About a year ago now I read a highly interesting book by Annie Leonard called The Story of Stuff which examined all the various accoutrements with which we surround ourselves, where they come from and how they are produced and manufactured. Included in the book was a very enlightening chapter on gold and how generally unethical and environmentally destructive the gold industry is. At this time of the year most of us are thinking of Christmas of course, but some love-struck people around the world may be planning wedding's next year. If so, and if you are thinking of buying some gold for whatever reason, have a look at this guest article by Jen Marsden beforehand. It might make you think about what gold you buy and how you go about it.
Heart of gold? Wedding rings with thought
Ethical issues in the jewellery industry tend to be focused on conflict-diamonds and other precious gems. But what about the raw material that these beautiful stones are set in? Gold mining can be a dangerous and unethical business in its own right. But there is an alternative.
What makes gold unethical?
Consumers tend to forget the importance of the metals in ethical jewellery sourcing – gems are only one part of the problem.
Mined and appreciated for centuries, gold is a constant financial boon. In India, families put gold above property and see it as a sound investment for the future, making it the ultimate wedding gift for newlyweds. This is because the price of gold has a steady and strong market price increase every year.
Yet there’s much more to gold than meets the eye.
As the no dirty gold campaign highlights, ““Gold mining is a dirty industry: it can displace communities, contaminate drinking water, hurt workers, and destroy pristine environments.”
Traditional gold mining tends to occur in less developed countries such as Africa and South America and there is often weak legislation to ensure sustainability.
Gold mining is an industry that requires much labour and a lot of energy. Extraction utilizes deadly mercury or cyanide, which leaches the land and can cause many health and safety issues for the miners and families living in the communities. The large pits left from mining can even turn into breeding sites for mosquitoes, spreading fatal tropical diseases quickly.
When it comes to selling their gold, small-scale artisanal miners have few bargaining rights and often receive only a fraction of the local market value, as traders and exporters collude to rip them off.
Children are often used as the main labour force, both in the extraction process of the raw metal as well as in the cutting workshops for the finished product.
David Rhode of bespoke ethical jeweller Ingle & Rhode explains, “The jewellery industry is not a particularly progressive one. A lot of jewellers have done things the same way for many years, and are resistant to change. Over the last six years we’ve noticed people within the industry starting to acknowledge some of the ethical problems, which must be positive. The downside is that certain jewellers can be quite cynical, and have started shouting about how ethical they are while doing nothing to clean up their business.”
Yet it’s not all bad news, as Rhode adds, “Interest in ethical jewellery is growing year on year, particularly around engagement rings and wedding bands. These are lifetime purchases, and clients are more likely to take the time to research what they are buying into.”
Hearts of gold
After years of campaigning by ethical jewellery companies like Ingle & Rhode, as well as local NGOs and human rights advocates, there’s now a friendlier alternative to the gold purchased for custom-made engagement rings or wedding bands.
The Fairtrade Foundation in the UK launched a global first in February 2011: Fairtrade and Fairmined gold.
This certified gold is becoming more available within the marketplace and stands to support millions of small-scale and artisanal miners around the world.
Fairtrade and Fairmined gold follow the same principles as other Fairtrade certified products, ensuring a set minimum price as well as a premium that is re-invested back into the community.
Small-scale mining communities can now work under carefully regulated conditions to produce metals that are both environmentally friendly and socially beneficial. The miners have the right to bargain collectively and child labour is strictly prohibited.
Ingle & Rhode sources its gold from an association of artisanal miners in Peru called AURELSA, which is one of a handful of certified gold producers. AURELSA produces 3.5kg of pure gold each year under strict guidelines and an independent audit process. A handful of wholesalers are then authorized to import the gold to the UK, where several retailers are licensed to offer it to the public, who are also in turn independently audited by the Fairtrade Foundation in the UK.
With the Fairtrade premium, AURELSA has been able to establish a health centre and build three schools, as well subsidise the whole village’s electricity.
David Rhode concludes, “Boosting demand for certified Fairtrade and Fairmined gold will really help the lives of the producers, and most of our clients like the idea they are doing something positive.”
Next time you or someone you know is planning a lifetime purchase of gold, have a heart and work with an ethical jeweller.
Eco expert Jen Marsden is author of the Green Guide for Weddings and supporting Ingle & Rhode and other ethical wedding suppliers for a greener, glamourous wedding day.