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'Green' Gold Joins List of Fair Trade Products

Brides and grooms looking for ethical ways to celebrate their marriage can find lots of fair trade items for their weddings and receptions, from flowers and rice to wine and coffee. But when it comes to their rings - it's harder to be a responsible consumer.

When Leah Koenig got married last year, she wanted an environmentally friendly wedding. One of the ways she did that was to have her bouquet made of locally available blossoms to avoid pollution from overseas shipping.

"They were dried flower arrangements that I felt made more sense for November when we got married because there's nothing fresh growing at that point," she explains. "So they're this sort of lasting, permanent reminder of the wedding that's also sustainable."

Koenig is not the only bride interested in sustainable weddings. Elizabeth Richman and her groom are also trying to reduce their carbon footprint when they get married. They're looking for a responsible source for their most lasting purchase: their wedding rings.

"In the same way that we're having a vegetarian wedding, because we don't want lots of animals killed for our celebration, and that involves a lot of money, and this also involves a lot of money, and I think we want our purchasing to be in accord with that."

Little rings with big environmental impacts

For a small piece of jewelry, wedding rings have a huge impact. Scott Cardiff of the group EARTHWORKS, which monitors the effects of mineral development, says the production of a single gold ring generates 20 tons of mine waste. And, he says, mining companies destroy rainforests and use toxic ingredients to extract the gold.

"These gold mines move in, dig up a whole lot of land, create these open pits and cause there to be acid leaking and metals, heavy metals that contaminate the waterways."

In addition to the pollution, Cardiff says, gold mines are harming communities from Ecuador to Indonesia.

"We see gold mines around the world that are implicated in human rights violations and in conflicts, as well as kicking people off their lands and kicking people away from their livelihoods."

Crafting more earth-friendly jewelry

Recently, major jewelers have taken steps to keep gold from those sorts of mines out of their jewelry. Tiffany's and Company, for example, obtains most of its gold from just one mine in the U.S. state of Utah. Tiffany's CEO Mike Kowalski says it has a smaller impact than others.

"It did not use cyanide heap-leaching for the extraction of gold. And most importantly, it was a legacy mine, a mine that had been there for well over 100 years, I believe. And so we felt that we weren't looking to create mines where mines shouldn't be."

But without a third-party to audit the Utah mine, even Kowalski says his company - and its customers - just have to trust their word that the gold is produced ethically.

Kowalski points to what he calls the problem at the heart of the matter: "What constitutes responsible mining is not well defined, and there's no commonly accepted definition. There's no consensus."

Setting clear standards

But recently, there has been progress toward that consensus. Over the past few years, members of the jewelry industry have come together under the umbrella of the Responsible Jewelry Council. Its CEO, Michael Rae, says they wanted to make the entire process of creating jewelry more sustainable and ethical, so they came up with a set of standards for everyone from miners to retail stores.

"[It covers] environmental issues at the mining [level], child labor in jewelry manufacture, through to improper descriptions of goods at the retail level," he explains.

He gives an example of an angry customer who's been deceived: "This isn't diamond and gold, this glass and brass! What are you selling me?"

The certification system will be up and running later this year. But even then, Rae says consumers won't find rings with a Responsible Jewelry Council label, like "Fair Trade" stickers on packages of coffee. They'll have to locate a certified jeweler.

Still, some brides are skeptical. Sarah Lenigan, who is getting married this summer, says she would be interested in buying from a Responsible Jewelry Council member, but not without reservations. She says consumers like her need more information about the certification model.

"I mean, you can put a label on anything," she points out. "You know, there could be a council of wherever, but if I'm not familiar with that group. I don't know if it's legit or not."

So, despite rising demand for responsible jewelry, for now it's still easier for couples to know where the coffee served at their reception came from, than one of their most important purchases, their wedding rings.