Avoiding Dirty Gold

By Sharon Naylor

March 30, 2012 6 min read

You've heard of the term "blood diamonds," which refers to the dangerous and deadly diamond trade in some corners of the globe. Consumers have overwhelmingly chosen to avoid blood diamonds in favor of diamonds and gemstones that have been sourced ethically, from industry-sanctioned mines. The same scrutiny now applies to the metals from which jewelry is made. A big spotlight is fixed on the dangers and environmental travesties of metal mining, and within the past several years, a great movement has occurred: No Dirty Gold. This movement has brought so much attention to the horrendous global effects of metal mining that some of the world's most elite jewelry companies have signed a pledge to avoid all sources of unethically mined gold.

According to Payal Sampat and Scott Cardiff of the international mining reform organization Earthworks, "processing the gold in one ring uses over 1,400 gallons of water, enough to meet the daily needs of 100 people. Left behind is a toxic sludge containing heavy metals, cyanide compounds and arsenic. Each gold ring produces an average of 20 tons of waste -- millions of tons over the life of a mine." Mining companies dump more than 180 million tons of hazardous waste into rivers, oceans and lakes -- which, according to Earthworks and Mining Works Canada, equals 1 1/2 times the waste that U.S. cities send to landfills each year.

Environmental and human rights groups have exposed many violations taking place in gold mines around the world -- including terrible treatment of miners, child labor in places like Mali, dangerous conditions inside the mines, local conflict in such locales as the Congo, wildlife threats and erosion of natural lands -- leading consumers to question the source of jewelry they consider buying. Because the jewelry industry depends on healthy sales, especially in this economy, jewelry companies now find themselves in a position of responsibility: They need to provide the information to consumers, so they'd better commit to avoiding any and all sources of "dirty gold."

One way that jewelers have educated themselves and proved their commitment to avoiding these mining atrocities is by signing the "Golden Rules" list of environmental criteria and human rights standards at http://www.NoDirtyGold.org. More than 100,000 people from around the world have signed a pledge asking retailers to go to great efforts to ensure the gold in their product lines was not produced at the expense of the environment and workers. These consumers don't want to buy gold that has polluted water and air quality, sickened workers, stripped land of its natural resources and created civil unrest. They want a guarantee that the gold pieces they buy are responsibly sourced.

The "Golden Rules" include the following:

--Respect basic human rights outlined in international conventions and law.

--Obtain the free, prior and informed consent of affected communities.

--Respect workers' rights and labor standards, including safe working conditions.

--Ensure that operations are not located in areas of armed or militarized conflict.

--Ensure that projects do not force communities off their lands.

--Ensure that projects are not located in protected areas, fragile ecosystems, or other areas of high conservation or ecological value.

--Refrain from dumping mine waste into the ocean, rivers, lakes or streams.

--Ensure that projects do not contaminate water, soil or air with sulfuric acid drainage or other toxic chemicals.

--Cover all costs of closing down and cleaning up mine sites.

--Fully disclose information about the social and environmental effects of projects.

--Allow independent verification of the above.

A large number of jewelry retailers have signed the Golden Rules, including Blue Nile, Boscov's, Brilliant Earth, Cartier, Fortunoff, Helzberg Diamonds, QVC, Target, Tiffany and Co., Wal-Mart, Whitehall Jewellers and Zales, among many others. Large retailers who have not signed the pledge have been targeted in the media and pressured by consumers regarding their hesitancy to sell ethically mined gold. (Visit http://www.NoDirtyGold.org for updates on these "stragglers.")

Even small jewelers and independent jewelry-makers such as Etsy artists are joining the movement and signing the pledge, holding their environmental commitments dear and meeting consumer demand. "I know that my customers want eco-friendly materials in my pieces, and the Dirty Gold issue comes up dozens of times a day," says jewelry designer Eliza Steares. "No one wants to buy jewelry that hurts the planet."

Another example of PR claims without meaningful change is the Responsible Jewellery Council. This is a trade association ostensibly concerned about social and environmental issues throughout the gold and diamonds supply chain. But its members do not include affected communities, mining unions or public interest groups.

The system as it is currently structured doesn't move us any closer to more responsible mining.

Communities and places affected by mining deserve meaningful changes that improve real conditions on the ground. One step in the right direction is the recent set of rules drafted by the Securities and Exchange Commission requiring companies traded on U.S. stock exchanges to determine whether they are using gold from conflict mines in the Congo. An initiative to develop standards and an independent verification process for gold and other metals is now under way -- and this effort, the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, includes both civil society and corporate participants.

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