Metal Mining and Ethical Jewellery
In this post I’d like to discuss the environmental and humanitarian impacts of precious metal mining and how it is possible to be more ethical as both a jeweller and consumer.
Since launching my business I have tried to make ethical choices when it comes to the materials and processes that I use. I thought it was time to explain why I use recycled silver and gold - in the hopes that my customers will continue to make ethical decisions when purchasing jewellery in the future and fellow jewellers may be better informed to make ethical decisions in their own businesses. I am by no means an expert on this subject - and this is just an overview on a very complex subject. If you believe anything here to be inaccurate or misleading, please let me know.
I will mostly be talking about gold mining here - this is because gold mining receives more attention and has the most research written around it. This does not mean that silver is any better - silver is often mined alongside gold in the same mines and carries the same sins. In fact as far as I an tell virtually all metal mining is at least environmentally destructive and gold has only received so much attention because of it’s high value and desirability in jewellery.
There are two types of mines - small scale mines and large scale mines. Each type of mine has it’s own challenges to overcome.
Small scale mines are often family run businesses in remote areas, unregulated by governing bodies with a lack of education about health and safety with regards to the processes that are used when mining. Working conditions can vary greatly case by case. These mines are often located in poor communities, with 100 million workers world wide* it is the second largest employer on the planet.
Hazards workers face include: the use of chemicals like cyanide and mercury, the digging and use of badly constructed mine shafts, mine shaft cave-ins, violence in the work place, lack of adequate safety checks on machinery and much more. The majority of these workers will earn less than $2 a day*. Mercury is a particularly nasty chemical, the inhalation of it is linked to brain lesions, brain damage and insanity.
An estimated 600,000 children work in small scale gold mines, handling dangerous chemicals many suffer from nausea, dizziness and headaches, with coughs because of mercury fumes, they are unaware of the lasting effects on their health.
Large scale mines are owned by large companies, they produce 80% of the worlds precious metals, but only employ a fraction of the people due to the access they have to technology. These larger mines are regulated by governments, but corrupt politicians have been known to take profit for their own gain regardless of working conditions and impact those mines have on local communities. Dishonest politicians and others in positions of power have even been known to forcibly control mines and their resources using armies as was the case in the Marange Diamond Fields in Zimbabwe.
Local gangs, drug cartels and militia have been linked to funds created by the illegal trading of gold. Local militia have used these profits in the past to fund local wars (funded by blood diamonds).
Metal is mined from metal ore. An ore is a rock with a high enough percentage of metal to make extraction profitable. The metal is extracted using toxic chemicals such as cyanide or mercury. Cyanide and mercury can get in to the ecosystem when not handled correctly, killing wildlife and contaminating water. Local communities may have to relocate in order to grow crops and have access to clean water.
As well as the poisoning of the environment, large scale metal mines are so big and destructive to the environment that some of them can be seen from space. Deforestation leading to soil erosion are a devastating side effect of metal mining.
Accidental spillages of mercury, cyanide and nitric acid and the redirection of waterways had devastating consequences in the Goldcorps Entre Mares mine in Honduras. 15 of 18 riverbeds dried up, and the water ways that remained were acidic, “tasted like battery acid” and were left unfit for human or animal consumption. Livestock died and many people fell ill with respiratory, skin and gastro-intestinal diseases.
In 2018 Gold mines have begun to clean up their act. Mercury free mines and gold are now becoming more common place due to government intervention.
“The biggest development to change the practice of using mercury to mine gold is the Minamata Convention on mercury - a UN Environment treaty signed by the world’s governments,” explains Dr. Kevin Telmer. “Under the Minamata Convention, countries have agreed to introduce mercury-free technology to assist artisanal and small-scale miners to use alternative and more profitable techniques. “This serves the double purpose of eliminating mercury pollution while still providing what is broadly recognised by world bodies as an important livelihood supporting around 100 million poor people in more than 80 countries.”
Silver is usually mined along side other metals as many silver mines closed when the price of silver plummeted. This makes traceability very difficult. Gold mining has received a lot of scrutiny over the last 20 years, leading to a surge in fair-trade and fairmined certified mines as well as a dramatic increase in the number of jewellers being registered as using fair trade gold. Silver however has been much slower on the up take. Although fair-trade silver does exist, I have found it very difficult to source in the UK.
As a small scale jeweller there are a few things you can do to make your business more ethical:
Check where your precious metals are coming from, if this information isn’t readily available - contact your supplier. If your supplier is not using verified sources with a transparent supply chain - change supplier.
Commit to using recycled silver and gold - or even better - switch to Fair-trade silver and gold.
Use recycled packaging - Tiny Box Company offer a great range of luxury recycled and recyclable boxes that are as good as their non-recycled range AND you can get them foil printed with your logo.
Register with the fair-trade small jewellers scheme, use their free fairtrade promotional materials to spread the fairtrade word on your website and in your shop. Tell your customers what you are doing and why!
I currently use eco-silver supplied by Cooksons Gold which is made using 100% recycled silver. Recycled silver does not contribute to the negative environmental impacts of the mining industry. Recycled silver however does not solve humanitarian issues tied to mining as it does not deal with source issues.
**GOOD NEWS…After scouring the internet and harassing suppliers I have discovered that Fair-trade silver is in fact available to purchase through Betts Metals (by special order only) HURRAH. It’s going to take me a little while to make the change and adjust prices accordingly (it is sadly more expensive), but watch this space!**
What can you do as a consumer?
Check where your jeweller is sourcing their metals and stones. Is it recycled? Is it fair-trade or fair mined? If it doesn’t say on their website or promotional material, just ask! If they aren’t already using ethically sourced materials, perhaps your asking will encourage them to do so.
Sources and further reading
The Red & Green Book - Ethical Jewellery Manual, Greg Valerio, 2011, Published by Fair Jewellery Action
*This figure is from 2011, I struggled to find an up to date number for rates of pay.