Ethical Shopping - The Dirty Truth About Gold

Standing in line at a favored restaurant or after-hours watering hole, where hands and fingers gesture and point and make conversation a ship-to-ship signaling; there is one thing that is very noticeable. Brightly 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 (and for a long while—economics) is gold-centric. The pure nature and glamour (which has an original magical meaning) of gold veins deep into our culture.

As I step into a jewelry store to explore among the be-cushioned piles of gold stuff, which look so gorgeous and make me feel like a patrician just to be there, I mull over where our modern supplies of gold from. We all know from our California Gold Rush and prospector 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 shock, not wonder) 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. That is an incredibly heavy conversion, and I have visions of my girl friend buried under twenty tons of stripped earth and toxic barrels.

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, she would be wearing that legacy on her finger. Not a happy thought. The ring is so pretty and precious. It is the perfect gift, simply because it is so beautiful and eternally untarnishable. Yet, these issues kind of weigh in heavily.

Ethics at the Counter

Being a person of a budding social conscious, I ask the sales associate if I'm about to buy a gold gift for that special somebody, yet it will 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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