Ethical Gold Mining Is Something You Need to Know About

Here at Who What Wear UK, we are forever on a mission to decode some of the most hard-to-grasp developments around the complex world of sustainable, conscious and ethical fashion. It's a quagmire of loopholes, opposing facts and varied demands that can make you feel damned if you do and damned if you don't. But the overall message is clear: Consume as consciously as you can. That means knowing there are plenty of brand and e-commerce sites (like Noa Vee) where you can find goods that tick these boxes, understanding which high-street stores are making moves in the right direction, how you can sell or recycle your clothes rather than bin them or simply how to make wise investments (no matter the price point) and learn to keep wearing your clothes and accessories whilst honing your personal style.

There are still many areas of the industry that need to be addressed: production in many parts of the world still goes unregulated, and packaging creates a phenomenal amount of waste. There are some topics that are more specific and can easily fly under the radar: like understanding the repercussions of decades of synthetic plastic-based fabrics (you can read more about this issue here) or that inhumane and entirely unethical gold mining is still a scarily normal practice.

It's the latter that we'd like to highlight today. Following a conversation with the up-and-coming jewellery designer Lilian von Trapp, we realised just how much of an unknown this process is to many of us. Lilian—who only uses recycled gold and vintage diamonds for her main collection—recently visited Makina, Uganda, with Earthbeat Foundation to work with a local community who have been directly affected by the terrible tolls of gold mining. The trip has culminated in a limited-edition unisex chain necklace that offers all proceeds to the foundation.

Lilian kindly opened up her journey to us, answering our questions along the way. I have to admit, I'm a complete dullard when it comes to this issue, wrongly assuming that with the focus on diamond mining leading to positive change (the World Diamond Council is a good resource for learning more) that this sector would naturally run in tandem.

Keep reading to learn of the reality behind unethical gold mining, what needs to be solved going forward and how you can be more aware of the gold jewellery you buy in the future.

Photo:

Lilian von Trapp

WWW UK: What is the biggest misconception about gold mining?

LVT: We like to make ourselves believe that all the bad things we hear about gold mining in developing countries only represent a small fraction of the total and that our expensive designer jewellery surely has nothing to do with it. After all, expensive equals ethical, right? The truth is, that 30% of all gold sourced worldwide is mined in artisanal mine pits at massive cost to the health and safety of everyone involved. People die, and yet rarely have a choice. All of this gold finds its way to our market. The ratio of "dirty" gold is so high that virtually everyone who buys gold jewellery once in a while will have contributed to this system.

Photo:

Lilian von Trapp

WWW UK: How can someone most easily understand whether they are buying ethical gold or not?

LVT: Usually jewellery brands will let you know outright if they want to market their product as ethical or sustainable. To be sure, you should always ask detailed questions and don’t settle for fast sales pitches or fancy sounding certification. If a brand is certified in any way, they should be able to tell you specifics. Sometimes brands are certified by independent auditors for things that have nothing to do with the way their materials were sourced, yet they're still labeled "ethical." There is a growing market for awarding expensive certificates, which means that your personal questions are a much better source of information. Asking a question only takes a moment, but taking note of how it’s then addressed can tell you a lot about how a brand chooses to communicate its true efforts to you.

Photo:

Lilian von Trapp

WWW UK: What are the key differences between an ethical gold mine and a non-ethical gold mine?

LVT: The important thing to understand is that there truly is no such thing as an "ethical" mine. There are efforts by well-known nonprofit organisations to increase safety standards for artisanal mines in developing countries and to enable them to sell their gold at a premium. Yet this "green" gold is still mined at great risk to the lives of miners and the surrounding environment.

In Uganda, I visited a mine certified by one of those organisations and conditions weren't much better than anywhere else I went. The miners didn't wear the provided gear, and they still used mercury with their bare hands to separate the gold from the ore, although the organisation certified a mercury-free process. In the end, all gold mines share a common problem: Gold is a finite resource, and all of these communities will face grave consequences once it is depleted. 

Photo:

Lilian von Trapp

WWW UK: What were you most shocked to see or learn about on your travels?

LVT: There are so many things, but I can't shake the image of a young mother with her baby bound to her back, washing gold with pure mercury in her bare hands. Also, everybody I met had at least one person close to them die in the pits. There are over 1000 artisanal pits in the area of Busia alone, 40,000 in all of Uganda. Only 1% of them are legal and monitored. The remaining 99% are often no more than holes in the ground. They flood, people drown or the mines collapse. One miner told me that once someone dies in the pits, people believe that there must be gold there. I asked him why and he said, "Because gold is demonic."

Photo:

Lilian von Trapp

WWW UK: At what point in your career as a jeweller did you start to become aware of this issue?

LVT: It was very early on, during my research before I formally launched the brand. I was faced with many of the easy answers presented to consumers and chose to continue pressing and to not settle. I decided that recycling gold is the only way it can be considered ethical or sustainable. 

WWW UK: How easy or hard would it be for the entire industry to become more ethical in this way?

LVT: Many of the large players in the jewellery industry have their own stake in third-world gold-mining operations, and they won't just abandon them overnight. Brands have to see a financial upside in changing their established processes. Some of them are testing the waters with a line of "green" gold jewellery, but it's all very slow. There is still a long way to go, it will be tough, but I believe we're heading in the right direction.

Photo:

Lilian von Trapp

WWW UK: What was it that led you to Uganda in particular?

LVT: I decided to work with a specific organisation, Earthbeat Foundation. Its approach is to work closely with mining communities in Uganda to figure out fields of interest to them and then train them to establish long-term alternative income sources. To me, this is the way forward. Earthbeat has trained a group of miners to become beekeepers, and none of them still work in the mines today, as they can sustain an income with honey production. With our project Heartbeat Garden, we train our communities in permaculture farming and help them heal their soil from mercury contamination in the process. Uganda is among Africa's major gold producers, so it was a natural place to start.

Photo:

Lilian von Trapp

WWW UK: Is there an easy source consumers can reference before purchasing any brand?

LVT: I'm not a fan of standardised certification, but I have recently discovered a great Australian project called Good On You. It analyses all public information available on brands, both major and small, and rates them for sustainability and ethical practices, including detailed explanations. It has released an eponymous app, which offers a great and quick way to get info.

Photo:

Lilian von Trapp

WWW UK: How can consumers make a difference and move this conversation along?

LVT: Consumers have the power to demand change. Keep asking questions. The more you do, the more brands will see an opportunity for them and provide solutions in a fast-growing field. On the other hand, I think all of us should reflect more on the way we consume, what we buy, what we keep. There are about 300 million pounds of gold in circulation. In an ideal world, we wouldn't just lock away old or unwanted jewellery but carry it back into the cycle in exchange for pieces we actually want to wear.

Shop Lilian's ethical gold necklace below…

One hundred percent of this limited-edition necklace of recycled 585 gold directly supports Heartbeat Garden, a joint project between Lilian von Trapp and the Earthbeat Foundation. 

Next up, the sustainable fashion brands to know now.