Dirty Digging: The Unsavoury Truth Behind the Gold on Your Jeweller’s Shelves

20th February 2013

by Tara Gould

Guest Writer for Wake Up World

Not everyone likes gold, some find it trashy and over stated, while others simply can’t get enough of the stuff. Gold is a massive billion dollar industry, and millions of people globally are dependent on small-scale gold mining to survive. But the majority work in harsh conditions with no health and safety regulations, and many do not receive a fair price for the gold that they produce.

So while the price of gold continues to climb,  shouldn’t  we be asking ourselves, what’s the real cost of bling?

A Mystical Allure

Since time immemorial gold has been used as a form of fiscal exchange, a sign of status and wealth, of beauty, commitment, enduring love, and religious virtue.

Gold is almost indestructible, both durable and pliable, it is resistant to tarnishing and corroding, and it dazzles with a colour and brilliance that evokes our most powerful star. Small wonder that gold became one of the world’s most precious resources.

Gold is at the heart of numerous myths and fairy tales, think Jason and the Golden Feece, King Midas, and Rumplestiltskin to name but a few. The Inca people saw gold as the sweat of the sun, whilst for the Ancient Egyptians gold symbolised the sun god Ra. Then there’s Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush, and all the harmless images that gold mining conjures up, such as opportunistic gold seekers hopefully panning in Californian rivers for tiny nuggets. But all this is a far cry from the truth.

All That Glitters…

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 environmental and human rights standards. Scratch the veneer of your average gold ring and you’ll discover a tainted story which looks something more like this.

Picture a vast, dry, Martian like landscape ravaged by industry and polluted by the dumping of toxic waste. Here, men, women and sometimes children are forced to work long hours, often in intense heat and terrible conditions for wages that will barely meet their basic needs. Indigenous communities are frequently displaced and lose their traditional ways of living, their land, and often their rights. Exposure to massive levels of lead and mercury make workers sick, and their health is permanently affected, while heavy metals leak into the earth around mines and contaminate drinking water.

Gold for just one ring produces around 20 tonnes of toxic waste, known as tailings, in industrial-scale gold mining.   According to an investigative report led by Earthworks and Mining Watch Canada this is frequently dumped into the world’s waterways:

“Mining companies are dumping more than 180 million tonnes of hazardous mine waste each year into rivers, lakes, and oceans worldwide, threatening vital bodies of water with toxic heavy metals and other chemicals poisonous to humans and wildlife. The amount of mine waste dumped annually is 1.5 times as much as all the municipal waste dumped in U.S. landfills in 2009… The dumping of mine tailings and waste rock pollutes waters around the world, threatening the drinking water, food supply and health of communities as well as aquatic life and ecosystems”

At least ten major corporations are guilty of environmental damage including those in Papua New Guinea, Turkey, Canada, Indonesia, United States, and Norway. You can read the full report here: Troubled Waters

Conscious Consuming

David Rhode of ethical international jewellers Ingle & Rhode is optimistic about changing attitudes towards ethical buying: “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 time to research what they are buying into”

But with the mounting trend for eco and ethical jewellery comes an increase in green-washing. To satisfy this niche of discerning consumers the jewellery industry has attempted to jump on the green bandwagon. But buyer beware –   you’re likely to come across obfuscation and the use of unsubstantiated claims, as well as a lack of dependable information. In the BBC Dispatches documentary ‘The Real Price of Gold’ the presenter visited a number of high street jewellers and discovered that, when asked, most could not supply clear answers about where their gold had been mined, or whether it was made without damage to the environment or abuses of workers rights.

A general rule of thumb is this: unless a jewellers specifically states they are ethical and can prove it, then they probably aren’t.

When is ‘Fair’ Really Fair?

Set up in March 2010 the Fairtrade and Fairmined gold standards is the world’s first independent ethical certification system for gold. It supports the lives of small scale artisanal miners and their communities in South America by employing a rigorous auditing process to ensure that they meet certain criteria. Standards on safety, worker rights and the environment must be met for certification to be awarded. Additionally, a Fair-trade premium payment is re-invested back into the community to sustain local education, health care and to support the continued resilience of these communities.

Ingle & Rhode are one of a handful of conscientious jewellers who have been committed to making ethical jewellery well before ‘green’ became a byword for the trendy. They use 100% post-consumer recycled gold or platinum and are one of a small number of international retailers licensed to sell Fair-trade and Fair-mined gold. Here’s what they say:

“Fair-mined gold underlines our belief that gold can be a positive force for development, rather than a cursed resource that benefits the few and causes misery for many in gold mining communities.”

And Ingle & Rhode aren’t the only ones, here at eco-wedding site Ethical Weddings, Kate Marillat writes about the implications of ethical jewellery and provides a comprehensive list of trustworthy ethical jewellers who are making promising inroads through years of diligence and hard work in an industry tainted by greed and abuse.

Previous articles by Tara:

About the author:

Tara Gould is a freelance writer who covers environmental issues, politics, sustainable living and clean energy. She is passionate about spreading the word on ‘conscious’ business, and low impact, sustainable ways of running and powering societies, which are crucial for the health of people and planet. She also blogs at ethical-business.eu and ethicalweddings.com


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