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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
education
News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
Sport
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
News
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
science
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London