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.
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