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Should I wear newly mined gold?

Cyanide poisoning, low wages, child labour, water wastage ... Surely the time is right for an ethical gold rush, says Lucy Siegle

by Lucy SiegleObserver
April 1st, 2007

Every commodity seems to have a gold sobriquet now: green gold is biofuel, white gold is cotton, black gold either coffee or oil and even bananas are being referred to as yellow gold. All, of course, commodities hoping to emulate real gold's famous ability to hold its value and keep the world turning; however chaotic the economic environment it remains a symbol of stability. Some 140,000 tonnes sit around in bank vaults while just 2,500 tonnes is mined each year.

Unfortunately, even mining this quantity of gold causes a disproportionate amount of ecological chaos. Firstly, open-cast mining - bear in mind some of the largest gold reserves are visible from space - uses cyanide poured on to the land, which draws out not just gold but also toxic substances such as arsenic. And while this should be a closed process, in reality the result is widespread contamination of the surrounding environment. Then there's the problem with mercury. Just last month a new University of Nevada report found 'startlingly high' concentrations of the substance in the air around Northern Nevada's gold mines (

The footprint of your average gold ring, then, includes around 18 tonnes of waste and 5 tonnes of water. In water-scarce Honduras, a large gold mine will draw around 220 gallons of water per minute. But what about the human cost? Between 1990 and 1998 more than 30,000 people were displaced by gold mining.

But lest you thought the smaller, more informal artisan mines dotted around South America and Africa were better, they are far from a wholesome cottage industry. As the International Labour Organisation ( puts it: 'The large-scale formal mining sector does not employ children in its operations. The more remote and more informal a small-scale mining activity, the more likely children are to be involved.'

As three-quarters of gold has already been brought to the surface, mines are becoming deeper. By 2011 the migrant miners working in the world's most productive gold mine in Driefontein, South Africa, will need to descend 4km to get to work. They earn less than $10 a day. Many miners, however, survive on less than a dollar a day, something that won't change unless consumers start asking more questions of retailers. While many jewellers recycle (see, and buying recycled gold is a good idea, it won't, by itself, start an ethical gold rush.

So what will? Ethically focused brands such as Fifi Bijoux ( are leading the cry for change from within the jewellery industry. Similarly, and deal in ethically sourced gold. But essentially the consumer needs to pressure the retailers; and this is especially true in the US, where Wal-Mart now sells more gold than anybody else. Supporting overseas agency Cafod's Unearth Justice campaign for a fairer gold industry is a good start ( They intend to lobby the UK National Association of Goldsmiths for a code of practice guaranteeing gold that doesn't take the shine off.


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