Everything you need to know about Fairtrade gold

From coffee to chocolate, flowers to fashion, the Fairtrade Foundation has led the way for consumerism with a conscience. Now it’s setting its sights on an even more precious prize…gold.

The idea of Fairtrade for common consumables such as bananas and sugar is something many have embraced. Yet until now, very little has happened to highlight the concept of ethical luxury. This is beginning to change, with some high-profile campaigns among fashion designers (notably Stella McCartney and Fendi). However, it’s strange that little is said about the sourcing of jewellery and the provenance of our love tokens (think engagement and wedding rings) is conveniently ignored (or deliberately obscured) by all but a handful of ‘ethical’ jewellers. Something given with the greatest love, and worn next to our skin most days of our lives, may have taken a murky path to our door.

Ethical choices

As consumers, our buying choices are increasingly dictated by environmental credentials. From our supermarket trolley (dolphin-friendly tuna and free-range eggs) to cruelty-free beauty products, the instant access we now have to quiz customer service teams on social media means brands are under increasing scrutiny and we’re free to ask awkward questions about how goods are made.

Disasters such as Ranu Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013, when over 1,000 workers were killed by a falling building, have made the ethics of buying disposable fashion more questionable then ever. Helped by organisations such as the Fairtrade Foundation, awareness is growing across all sectors of the market place – from supermarket shelves to designer stores. All this is to be applauded, as the real cost of making luxury goods can still be unacceptably high: modern slavery exists today, and in too many parts of the world simply going to work can be fatal.

Precious metals

One area of the luxury market that has been slower than most to address supply-chain issues though, is fine jewellery. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Blood Diamond movie created awareness around ‘conflict diamonds’ – where mines in war zones fund warlords involved in slavery and terrorism. The diamond industry responded with the introduction of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, although it has been criticised by some for corrupt government officials faking paperwork, and by others who claim that the term “conflict-free” does not appear anywhere in the scheme’s regulations. The biggest area of material supply in the jewellery world comes from the mining of precious metals: silver, platinum and – above all – gold.

While much of the world’s gold comes from major mining consortiums, who are under increasing pressure to be more transparent about their processes, a significant amount comes from small-scale artisan mines. Incredibly, there are around 25–30 million small-scale miners around the world, who account for one quarter of the world’s gold supply. Most of these barely earn a living wage, while doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, to provide the materials for one of the most highly priced industries in the world.

Peru Fairtrade jewellery Liz Earle Wellbeing

Miners wearing safety equipment in a Fairtrade mine in Peru

Unlike in other mines, a proper minimum wage is paid in Fairtrade Foundation mines, plus a premium of £2,000 per kilo of gold purchased, which is then spent on community projects. There are better working conditions too: breaks where meals are provided, basic healthcare for workers and their families, health and safety equipment issued as standard, and no children allowed to work down the mines. If you buy a piece of Fairtrade jewellery, you can be sure that the human cost to produce it has not been too high.

Consumer awareness

The difference is not only humanitarian: pure gold requires a very un-pure process to produce – involving dynamite, cyanide and mercury – all to the potential detriment of human and environmental health. Fairtrade certification helps regulate and improve both workers’ welfare and the world at large. Fairtrade mines are also able to sell directly to the end users, cutting out the local middlemen who add their percentage onto sales, inflating the prices each time gold is sold on.

My own Fairtrade jewellery

It was my increasing awareness that inspired me to take my own small step into the world of ethical jewellery. Having had a life-long love of jewellery, I collaborated with leading British jewellers Boodles to create a beautiful, ethically sourced, pink sapphire ‘Pelargonium’ flower necklace that raised funds for an orphanage near one of the gem-mining areas in India. Seeing for myself the real benefits of Fairtrade, I decided to work with UK jewellery brand Cred – who were pioneers of the payment of a miner’s premium – to design my first Fairtrade fine jewellery range. I hope it inspires you to take a closer look into the glittering world of gold.

For Liz’s full award-winning collection – including rings, bracelets, earrings and necklaces – visit Cred Jewellery.