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

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little