Say yes to green gold
The story of gold in the UK
The Guardian | Lucy Siegle
July 16, 2011
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My partner and I are engaged but deferred buying her ring until we find something that fits with her ethical values. She won't wear diamonds and is also worried about gold.
Let's begin with a jewellery parable from a report by Lifeworth Consulting on making over the jewellery business. The report, Uplifting the Earth, reveals that Greenlanders once had the right to gather and sell indigenous diamonds, sapphires and rubies which rival the famous rubies of Burma (now under embargo but frequently used by exclusive high-end jewellery brands). In 2006 this egalitarian arrangement was revoked when Greenland's Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum gave a large private enterprise, True North Gems, rights to "deposits with significant value".
Sadly these pernicious trends – indigenous communities driven off their mineral deposits while power and access is consolidated into the hands of restricted to a few powerful players – are visible throughout the globe's jewellery box. There are the environmental abuses of "dirty gold" (as laid bare in last year's study by Earthworks) and the fact that reporters in 2008 found that gold mined by children using mercury was entering the supply chain.
The mainstream industry claimed it was solving the problem of lack of transparency because 80% of gold in UK jewellery is recycled. Nice try, but while preferable to untraced gold (for which neither the designer nor the retailer has any idea of the supply chain, including mine, refinery and fabricator), recycled gold lacks certification or ethical backbone. We need to know in which workshops this recycled gold was fashioned, with which chemicals and in what conditions. It also misses a big trick: namely the opportunity to support responsible mining. "Newly mined gold is critically important to countries such as Ghana, Mali and Peru," says Vivien Johnston, a jeweller and activist heading up the Ethics Committee for the National Association of Goldsmiths and the British Jewellers' Association. "Artisanal miners' lives depend on the sale of the gold they mine."
Giant jewellery corporations could provide traceability, as they own their own mines (whether or not they choose to do this is a different matter entirely). But it's still the boutique brands which prioritise traceability and are "pro-poor" (Fifibijoux.com and Credjewellery.com, for example, both source ethical gold from the Oro Verde co-operative in Latin America). Here we also see small-scale batch refining, which ensures that green gold doesn't get mixed with non-ethical gold during the refining process , and the creation of co-operatives to cut, set and polish stones. Fairtrade and Fairmined gold recently arrived here, albeit in tiny quantities. But smaller UK companies struggle to get access to Fairtrade gold. Many have spent years painstakingly uncovering their own supply chain – have the conversation with them, too.
Do you want to be a consumer who pioneers and helps shift the industry or one that waits until it is clean enough to buy with peace of mind (the Responsible Jewellery Council will have developed its Chain of Custody standards by 2013, which should mean more certified ethical pieces on the high street)? Probably best not to wait too long, though. "If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it," as Beyoncé says.