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Jewelry Ethics

16 january 2009

According to Birmingham Post, taking part in the city’s annual jewellery festival Brilliantly Birmingham, Sharon Walker, ex-fashion editor at Harpers Bazaar and co-director of eco-luxe brand URTH, explained why gold was top of the agenda.

“I like telling people I'm a gold mining entrepreneur. Conjuring up images of Wild West frontier towns and bullet-pocked window screens, it sounds pretty adventurous. Yet no one was more surprised than me to find myself trekking through the backwaters of Madagascar with a rucksack full of cash, barely a year after leaving my desk-job at the fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar. "I would have bought protection, had I known," commented my bemused expat guide, eyeing my bulging bag. As it was, that first deal - which took place in a tin hut grocery store surrounded by bags of rice - went without a hitch.

Made into jewelry, that gold bought in Madagascar now graces the necks of women in the U.K. and the U.S., including actress Emma Thompson and model Lily Cole. URTH is a new-style luxury brand, defined as much by ethical values as the more traditional qualities of design and craftsmanship. I really believe it is the way forward. I love beautiful things as much as the next girl - in my job at Harper's Bazaar I was immersed in the world of fashion and luxury -- yet when it came to setting up in business myself, I didn't want to simply send more "stuff" out into the universe. The whole point of URTH is to provide a clear supply chain. Gold's complex production means it is usually impossible to label where it comes from, consisting of five unconnected industries: mining, refining, manufacturing, wholesale and retail.

Many jewelers cannot say where their gold comes from or the conditions it was mined in. We solved that problem by buying direct from the mine. A sustainability expert we employed to help us with responsible sourcing selected the mining community in Antanimbary. The gold we bought there was panned from the river by small-scale miners with no damage to the environment. There is no forced nor slave labor in this community, and where children work it is as part of a family business and not at the expense of going to school. We are also taking positive steps to help gold mining to clean up its act. For example, the first collection designed by Notting Hill jeweller Pippa Small has funded a safety workshop and equipment for the miners in Tipuani, Bolivia, who mined the gold that made it. The mine does not use cyanide and we hope future URTH collections will fund a mercury management program. Mercury is used to extract the gold, but it is a highly toxic chemical, which not only escapes into the water table, but also affects the health of the miners, especially their children, who breathe the fumes and play in mercury-soaked sand. For the most part, they have no idea of the dangers.

Gold is one of the biggest polluters on the planet. One gold wedding ring alone generates 20 metric tons of mine waste. Some opencast mines are so huge you can see the craters from outer space. Others use several tons of cyanide per day. One accident at a Romanian mine led to 2,000 metric tons of fish being killed. Mine waste can make groundwater thousands of times more acidic than battery acid. Consumers are only now catching on, but thanks to films such as Blood Diamond, they are starting to ask questions.

Creating a clear supply chain has its challenges. It took us four months to persuade officials in Madagascar to allow the gold out in an unrefined state (we refine URTH gold separately so that it is untainted by "dirty" gold). In Bolivia we have to bring the gold out in jewelry form, as there are legal issues with exporting gold. And someone has yet to solve the problem of making an ethical gold chain (chain is made on industrial machines, kilos at a time, so there is no chance of stopping the machines to make them in our gold). Jewelry is the ultimate luxury item. People wear it for all sorts of reasons both personal and emotional; you don't want to feel that the beautiful ring or necklace you are wearing is tainted by a weight of destruction or suffering. When people buy ethical jewelry they are contributing directly to the lives and economies of the miners who made it - and that is an incredibly good feeling. It is asking: what do we mean by "ethical" jewelry, and how can we overcome the challenges when faced with an industry like gold mining, which is beset by environmental and human rights issues?”

Another British edition, The International Business Times, posted an article which views “green gold” jewellery as a niche in a fast growing wider market for ethical goods, ranging from day to day foodstuffs like tea, coffee and chocolate to designer fashions and travel. However, according to the article, analysts say global sales of ethical gold jewellery are probably less than one percent of the total $56 billion gold jewellery market based on figures from London based consultancy GFMS, and the Fairtrade label is a year or so away. Although the ethical product is priced at a premium and gold is at record highs, the market has been ballooning. Among a plethora of online offers are companies including one called greenKarat that argues industrial mining methods damage the land and endanger ecosystems, so recycled gold would be better for society.

Mine owners in many parts of the world regularly flout safety regulations to meet demand that seems insatiable, gold has been in a bull market for seven years. In South Africa, the world's top platinum producer, more than 200 workers were killed in 2007, prompting a nationwide strike over safety that hit output. The National Union of Mineworkers has threatened more action as it urges the government to prosecute mining companies for the deaths. The Fairtrade Foundation, which coordinates Fairtrade labelling in 20 countries including Britain, is working with the ARM to explore how to develop the concept of ethical gold. "If we get a positive board decision to proceed with Fairtrade labelled gold, then depending on the outcome of the pilot studies to date, it would be likely that the first certified gold will be available during 2009," said Fairtrade Foundation policy and producer relations officer Chris Davis. However keen the demand may be, the health of the global economy will ultimately drive sales: jewellers face the double challenge of soaring gold prices and a downturn in consumer confidence in Europe and the United States.