How to avoid buying 'dirty gold'

The gold on your finger may have cost more than mere cash. But one designer is creating jewellery with a conscience

A A A

So you're an environmentally enlightened couple, engaged to be married. You're doing your bit to plan a green wedding - you've included a charity gift of tree-planting on your wedding list to help offset the hefty carbon footprint created by the honeymoon in Mauritius; the menu is almost all seasonal and locally sourced, and at least the engagement ring on your or your fiancée's finger, and the wedding rings you will exchange, are ethically and environmentally sound, right? Well, no, almost certainly not. And you may be surprised to discover why.

While the Kimberley Process, a certification programme introduced in 2003, now guarantees that 99 per cent of diamonds sold in the UK and 69 other signed-up countries are "conflict free", the provenance of the gold in which your stone is set remains dubious. In fact, it's almost certainly at least as unethical as stones from areas controlled by rebel forces, as well as being environmentally catastrophic, according to designer Katharine Hamnett, who this month is launching a range of wedding and engagement rings that use not only certified "clean" Canadian diamonds, but also "Green Gold", in association with the ethical jewellery company Cred.

"People think clothing is a nightmare," says the fashion designer, who brought organic cotton, sweat-shop awareness and political T-shirts to the mainstream. "But gold is a nightmare." "And yet nobody has a clue," adds Cred's Greg Valerio, Hamnett's partner in the jewellery venture, who is with her today at the designer's north London studio. "Nearly all the gold in the world is made into jewellery, and jewellers flog it as if it's an innocent bit of lovey dove. It's not. Look," he continues, pointing at his own well-worn wedding ring, "that is three tonnes of toxic waste right there."

"People just don't realise how gold is mined," explains Hamnett. "Effectively, a mining company will blow up a mountain, crush it - gone, so it doesn't exist any more - and then pour cyanide over the rubble to draw out the gold."

According to Oxfam America, one mine in Papua New Guinea generates 200,000 tons of this cyanide-laced waste rock per day. The disposal of such vast amounts of waste is often highly problematic. It is stored in reservoirs (which can leak), or dumped in rivers, lakes or the sea. According to the American research institute World Watch, when a dam in Romania containing such waste broke in 2000, some 100,000 cubic metres of waste water containing cyanide and heavy metals made its way into the Danube, killing around 165 tons of fish.

In smaller-scale mining operations mercury, instead of cyanide, is often used to leach gold from the rock. But this job is often done "in a backroom with a blowtorch", says Valerio, so that the toxic air is inhaled by the workers - often children, because the work is not physically demanding. Exposure to high levels of mercury can permanently damage the brain.

Counting the Cost of Gold, a report by international aid agency, Cafod, claims toxic waste is just the tip of the gold-mining nightmare. Ecological destruction is immense: two-thirds of newly mined gold is extracted from open-pit mines so large that some are visible from space. There are also tales of large-scale forced evictions and displacements.

Rather than feeling defeated under the weight of the enormous changes that the jewellery industry needs to undergo to be even halfway ethical and environmentally sound, Cred is starting small, but very solidly working towards rebuilding things from the ground up.

The organisation is partners with a pioneering non-profit corporation, Green Gold, which works with mining communities in Colombia and aims to reverse the damage done to ecosystems by large-scale mining. Green Gold creates locally managed mines that use no toxic chemicals, incorporate reforestation, limit waste and obtain legal approval for proposed mines. It ensures profit is pumped back into the community.

"It's amazing," says Hamnett. "They've gone back to using Aztec and Mayan techniques; the miners bank up the soil and save it, which creates these inverted ziggurats." In the void, gold is extracted by hand before pits are gradually refilled. Meanwhile, the gold is washed by pan.

Miners are taught by an environmental agency to understand the area's biodiversity so that they can reforest appropriately. Refining is done as naturally as possible, using a local refiner committed to minimising chemical usage and safe waste management. The whole process is independently certified and the end product is then sold to Cred under a Fairtrade premium.

It was a cause crying out for the high-profile, Hamnett touch. "I'd always meant to do a jewellery range but never got around to it until I met Greg," she explains. "And now I'm really glad because I wouldn't want to be responsible for three tons of toxic waste every time I did a gold ring. It's really exciting."

Just don't call Hamnett an "eco-warrior". "My ethos on environmentally friendly products is that they've got to gorgeous - to be exactly the same as the normal product. No 'eco look' - people don't want that. It's got to look super luxury and posh to compete with the likes of Boucheron and Cartier."

The range includes a solitaire, a classic wedding ring and a diamond-studded eternity ring. Prices range from £700 to £25,000. While much of Cred's cut will be ploughed into expanding the business model, Hamnett is launching a foundation to support farmers converting to organic.

The enterprise is timed to tap into the huge boom in consumer awareness of organic and Fairtrade. And after a reluctant start, the jewellery industry slowly seems to be taking note. Last year, the Council for Responsible Jewellery Practices was set up, representing jewel giants such as Cartier, Tiffany, America's National Mining Association and the World Gold Council, and a new International Cyanide Management Code has been introduced for mining companies.

"I see this as a 15-year journey," says Valerio. "At the end, it will have become completely socially unacceptable to buy jewellery that is not ethically and environmentally sound."

How to avoid buying 'dirty gold'

Buy from a company such as Cred, that sells jewellery certified as ethically and environmentally sound.

Start a petition to ask jewellery retailers to ensure gold items are ethically produced. Send copies to the National Association of Jewellers and National Association of Goldsmiths.

Get involved in Cafod's Unearthing Justice campaign (www.cafod.org.uk/ unearthjustice) to see what you can do. If you are a jeweller, sign up to the charity's Golden Rules and implement them.

Buy vintage or recycled jewellery, or find a jeweller willing to make new gold items by melting ones you're no longer keen on.

Check your investments: if you have money invested in gold mining companies, you may be able to use your shareholder voice to call for change.

Ask questions: is your jeweller is a member of the Council for Responsible Jewellery Practices? If not, why not? Make a fuss in shops about knowing the provenance of the jewellery that you buy - if consumers demand it, the industry will somehow have to think about supplying it.

Find out more at www.katharinehamnett.com and at www.cred.tv

Sport
footballLIVE City face Stoke, while Warnock returns to Palace dugout
Arts and Entertainment
books
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone