Nowadays we can access information about consumer goods almost instantly; we know where our avocado was grown, whether it’s organic or traded fairly. We know about the amount of water used or how much carbon is emitted between “farm to fork”. But how much do we know about the ring on our finger or the ticking tock around our wrist? Gold mining and production are knowingly linked to environmental degradation, violated human rights and illicit trading. Nonetheless, understanding a few basic facts can improve your own decision making that involves gold.
Gold has mesmerized humans for thousands of years; the oldest known-of gold artefact dates back to 4000 BCE and was discovered in Austria. Not only is the precious metal famous for its beauty but also for its extraordinary chemical and physical features; it hardly corrodes, is extremely conductive and is also very ductile which makes it easy to bend or shape. Etymologically the word “gold” roots in the old English name “geolo” meaning “yellow”. It’s chemical symbol Au derives from the latin word “aurum” (glowing dawn, how romantic 😊). Gold extraction and production is a global business happening almost everywhere (except Antarctica). In 2020 The majority of worldwide produced gold was demanded by the investment industry and amounted to about 1’700 metric tons. With 1’400 metric tons the jewellery industry ranked second in global gold demand in 2020. The technology sector and central banks jointly subtracted 557 tons from the worldwide gold supply.
Gold production; rocky, risky and tough business
Most extracted gold is mined from the (under-)ground. The process is rather complex, labour and resource intensive. Mined gold particles are enclosed in gold ore. Imagine this to be a firm lump of mixed minerals (e.g. quartz) and…gold. Once exploration has confirmed a minimum occurrence of gold the mentioned lumps are mined from the underground.
In a next step, the lumps, i.e., gold ore rocks need to be crushed into fine sand. Finally, the gold must be extracted or separated from this sand.
Four main processes are conventionally employed to do so: cyanidation, amalgamation, electro chemical extraction (Wohlwill process) or the borax method. Without overwhelming you with an unasked lesson in chemistry, it must be mentioned that especially the first two methods (cyanidation and amalgamation) are based on a chemical process. Both can have a serious negative impact on human health and/or damage the environment. Cyanidation is more common in gold recovery on a larger scale. It requires huge amounts of water and, if not properly disposed of, causes serious environmental pollution. Amalgamation is widespread in artisanal gold mining. The heated amalgam volatilizes into the air, which is then inhaled by unprotected miners and pollutes the surrounding nature.
Silence should not be golden when involving human rights violations
Other than being resource intense gold production requires man and womanpower. Gold is predominantly mined in low-income countries. Often, it’s poor individuals who engage in gold mining with supposedly much to gain and little to lose. This economic predicament influences their willingness to knowingly expose themselves to health risks. Mining is hard labour that is very demanding on the human body. People of all kinds are involved in this business, men, women, even children. Also, many mines are operated by groups who may be involved in gross human rights violations, terrorist activities and finance their weapons through selling the gold.
The gold sector needs repolishing
Of course, there exist international standards and initiatives to mitigate adverse impacts. The Minamata Convention or OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas are two essential examples. As many other dilemmas that involve numerous stakeholders and decision makers there’s no quick fix to this one either.
However, regarding consumer goods – the individual has marginal power and leverage to bring about change. Only a rising demand for fair and sustainably produced gold will impose pressure on the industry and governments to align their practices. “Clean gold” was not available for the longest time. He or she who desired to purchase ethical gold, had to research somewhat before finding an adequate supplier.
Nowadays, there’s a growing pool of jewellers that commit to comprehensive due diligence (human rights standards, no child labour, accredited intermediaries, etc.) and a responsible gold supply chain. The gold jewellery industry has been polished thanks to collaboration between the private sector, governments and civil society transparency.
You don’t need the Midas touch to bring about change
We as individuals can be more considerate when buying jewellery or other items that contain gold. Did you know that every mobile phone is built with gold worth of USD 2!? Did you know that smoke detectors are assembled with gold? Or did you know that desktop computers typically contain gold too? We should aspire to know as much about our avocados as we do about the rocks that we got. Here are a few considerations before your next gold purchase:
- Is the brand you’re buying from transparent about where it sources its minerals from (gold, diamonds, platinum, etc.)?
- Was the jewellery you intend to purchase produced under fair conditions and without child labour? Look out for labels and check out “wachtdogs”.
- Go vintage; thanks to the world wide web we can access secondhand markets for jewellery that are safe and of high quality.
- Recycle! Don’t bin your old phone, disks (incl. CDs!) or the ugly set of earrings your grandma stuck under the xmas tree but rather bring them to a designated dealer who disposes of electronics adequately or recycles jewellery in alignment with your taste.
According to recent analyses, the demand for number 79 of the periodic system will not be out of fashion any time soon. Considering that the investment and jewellery sector demand most of globally produced gold supply chains can and must become more sustainable.
radicant is committed to SDG 12 responsible consumption and production, especially regarding the most highly traded and popular commodities – gold and silver.
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