Rather than a story about how many mortgages men take out so that their wives-to-be can have diamonds that last forever, or at least longer than most marriages, last Thursday's New York Times Styles section actually offered a substantive article about ethical jewelry shopping. The Times reports that "in the last few years, as the outsize environmental impact of gold mining has been exposed, jewelers -- as the retail face of the industry -- have been trying to inoculate themselves against a consumer backlash."
Organized by advocacy groups like Earthworks, a mining watchdog group in D.C., jewelry companies are signing on to a national campaign called "No Dirty Gold," wherein companies as high profile as Zales (the second largest gold retailer after Wal-Mart) pledge "to work toward a resolution of gold's tangled issues." And though "work toward a resolution" may sound like empty rhetoric, many environmentalists and industry officials insist "that the momentum and commitment are what matters."
One of the major concerns about the industry is the environmental impact the mines have on the surrounding area, as well as the lack of independent assessment of these violations. The Times explains that "because most of the known gold deposits in the world are in microscopic form -- the shiny nuggets of old are as dated as the miner and his mule -- huge industrial open-pit mines, usually using cyanide to retrieve the metal from base rock, are required to make mining economically viable. And because the grades of ore are so weak, the process is hugely destructive and wasteful, with at least 30 tons of waste rock often needed to produce a single ... ring." A lot of waste for a little band of gold.
Eight companies have already signed on since the campaign started last year, and according to Oxfam International, a confederation of groups that works on poverty issues and economic justice, those "eight companies together represent $6.3 billion in retail jewelry sales, or 14 percent of sales in the United States." Taking the most progressive step of any major retailer so far, Tiffany & Co., by opening its own gold-processing plant last year, aims to provide customers with a "chain of custody assurance stating where the gold in a ring or necklace has been, from mine to display case."
Wondering what all this has to do with women? Well, even if you don't wear one of those material emblems of monogamy, if you were raised female in America there's a good chance at some point in your life you've been given jewelry or bought it, possibly even gold. At the very least, it's good to know where the goods are from. What can individual shoppers do while the billion-dollar, multinational companies are slowly cleaning up their act? Some customers are turning to recycled gold or platinum as a gold substitute, available from niche retailers like greenKarat.com and an increasing number of more mainstream jewelry sellers.