starfish Canada’s Top 25 Environmentalists Under 25 in Canada in 2018, and when she isn’t surfing, she’s spending time on environmental speaking, workshops, writing, and collaborations.
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