I love jewelry. I love how it makes me feel, how it looks against my skin, and how it can be an extension of my personality. But when we’re talking ethics, gold quickly loses its shine. It hurts to think of how the gold jewelry that I want to pass on to my daughters might have played a part in poisoning the environment. You can understand how gold is an important part of my quest to create more ethical jewelry.
GOLD 101: the Environmental impact of gold mining
The problem with gold is that mining can negatively affect the environment. Mining activities can cause deforestation, which leads to biodiversity loss due to habitat destruction. In plain words, this means that when the forest is gone, you not only lose the wide variety of plants growing there, but animals no longer have a home and can go extinct as a result.
The use of cyanide and mercury is still rampant in the industry, especially among artisanal miners. Once these elements are released to the environment, there's no way to take it back.
Large scale gold mining can destroy an ecosystem. The scale of digging is humongous. When you dig so much of the earth continuously for a long time, the environment can’t fight back. It dries out the land, and these craters are impossible to fill in. You hurt the physical landscape, and also displace the flora and fauna in the area.
Mining can amass toxic waste. For gold mining, this comes in the form of sludge, a mixture of sediment and the chemicals used in mining. It’s usually disposed in natural bodies of water. From rivers and lakes, to oceans.
Industrial mining yields gold ore, or finely crushed rock or soil containing only tiny amounts of gold. Mercury and cyanide are used to extract the gold. Mercury in particular is mixed in with the gold to form an amalgam.
The mercury ‘devours’ gold and separates it from the rocks and soil. The amalgam is then burned, evaporating the mercury, releasing it into the air, leaving the gold behind.
So why use mercury and cyanide? While there are safer alternatives for people and the environment, it’s super easy to use cyanide and mercury. And in Indonesia, although forbidden through the ratification of the Minamata Convention, mercury is both cheap and readily available.
It’s a long journey from finding gold to it finally becoming jewelry. And it’s taken us two years to find a more ethical option. As I wanted to work with artisanal gold miners, ideally women, who then had to learn how to work without mercury.
It was a full supply chain transformation to go from gold from unknown origins to setting up our own traceable source of gold.
Recycled gold is touted as one of the more responsible options. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely an alternative. But as I considered the list of pros and cons, it wasn’t enough for me.
Scrapping gold pieces and recycling them into jewelry is not something new. It’s an age-old practice. And it may be the easiest way to lay claim to the word ethical, but at the end of the day I don’t think it deserves the label.
Is it better than large scale mining? Yes. Is it ethical? Not to me. Why? Because it doesn’t solve any of the issues caused by mining in the first place.
Gold is a commodity. Recycling it won't lead to less gold being mined. The demand is led by the use of gold as a financial investment. Recycled gold ignores the damage caused by mining. We believe that we can have a higher impact by changing our supply chain.
We went further into the issue of recycled metals vs. responsibly mined metals when we talked about silver mining and our quest for ethical silver. Which just goes to show how complicated the issue of sourcing raw materials can get.
FAIRMINED and FAIR TRADE GOLD
Fairtrade and Fairmined are two different organizations that have guiding principles and rules that members must adhere to. These principles cover aspects of environmental protection, social development, and working conditions.
Fairtrade guarantees miners a Fairtrade Minimum Price for their gold. Miners receive a premium to improve community projects, like education, access to clean water and healthcare. They promote strict working conditions that take care of the workers and the environment they work in.
Fairmined emphasizes responsibly managed community mines. It pays a premium to their miners so that they adhere to the guiding principles. Fairmined gold promises limited use of harmful chemicals, and continuous reduction of chemical use. They give the miners direct access to the international market and to responsible supply chains.
Fairmined also have an eco gold classification, which has stricter standards. For their eco gold label, miners aren’t allowed to use any toxic chemicals, and miners must have policies for the rehabilitation of damaged ecosystems.
A stamp of approval from either organization means that the brands or companies involved are in line with their standard.
Unfortunately, these organisations are not present in every part of the world. Fairmined works in parts of South America and Mongolia, while Fair Trade
works in parts of South America, parts of Africa, and parts of Asia. Neither work in Indonesia, which for me became a deal breaker. I like short supply chains and meeting the people who mine our raw materials.
GARDENS OF THE SUN's ethical gold jewelry
While we adhere to many of the standards set by Fairtrade and Fairmined, we’re not a member. Considering the level of transparency I was looking for, it made more sense to do our own thing. Being based in Indonesia, importing gold was actually a more complicated process (and it also comes with a carbon footprint).
I also wanted to remove all mercury from our supply chain. I’m absolutely confident in labelling our Gardens of the Sun gold as ethical. We work with artisanal miners who hold valid licenses to work in a post mining site, and receive more than the national price for refined gold.