Gold Definitely Doesn’t Glitter: Mining, Human Rights Abuses, and Dirty Metals

A mythology surrounds gold, a precious metal that has become so woven into our social fabric that it is almost impossible to escape. Gold medals mean winning, gold is a preferred metal for jewelry, the gold standard is promoted for currency. Gold is a glittering object, something everyone wants more of, gold is bought and sold in vast quantities on global markets, gold is so delicate and malleable, so soft, yet so ideal for making electrical contacts. ‘All that glitters is not gold,’ as the saying goes, a reminder that some things that look shiny aren’t valuable, but does gold itself glitter? What does it mean to glitter?

Precious metals mining is an extremely messy business, especially on the large scale needed for commercial production of metals, and gold is no exception. It requires digging a deep pit, processing tons of material with harsh chemicals to extract the smallest usable components of metal, and dumping the remainders, the tailings, somewhere out of the way so the mining can continue. As the gold moves down the processing chain it is subjected to more chemicals, to heating and other processes, until it ends up pressed into a bar in a bank vault or on the finger of a socialite preparing to get married.

The wake left behind can be brutal. Gold guts indigenous communities, who may be displaced by mines or by their toxic runoff. Tailings ponds overflow and spew harsh chemicals into the environment, destroying farmland and ruining habitat. Workers at gold mines receive a pittance for their labour and work in unsafe conditions, with few protections from the dangers all around them. The volume of waste involved to make gold is staggering, and it continues because it is profitable, because gold is sought after, because of its high social status, because as long as mining companies can make money, they will continue to do so by any means possible.

Some of the world’s largest mining companies are based in the United States, and they are careful to ship their human rights violations overseas to mines outside the reach of enforcement officials in the US, and far from the eyes of consumers. People buying gold may be aware on some level that it, like other precious metals, can be accompanied by some environmental degradation and worker exploitation, but they don’t see it, aren’t confronted with it, and can turn away from it if they don’t want to deal with it. And many don’t, because the face of oppression is difficult to look at when it’s standing in the way of something you want.

There are alternatives not just to gold, but to dirty gold specifically. Campaigns to improve working conditions to protect workers as well as the environment have promoted more sustainable mining activities, and more functional environments for handling and processing gold. The end result tends to be more expensive, but the costs pay for themselves in some cases if companies are able to advertise their products as clean. Developing a certification and labeling system would improve matters even further by creating an endorsed seal to indicate the origins of gold, although such programmes are not without problems; a seal is only as good as the monitoring chain associated with it, the standards, the people who work to support it. Seals testifying that gold is from clean sources can easily become a tool for abuse in the wrong hands.

Gold can also be recycled, especially for jewelry. Jewelers working with used gold can produce more clean and ethical pieces for their clients, and may also work with other precious metals that have been handled responsibly. The same commitment to clean gold can also be accompanied by cleaner processes at the workbench, the use of tools like lead-free solder to keep production clean, and protect the jeweler’s health in addition to the environment. Consumers have to be aware of the benefits of recycling metals, though, have to understand why they may be a better buy, and this can be a difficult topic to educate people on, because of perceptions about recycling and reusing.

To see a true shift in the gold industry, consumers have to be willing to commit to demanding better standards, and companies that work with gold need to be subjected to more social pressure. That includes not just mines but other companies in the supply chain that process and move gold, as well as financial institutions that work with gold. Those same gold traders exchanging certificates worth billions of dollars, spiking a worldwide trade in gold, especially right now, as economic uncertainty makes people nervous about investments and leads people to sink money into gold, could be a powerful force for change on the market, if they were willing to be. Banks refusing to do business with mines known to have a history of human rights violations, for instance, could radically change the shape of the industry. Sourcing metals ethically should be key to any sort of environmental corporate responsibility plan, but it often isn’t, because consumers aren’t applying pressure.

Gold can glitter, if it’s mined and handled fairly and justly, by people who work in safe conditions and are paid well, in communities where the interest of the community, rather than the value of the underlying rock, is the most important concern. These conditions are few and far between in the gold industry, which largely isn’t held accountable for its actions, and thus has no significant reason to change; individual retailers are slowly caving to carefully-exerted public pressure, but the campaign against environmentally unsound precious metals needs to bigger. It is time to start forcing the huge movers and shakers to take responsibility for what they sell and how they sell it.