Fair Trade Gold & Silver? It’s Complicated

The following is the first post in a 2-part series written by Global Exchange Fair Trade intern Suzanne Moloney about the metal mining industry and the ways in which artisans are reusing metals and other materials to create completely guilt-free jewelry, accessories and housewares.

Fair Trade jewelry has become a popular item sold here in the US that has provided benefits to artisans throughout many impoverished nations of the world, allowing them to continue traditional methods of handcrafting jewelry with dignity.

Yet while the impact on these artisan’s lives is undoubtedly significant, certain ethical questions have been raised about Fair Trade jewelry as well as other items crafted from metals. As Ethical Metalsmiths explains, within large-scale mining “there is no way to trace gold back to the mine, there is no standard definition of responsible mining, and there is no way to certify that mines are meeting any standard.”

The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IMRA) argues that ethical mining capable of benefiting local communities requires both an independent monitoring system, as well as a system of incentives to encourage responsible practice, yet admits “there is currently no mechanism to independently verify operations that are likely to achieve this result or to offer these incentives.”

Although some small-scale artisanal gold mines have been Fair Trade certified, only 20 designer makers currently have access to this gold. Debates on the benefits of certification of large-scale mining continue, yet it remains unquestionable that mining practices can be damaging to local communities and the environment.

This creates an important contradiction within the Fair Trade movement; while some metalwork artisans are provided with an opportunity to improve their livelihoods with a degree of financial security uncommon in many parts of the world, the environment and local communities in mining areas continue to bear the brunt of the dark side of the metal industry.

Mining practices are associated with both ecological and social problems in the communities that they are located in.  Mining generally requires the tearing up of the landscape, and the chemicals used in processing precious metals are often incredibly toxic. Cyanide and mercury are routinely used in the production of gold, and are responsible for the pollution of rivers and the contamination of fish. Both of these chemicals also have long-term health impacts for the workers who are forced to handle them, often without the correct safety equipment.

Despite the fact that the local communities experience the brunt of this environmental damage, the material benefits of mining are typically funneled away from the local economy, instead generating wealth for governments and international investors. In fact, developing countries that are rich in minerals have some of the slowest growth rates in the world (http://www.nodirtygold.org/economic_and_financial_toll.cfm). According to No Dirty Gold Campaign, the mining industry is considered one of the most dangerous industries in the world, claiming the lives of over 1,500 workers each year and continues to fuel conflicts across Africa.

Sneak peek at artwork featured in next post in this series!

So what’s a responsible shopper to do?

Notwithstanding the amazing potential of economic security that Fair Trade offers people in the developing world, the problems of mining cannot be ignored. Considering the controversy that surrounds the logistics of establishing Fair Trade mining on a scale large enough to meet the demands of the metals industry, it seems worthwhile to explore other options for socially responsible precious metal shoppers.

Pieces crafted from recycled materials are a responsible choice for ethically-minded consumers seeking peace of mind when they shop.

There are all sorts of Fair Trade recycled jewelry available in the market; some made from old aluminum cans and ring pulls, others made from reused silver and gold pieces. Artisans are creating bags made of recycled tires, and decorative sculptures are hammered out from old oil barrels.

Stay tuned for my next post, the second in this series, where you will read about a Haitian artisan who is creating new beauty out of old oil drums.