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The Dirty Truth about Gold

The Dirty Truth about Gold

Congolese men prospect for gold. Eastern Congo has been destabilized by conflict for the last eight years. One of the reasons for the conflict there has been the struggle to control the Congo's vast mineral wealth that includes gold.

September 19, 2007 —

Standing in line at a favored restaurant or after-hours watering hole, where hands and fingers gesture and point and make conversation; there is one thing that is very noticeable. All the gold rings. Talismans of marriage, engagement, accomplishment, vanity and health. Then, there are earrings, bracelets, watchbands, charms, necklaces, pins. Across the great wrist-finger-ear-toe-ankle of human history, our adornment, is gold-centric.

As I step into a jewelry store to explore among the be-cushioned piles of gold stuff, I mull over where our modern supplies of gold from. We all know from California Gold Rush history that gold lies in veins and was panned in streams or mined with pickaxes or the first high pressure strip mining—leaving horrid scars in the northeastern California foothills still visible today.

The Dilemma: Gold Is in the Earth

So I wonder if this has stopped—all these environmentally-scarring methods. It turns out, it has gotten worse as the supply of fresh gold diminished and world demand increased. The prospectors of our times are mining corporations, among the most ethically troubling entities to ever be dubbed a corporation. I look down at a beautifully wrought gold band, perfect for my girl friend’s birthday, and I am struck with a fact: it takes an average of twenty tons of earth waste and toxic chemicals processed to create one gold ring. Landscapes are turned to craterscapes.

Congolese men prospect for gold. Eastern Congo has been destabilized by conflict for the last eight years. One of the reasons for the conflict there has been the struggle to control the Congo's vast mineral wealth that includes gold.
Then, I realize there are workers involved in this processing. Workers in the African gold regions that are victim to daily toxic atmospheres and murderous gang territory wars over gold fields. In effect, my girlfriend would be wearing that legacy on her finger. Not a happy thought.

Ethics at the Counter

I ask the sales associate if I’m about to buy a gold gift for that special somebody will it be forever tarnished with environmental, human and social wounds?

He says no. It turns out that over the past six years successful campaigns have reshaped the choices available to consumers and put some teeth into oversight of worldwide mining operations. In 2004 the “No Dirty Gold” campaign from the Oxfam nonprofit created a fairly good ripple effect into the jewelry industry, and at least brought the bad boy mining corporations into the spotlight. By Valentine’s Day, 2006, eight of the largest jewelry retailers in the US pledged to move away from dirty gold.

The good guy retailers included: Zale, the Signet Group (parent company of Kay Jewelers), Tiffany, Helzberg Diamonds, Fortunoff, Cartier, Piaget, and Van Cleef & Arpels.

These jewelry retailers embraced a manifesto that includes:

  • Respect for basic human rights outlined in international conventions and law
  • Free, prior, and informed consent from affected communities
  • Respect for workers' rights and labor standards
  • Protecting parks and natural reserves from mining
  • Protecting oceans, rivers, lakes, and streams from mining wastes
  • So, who didn’t sign on for this admirable and ethical commitment? JC Penny, Walmart, Sears and a few other big players.

I recall I’m standing in a Zales store. So, there is a sigh of relief as this particular ethical dilemma is neatly solved. If you want to buy gold jewelry with a clear conscience, seek out the eight committed purveyors above. Now, the dilemma of what in the heck my girlfriend will really like.

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