Random Thoughts

All That Glitters

Aside from chocolate and watches, Switzerland is world famous for its banks—and their gold reserves. In fact, 70% of this prized metal is refined in Switzerland. A little while ago I attended a conference titled ‘Clean gold: is it possible?’ organized by SWISSAID.

Held in a historic Palais Eynard in Geneva, the event brought together representatives of the luxury industry, academia and activists to discuss how the gold industry can become more transparent and sustainable—from mine to retail.

Gold bangles. Photo via Wikipedia.

Gold bangles. Photo via Wikipedia.

The discussion explored how various ongoing initiatives can improve social and environmental performance in an industry known for displacing indigenous peoples and polluting waterways with toxic mercury, among other things.

According to a well-known Swiss filmmaker Daniel Schweizer, who has just released his new film Dirty Gold War, “There is no clean gold today, only slightly less dirty gold.”

A number of recently launched initiatives, including Max Havelaar’s Fairtrade Gold, Responsible Jewellery Council’s Chain of Custody Standard for precious metals, Alliance for Responsible Mining’s Fairmined Standard, and the Swiss Better Gold Association seek to raise the bar, ensuring that gold—in Switzerland and around the world —is produced responsibly.

Not just bananas or flowers. In 2014, FairTrade Switzerland launched its gold certification. Photo via FairTrade.

Not just bananas or flowers. In 2014, FairTrade Switzerland launched its gold certification scheme. Photo via FairTrade.

At the same time, luxury industry leaders admit that artisanal and small-scale mining, which accounts for just 10% of gold mining, represents 90% of the problems. Besides, the supply of certified gold is today extremely limited—less than 1,000 kg last year from three mines in Peru. And they also point to the need for continued consumer demand to scale up existing efforts, as well as difficulties in tracing the origins of a metal that can be endlessly melted and thus recycled.

Chopard launched its Palme Verte in collaboration with Eco-Age. Photo via Chopard.

Chopard launched its Palme Verte in collaboration with Eco-Age. Photo via Chopard.

As I listened to the fascinating (and at times heated) panel discussion, an elderly gentleman sitting next to me observed: “We had the same debate here in Switzerland 50 years ago, only at that time it was about Nazi gold.” Indeed, in both cases, an old English proverb ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’ applies.

And in search of inspiration, one may look at the example of another, more humble yet essential, metal—aluminium, used in products ranging from cars to coffee capsules. A year ago, a coalition of companies, scientific organizations and labour unions known as the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative agreed on a landmark standard that aims to improve the aluminium industry’s environmental, social and governance performance across the entire value chain.

My major takeaway from the Geneva conference was that transparency and responsibility in the mining industry are not just buzzwords—they are truly worth their weight in gold.

The author would like to thank SWISSAID for the invitation to the conference. More information (in French): https://www.swissaid.ch/fr/conf-or-2015  

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