All that glitters is not ethical gold

Hidden costs  
By ANDREW FOX  |  August 9, 2006

Consider this when you’re looking for the perfect engagement ring: producing an average gold band generates about 20 tons of cyanide-infused waste. Seeping into the ground water, wrecking havoc on the eco-culture of contiguous streams and rivers, waste chemicals from gold mining have been an oft-overlooked “externality” in the jewelry industry — until now.

Eight of the world’s top gold retailers, including corporate giants Tiffany & Co and Cartier have pledged their support to the No Dirty Gold campaign. Forged by Oxfam International and Earthworks, the campaign promotes environmental and social justice reforms in the gold-mining industry. On Valentine’s Day, the sponsors ran a full-page ad in the New York Times, naming “leaders” and “laggards” in gold retailing — companies that have pledged to support the campaign’s policies, and others, such as Rolex and Wal-Mart, that don’t.

No Dirty Gold calls for a global reassessment of the gold trade, in part because of growing public awareness of the diamond industry’s ties to corrupt governments in Africa. But although jewelry consumers may find a certificate elucidating the history of a particular diamond, there’s typically no such background for a gold ring. Most stores are resellers — they purchase finished jewelry from outside vendors, removing any direct links to mining operations. As a result, most consumers are in the dark.   

The problems with gold are multilayered. Mines leave enormous scars on the Earth’s surface, the largest ones deep enough to be seen from space, and the toxic waste products from extrapolated ore — including cyanide and sulfuric acid — leach into groundwater, or are occasionally dumped into lakes, creating freshwater with higher acidity levels than battery acid. In the Western US, this has led to a phenomenon called “Yellowboy,” a bright yellow toxic slime that coats the bottoms of streams. The pollution is not limited to groundwater: smelting facilities, which further purify many types of ore by exposing it to intense heat, release toxic chemicals into the air. In Peru, the federal Ministry of Health identifies smelting facilities in La Oroya as the cause of high incidences of lead poisoning in children.

But the problems are not solely environmental — they are also deeply socio-economic. The World Bank, for instance, often funds mining projects in developing nations under the aegis of widespread economic benefit, but does not factor in the costs of contamination, which reinforce the cyclical conditions of poverty that the World Bank supposedly seeks to alleviate. Furthermore, mines in developing nations are operated by foreign companies, so money flows out, into the wallets of international shareholders, leaving local economies riddled with environmental hazards without the means to regulate the industries.

Ultimately, the No Dirty Gold campaign seeks the attention of the World Gold Council, an amalgam of leading gold mining companies. As of now, the council has no environmental or social policies. Consumer awareness is instrumental in changing that, so for more information, visit

  Topics: This Just In , Culture and Lifestyle, Oxfam International, Economic Development,  More more >
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