Bad news, spirituality Twitter—those crystals you bought online to pump positive ions into the air in your apartment may be contributing to unethical mining practices and poverty-level wages in third world countries. And that sage you burned to get rid of bad energy left over from the last tenant was likely harvested illegally. Crystal healing and the use of white sage and palo santo have been popularized in the western world. Celebrities like Gwenyth Paltrow and Miranda Kerr (some people just have too much money and time on their hands) often promote the benefits of filling your home with pretty clutter in order to feel more grounded. Unfortunately, it comes at a major price.
The Business Of Energy
Crystals like amethyst, rose quarts, and aragonite—common in head shops or stores that carry imports from around the world—are mined in places like Morocco, China, and even parts of the United States. Working conditions in these mines can be brutal, and workers—especially those in the third world—are often compensated little to nothing for potentially life-threatening work. Despite that, the growing crystal healing industry has reached an all time high. Celebrity endorsements of products that promise to pump positive or negative ions into a room fuel an industry that is—for lack of a better word—selling billions of dollars’ worth of vibes.
Anything from human-sized chunks of sparkling, purple amethyst to glass water bottles filled with quartz line the shelves of some of the worlds most prestigious spas and home decor shops. Energy healers—a sort of new-age style of therapy that aims to open and align your chakras or improve your emotional stability, collect checks from some of the world’s richest people that will go to great lengths to assure that the air in their home is helping them prosper.
Even if it sounds like a hoax, crystal and energy healing has managed to become a billion dollar industry over the last couple of decades, and it won’t slow down. In fact, the alternative medicine industry (which encompasses all aspects of energy healing—from yoga and naturopathy to crystal healing) is estimated to reach a $210 billion dollar valuation by 2026. That’s a whole lot of sage, up in smoke, and a whole lot of money being pumped into a quiet, but deadly, humanitarian crisis.
Questionable Ethics Surrounding The Crystal Market
Few gemstone sellers in the Western world disclose how their products are sourced. Often, this is because the sellers don’t want to draw attention to the questionable mines that they purchase from—or it’s because they simply don’t know, as many retailers purchase their products through gem and bead trade shows throughout the United States. A 2018 article in The New Republic discusses the many ways that Etsy retailers, import shops, and even celebrity retail sites such as Paltrow’s Goop stock their shelves.
In Myanmar, Jade remains one of the higher value exports and is mined in the Kachin state just south of China. Pickers sift through the remains of older mine sites to scrounge for what they can—fueling violence and an underground, blood soaked trade war between the Kachin people and the Burmese government. Jade, for this reason, is often compared to the blood diamonds of Sierra Leone. A TIME Magazine article titled “Battling For Blood Jade” highlights the dark underbelly of the world’s Jade trade, showing that highly sought after imports often come at a greater price than any dollar amount can reflect.
Signs Of Unethical Sourcing
All of this is not to say that every last crystal and gemstone you find in stores and online is sourced unethically, though finding a retailer that sources all of its products ethically and sustainably may be rare and expensive. Most gemstones change hands many times before settling down on a shelf in your bedroom. Once mined, the stones are sold to businesses that specialize in cutting, tumbling, and polishing the stones. If they’re mined in places like Morocco, they could also be sold to an importer, who’s sole business revolves around buying products in one country and re-selling them in places like the United States, where trade shows and gem fairs allow them to sell their entire stock in a matter of days.
After all of that, it’s understandable that gemstone retailers often have no idea where their products really came from, or what kind of potentially blood-soaked journey they took to get there. Since crystals and gemstones are seldom more than a few hundred dollars—even then, higher prices are for bigger slabs or rare products—there is little government regulation to put a stop to unethical trading practices. In the diamond industry, the attention brought upon unethical sourcing fueled initiatives to help regulate the trade and enforce good mining practices, though issues still arise on a regular basis.
When retailers can describe the relationship they have with a mine, it’s often a sign that the product was sourced ethically and sustainably. Some, however, may simply use ethical sourcing as a marketing tactic without actually listing any proof that they know, exactly, where their products come from. Online crystal retailers like Energy Muse (who we are awaiting a response from) uses fluffy language to claim that its products are sourced ethically. The site writes that unethically sourced crystals can harm the energy of the stone, but doesn’t offer much insight into where its products actually come from beyond assuring every product is sourced ethically.
Other retailers, like Aquarian Soul, aim to provide greater details by listing the relationships they have with each supplier—though even then, they may not know the original source of each and every product. One good rule of thumb, though? Products sourced from places rife with conflict are most likely sourced unethically. It doesn’t take much research to find that certain gemstones are only found in certain places throughout the world—so from there you can use your common sense. Natural resource and gemstone mining is found to contribute to humanitarian crises and mass deforestation in places like Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Madagascar, where many gems and natural resources are found exclusively.
Even domestically, gemstone mines often contribute to the spread of toxic waste that could taint local land and water quality. Larger mines—even within the United States—release harmful byproducts and contribute to land degradation. This, however, is also not specific to gemstones. Gemstones mined by hand or from small, family run mines often have the lowest impact on the environment and the shortest lineage of ownership before they reach store shelves, but inventory is limited to what gemstones naturally occur in local landscapes and how much can be mined at a time.
Palo Santo, Sage, And Extinction
The questionable ethics of the healing and spirituality industry are not limited to how its gemstones are mined. Palo santo and white sage—two plant-based products that make popular incense for the spiritually aware—are at risk of going extinct. Illegal harvesting practices and mass commercialization of white sage and palo santo among the spiritual and alternative medicine communities have contributed to near-extinction of the plants. Palo santo, for example, has entered a phase of being considered critically endangered, as its total known plant count has decreased by more than 80% in the last decade, with less than 250 mature adult plants growing in the world today.
White sage, on the other hand, is widely used for “spiritual cleansing” and has been burned in tribal practice for centuries.
Retailers like Amazon, Walmart, Urban Outfitters, and even Etsy sell bundles of white sage as part of packaged products like “spiritual cleansing kits” that aim to capitalize on these ancient native traditions (which, unsurprisingly, have a dark past in conjunction with colonization). Sometimes they come with the guarantee that the products were sourced sustainability. But without a special harvesting permit, they were likely sourced illegally, and probably contributed to the growing concern for the plant’s looming endangerment.
“It can be frustrating when attempts to inform stores who sell sage bundles respond that they are getting their sage from those that claim sustainable harvesting techniques and have all the right verbiage on their social media and websites,” reads a blog post from the medicinal plant conservation organization, United Plant Savers. “Consumers and retailers need to understand laws in regards to wild plants because even if one’s techniques are sustainable, if it is not permitted, then it is illegal,” it continues.
When buying bundles of white sage and palo santo, the best way to assure that you’ve purchased from an ethical and sustainable source is … by not buying the product at all. There are plenty of incense alternatives on the market that are made sustainably and smell just as good—or maybe even better. These products don’t serve a utilitarian need, and diminishing the demand for these products that fuel global crises is essentially the only way to diminish its negative impact.