With the end of the Olympic Games in London, the event is being widely hailed as a success. Before the Games began, many observers worried about details and logistics. Was the host city prepared? How would London 2012 compare with the Beijing Olympics in 2008? Most of this worrying turned out to be unnecessary. The magic of the Olympics quickly took over and the Games went off without a hitch. Great Britain is basking in a warm glow of appreciation and pride – as well it should.
Some details, however, are worth fussing about. Olympic athletes devote countless hours, days, and years to perfecting their skills and strategies. Athletes who win or nearly win an Olympic competition deserve gold, silver, and bronze medals that adequately symbolize the significance of their achievements and the ideals of the Olympics. Did the medals awarded at this year’s Olympic Games fulfill these criteria? We think so. But as a leading provider of ethically-sourced jewelry, we know some of the mining industry’s dirty secrets – and we think that the Olympics can do better.
More than any other event, the Olympics gets the world talking about gold, silver, and bronze. The gold medals awarded at the London Olympics were actually 92.5 percent silver, with the remainder made of copper and a dash of gold. Silver medals were similar in composition – minus the gold. Bronze medals were 97 percent copper, with a small percentage of zinc and tin. This year’s Olympic medals are traceable in origin to two mines on opposite sides of the globe: the Kennecott Utah Copper mine near Salt Lake City, Utah and the Oyu Tolgoi mine in Mongolia. Both mines are operated by Rio Tinto, an international mining company based in London.
As mining companies go, Rio Tinto is among the most responsible. It’s also true that neither mine is associated with the very worst human rights and environmental abuses in the mining industry. For instance, millions of people in developing countries work in artisanal mining – mining done outside the formal economy often using simple tools and methods. Artisanal gold mining, in particular, is plagued by abuses. It is the second-leading cause of man-made mercury pollution after coal-fired power plants, it relies heavily on child labor, and it provides so little income that most artisanal gold miners live in extreme poverty. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, artisanal gold mining is also fueling a deadly civil war that has claimed more than 5 million lives – more than any war since World War II.
Thankfully, Michael Phelps’ four gold medals and two silver medals are not tainted by child labor or civil war. But environmentally speaking, their origins are far from perfect. Modern mines like the ones run by Rio Tinto in Utah and Mongolia use a technique known as open pit mining, in which gigantic pits are dug in the earth. The Kennecott Utah Copper mine is three miles wide and nearly a mile deep – so large that it is visible from outer space. To make just a single Olympic medal, enough rock and ore to fill two huge dump trucks must be excavated. More than 4,700 medals were awarded at this year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games. That’s more than 9,000 dump trucks worth of waste. In addition, chemicals and energy are needed to pulverize the ore and separate out the metals.
Rio Tinto’s mines might be an acceptable compromise if they were the only option. But they aren’t. There is a way to obtain gold, silver, and copper that leaves a much smaller environmental footprint: by using recycled metals from industrial sources, electronics components, and existing jewelry. (Because metals can be re-refined back into their pure elements, recycled metals are of identical quality to newly-mined metals.) Fair trade gold is another very good alternative. A new certification system for fair trade gold combats extreme poverty in the developing world by requiring that artisanal miners receive fair value for their gold. The system outlaws child labor and encourages miners to use eco-friendly mining techniques.
We would like to make a suggestion to the organizers of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro: make the medals entirely from recycled sources, and coat the gold medals with a touch of fair trade gold. Would this be feasible? Certainly. In fact, there is already precedent for making Olympic medals from recycled sources. Recycled sources accounted for 1.5 percent of the composition of the medals awarded at the Vancouver Games in 2010 and a tiny amount of zinc in the bronze medals at this year’s London Games. Getting to 100 percent would not pose any Olympic hurdles. Brilliant Earth and other leading socially-conscious jewelers already use only recycled and fair trade metals. There is no reason why organizers of the upcoming Olympics can’t do the same.
Making Olympic medals entirely from recycled and fair trade sources could cause a ripple of positive effects in the mining industry. It would immediately raise public consciousness about the dark side of mining for precious metals and apply the maximum pressure on mining companies to be as responsible as possible. It would also give a boost to the fledgling fair trade gold certification system. In a two-week Olympic time-span, fair trade gold could become the gold standard of gold mining.
But most of all, using recycled and fair trade metals would be much more meaningful and fitting. Artisanal gold miners in developing countries – many of whom are among the world’s poorest people – would be linked to Olympic gold. The Olympics would communicate a commitment not to leave the developing world behind. And athletes would be rewarded with medals that more properly symbolize their astounding accomplishments. At Brilliant Earth, our customers adore their wedding and engagement rings all the more because they know our sources meet the highest labor and environmental standards. Olympic medals, symbols of the highest levels of human excellence, should also be made from the very best.