Looking for new earrings, a necklace, or a brooch for yourself or as a present? Hoping for some gold or silver jewellery to surprise your loved ones with on Christmas, Valentine’s Day or their birthday? As with clothes, it’s important to consciously shop for jewellery. Do you know where the gold, silver and diamonds in your jewellery come from? Do you know how to recognise a sustainable piece of jewellery? COSH! investigated for you.

Western Europe recycles gold and silver

Did you know that most of the gold and silver available in Western Europes comes from old recycled jewellery so does not contribute to gold mining pollution? Your new jewellery could be made from recycled gold and you probably wouldn’t even be aware.

A bit of history: in 2009, 42% of the total gold stock worldwide was recycled gold. Since then, the percentage of recycled gold has only gone up. During the financial banking crisis in 2009-101, the gold market exploded. The precious metal - in contrast to savings accounts - retained its value. As a result, many families sold off their jewellery that had been handed down for generations. 100 000 tonnes of gold ended up on the market solely from inherited jewellery during that period despite only 3000 tonnes of gold being used each year.

Umicore is one of the largest precious metals recycling plants in the world. The transition to a circular economy for raw materials is imperative if we’re going to respond to the issue of environmental depletion. By choosing jewellery processed in Western Europe, you’re supporting good working conditions but unfortunately, that is not the case everywhere in the world.

What is the environmental impact of precious metals?

“Contemporary jewellery is pure, but gold mining today is senseless capitalist absurdity."

Despite the fact that 250,000 tonnes of gold are stored in the vaults of wealthy families, companies and banks all over the world, gold is still being extracted from mines. Mining in this day and age adds nothing to the cultural identity of jewellery as a gift or status symbol. Mining is completely redundant and simply a capitalist absurdity.

Large-scale gold mining in huge open-air mines is one of the most polluting activities in the world. Aside from jewellery, gold is also used in electronic devices such as mobile phones and laptops. How exactly are the raw metals mined? Gold and silver are found deep in the earth in ores. Forests and unique landscapes are often destroyed to make way for these giant pits dug to reach the ores. Sometimes, if the ore is exposed enough, rainwater can wash away the gold making it very easy to mine as it collects in small rivers. Most gold and silver though needs to be chemically dissolved from the ores. The highly toxic substance cyanide is often used for this process. On average, 20 tons of toxic mining waste are produced by traditional mining to extract enough gold for one wedding ring! The chemical treatment also extracts toxic metals such as lead and mercury. After the gold has been extracted from the solution, the cyanide and toxic metals remain. Sulphuric acid is used instead of cyanide to extract copper or nickel. Waste-storage spaces are often non-existent or badly insulated meaning most mining waste ends up in rivers and lakes, with dramatic consequences... These highly toxic chemicals and metals then wind up in drinking water and eventually in food via crops. Just one single grain of rice containing toxic substances is lethal to humans.

In addition to the chemical waste produced by the extraction of gold and silver, this process also requires large quantities of freshwater. This heavy consumption generally causes drought and scarcity in surrounding areas. The mines get the water they need at the expense of drinking water for the local populations and irrigation for the farmlands. In addition, huge quantities of forests are also destroyed during mining eradicating the unique biodiversity they contained.

These gold and silver mines have an enormous impact on the environment.

What is the impact of gold and silver mines on local communities?

Local populations are often forced to move so mines can be built. Far too often, local farmers’ land is claimed without compensation. Unsurprisingly these mines disrupt entire communities when they’re built. But also when they’re finished. Once all the metal has been extracted, the mine is abandoned and local populations are left without work, money, clean water and fertile farmland.

How to avoid supporting inhumane working conditions in the mines

The mining industry disrupts local populations and then employs locals in dangerous conditions for very low wages. The NGO, WISE Uranium Project, has been reporting on all mining accidents since 1960. A quick glance at their list and it’s quickly obvious how these, often devastating, accidents rarely make it into mainstream news.

Fairtrade and Fairmined

To guarantee better working conditions and reduce their environmental impact, many smaller mines now obtain certificates. Small mines now provide the largest supply of gold and silver worldwide. The Fairtrade Gold and Silver certificate ensures fewer miners are living in poverty as it provides them with a bonus on minimum wage. Fairmined Gold and Silver evaluates 4 criteria: social development, economic development, protection of the environment and safe working conditions. Fairmined also has a higher level of certification for mines that don’t use chemicals: Fairmined ‘ecological’ gold.

The impact of certificates

Several studies have found that the impact of certificates such as Fairtrade or Fairmined really depends on the monitoring of legislation and regulations, and the governance of the country. In countries where legislation is not enforced, certificates have a low impact on working conditions and the environment. This is also the case for most kinds of certificates (not just for gold and silver) such as for coffee and banana plantations: they only work when they’re properly monitored and complied with.

An additional issue is that smaller mines are sometimes awarded the certification despite not fulfilling all the criteria. This is because they are not always directly in line with the guidelines so Fairmined has made an intermediate certificate to motivate them to keep on improving their practices. This, however, does mean that when you buy jewellery with the Fairmined certificate you can not be 100% sure they actually meet all the criteria.

It’s important to keep in mind that large NGOs operate like large companies i.e. they have their own agendas and interests. So even the non-profit organisation in charge of the certificates will depend on good marketing and visibility in order to keep up their operations. Always stay critical and ask your jeweller questions.

No Dirty Gold and their golden rules

Various other initiatives are working to improve working conditions. For example, the 'no dirty gold' campaign has developed a number of voluntary guidelines, 'the golden rules', that jewellers can sign up to. These guidelines respect the rights of the environment, workers and local communities.

In our guide to ethical and fair trade jewellery, we discuss the effects of gold and silver mining on the environment, local populations and the terrible working conditions. We’ve covered basic concepts to help you choose better jewellery from fair trade. Would you also like to find out how to recognise an honest diamond? Read our guide on how to avoid blood diamonds and buy fair diamonds.

Honest jewellery shopping?