In an undercover investigation, Channel 4’s flagship current affairs strand Dispatches reveals that British consumers are being given incorrect information by some of the biggest high street jewellery shops when buying gold. The programme reveals that gold is still being sourced unethically by sections of a gold-mining industry which is exploiting child miners, exposing children and communities who live near some mines to dangerously high levels of toxic poisoning and destroying the environment.
Ninety per cent of all gold miners worldwide, between 10 and 15 million people, are estimated to work in small-scale, artisanal or informal mines.
Many of these are children earning as little as £3 per day.
Small-scale, artisanal or informal mines are estimated to make-up between 10 and 30 per cent of the global gold supply.
Working conditions are appalling, with little regard to health or safety.
Open pit gold mines generate an enormous amount of waste, often toxic waste. Rock, which is removed in order to access the gold, often contains considerable quantities of heavy metals, which can be harmful to public health and toxic to aquatic life.
Dispatches talks to a child living near a mine in Honduras with levels of lead in his blood more than double the limit recommended for children by the World Health Organisation.
We’ve become far more aware about the appalling human cost of blood diamonds, diamonds that fuel conflict in parts of Africa. There are now systems in place to certify diamonds that have been ethically sourced. But gold hasn’t received the same attention.
Businesswoman Deirdre Bounds, who ran a successful ethical travel company and believes that commerce and ethics can be a profitable combination, examines how much the British gold jewellery industry really knows about where the gold they sell comes from. She reveals that by purchasing gold jewellery on the British high street consumers are inadvertently supporting child labour and environmental damage.
Filming secretly in Britain’s biggest high street jewellery chains (Argos, Goldsmiths, H. Samuel, Ernest Jones and Leslie Davis), Dispatches exposes shop assistants giving incorrect information about where the gold in their jewellery is sourced. Inaccurate statements included:
In Goldsmiths, an employee stated that their gold is certified by the Kimberley Process (a scheme which certifies diamonds as being conflict free and has nothing to do with gold).
In Argos, an employee stated that all their gold was mined in Italy (Argos later admitted inaccurate information had been given).
In Leslie Davis, an employee stated that their gold ‘has to be ethically sourced’. In addition, the employee stated that the company’s head office could provide information about where the gold in a particular item of jewellery was mined. The head office later confirmed by phone that this was inaccurate.
Much high street gold originates from wholesalers like Cookson Precious Metals – one of the biggest manufacturers in the UK. On its website the company claims it is working closely with its customers and suppliers in support of environmentally and ethically sound sources for precious metals. Dispatches secretly filmed a meeting with a Cookson sales manager and, while he appeared to be aware of the risks faced by gold miners in developing countries, he could not give customers assurances about where the company’s gold was sourced from:
‘..we get asked this a lot…where does your gold come from, what do you do to make sure that no-one’s killed in the mining…all we can say is that we buy it from reputable, reputable sources such as HSBC…we can’t get any guarantees out of those, but you can’t get the guarantee out of anybody, and so we just can’t do any more than that, really…’. He also claimed that in the future the company would be charging a premium for an ethical alternative, 100% recycled gold, ‘because we can’.
Bounds travels to the source: to the mines. In Senegal, she meets a child miner and reveals his hazardous daily existence at an illegal mine. She also looks at allegations that a large-scale industrial mine in Honduras has caused hair-loss and rashes in the local population.
In her search to find an alternative, she explores newly-launched Fairtrade and Fairmined gold and also how recycling old gold could offer an answer. Fairtrade and Fairmined gold comes from small-scale mines in South America with the aim of creating a system where the miners can be ensured a fair price whilst mining sustainably and safely. However, only a few, small retailers are currently signed up to the scheme.
Deirdre Bounds says: ‘Many of us are seduced by the appeal of gold jewellery, but there is a real human cost attached to its production. High street stores need to be absolutely transparent and proactive in informing British consumers where the gold in their jewellery is sourced from. Only then can consumers make an informed decision. In the meantime, Bounds is appealing to the British public to sign a pledge opposing the sale of dirty gold.’