In Case You Missed It
Boulderganic Fall 2009
Student Guide 2009
Boulder Weekly Sweet 16 Anniversary
Summer Scene 2009
Best of Boulder 2009
Annual Manual 2009
Newspaper of the Future
Kids Camp Guide 2009
Wedding Marketplace 09
Student Guide 2008
Best of Boulder 2008
Annual Manual 2008
Join Our Mailing List
|February 5-11 2009
Wal-Mart’s new Love, Earth line of jewelry amounts
to little more than green-washing, activists say
by Pamela White
Gold has long been an almost universally recognized symbol of wealth and love. Hoarded in gleaming bars by investors wary of an uncertain global economy, worn resplendently from head to toe by brides in India and fashioned into shiny jewelry for mass consumption on a world market, gold is more in demand now than at any time in human history.
This Valentine’s Day — the peak time for buying gold jewelry in the United States — consumers will hit malls, department stores and jewelry boutiques in a search for the perfect gift to please their beloveds. By the time the holiday has passed, American consumers will have generated 34 million tons of mining waste around the world. It takes 20 tons of ore to produce the gold used in a single wedding band.
Though a symbol of enduring love, gold might better be characterized as a symbol of enduring destruction and human suffering.
From mercury spills in Peru to mercury emissions in Nevada, from illegal mines in Ghana where children labor in the mud beside their parents to open-pit mines that employ impoverished indigenous people while destroying their landscape, gold mining is a dirty business. As activists around the world attempt to raise consumer awareness, jewelry retailers have begun to fear that their industry is next in the line for consumer-driven scrutiny and reforms such as the logging industry experienced at the hands of environmental activists and the apparel industry continues to face from anti-sweatshop groups.
In an effort to bolster consumer confidence and take the guilt out of buying gold, Wal-Mart has stepped forward with its “Love, Earth” line of jewelry, which it claims represents a commitment to making sure that all gold, silver and diamonds in Wal-Mart’s jewelry is traceable and come from mines and manufacturers that meet the mega-corporation’s “sustainability standards and criteria.”
Wal-Mart is partnering in this effort with two mining corporations that have long come under sharp scrutiny for their environmental practices and questionable social impact: Rio Tinto, an Anglo-Australian company, and Denver-based Newmont Mining Corporation.
Although some activists applaud Wal-Mart for addressing the issue, others dismiss the campaign around the Love, Earth line as nothing more than another corporate attempt at “green-washing” — an effort to prey upon the public’s concern for the environment in order to win sales.
The Golden Rules
On its face, the Love, Earth line seems like a wonderful thing. As the nation’s single largest gold jewelry retailer, Wal-Mart has at least some power to create change. The same corporate muscle it has used to force wholesalers to cut prices and undermine labor unions can be put to better use strong-arming the multi-billion-dollar gold-mining industry into cleaning up its act. Certainly, the promises Wal-Mart makes regarding its Love, Earth products are appealing to anyone concerned about the environment and human society.
As a signatory to No Dirty Gold’s Golden Rules, Wal-Mart has committed itself to working with mining companies that, among other things, obtain the free, prior and informed consent of communities affected by mining; ensure that mining projects do not force communities off their land; ensure that mines are not located in protected areas, fragile ecosystems, or other areas of high conservation or ecological value; refrain from dumping mine wastes into the ocean, rivers, lakes or streams; ensure that projects do not contaminate water, soil or air with sulfuric acid drainage or other toxic chemicals; fully disclose information about social and environmental effects of projects; and which allow independent verification of their environmental and social records.
It’s a seemingly bold step for a company that has earned a reputation for indifference toward how it handles labor-rights issues and impacts the environment.
“As a signatory to No Dirty Gold’s Golden Rules criteria for more responsible metals sourcing, Wal-Mart has committed to move its precious metals sourcing to mines that meet these criteria,” reads a statement by No Dirty Gold, a campaign of Earthworks, an environmental action nonprofit. “We recognize this will not happen overnight, and that Wal-Mart will need to take many steps on the way to advancing these objectives. We commend Wal-Mart for its efforts to improve the traceability of metals in its jewelry. This is an important step in the process of making jewelry supply chains more socially and environmentally responsible.”
In the same statement, however, No Dirty Gold notes that there are no large-scale mining operations that have yet been verified by independent third parties as “fully responsible.” This means that, no matter where Wal-Mart gets its gold, the end product cannot be called “environmentally friendly.”
“We encourage Wal-Mart and its partners to carefully qualify statements regarding the nature of its metal and mineral sources so as not to overstate or inflate the attributes of these mining operations,” No Dirty Gold states. “To do so could jeopardize the value created by this first step.”
Dan Randolph, executive of Great Basin Resource Watch (GBRW), a grassroots environmental justice organization that operates in Nevada, gives Wal-Mart credit for addressing the issue of traceability — being able to know where the gold in its jewelry comes from.
“I give them credit that if we are ever to achieve better mine certification, meaningful standards and process for determining that, then one aspect that is necessary is the traceability,” Randolph says. “It’s good that they’re thinking about these things, and it’s good that they got one step further along. Unfortunately, that’s not the whole story.”
Randolph says that there are two separate issues at stake here — one involving Newmont’s mines in Nevada and the other with Wal-Mart’s Love, Earth campaign.
“Even if we thought that Newmont in Nevada were the best [mining] operator on the planet, we would still have problems with Love, Earth,” he says.
From Randolph’s perspective, Newmont is neither better nor worse than any other gold-mining corporation operating in Nevada. All gold-mining projects are associated with serious environmental harm, in no small part because the laws that govern permitting and regulation of gold mines are lax and largely dependent on self-reporting.
Imagine highways overseen by state patrol officers who wait for speeders to come to them to confess to driving violations. How many people would pull themselves over to admit going 65 in a 55 mph zone and then accept a fine?
Mining corporations tend to point out their lack of fines when pimping their environmental records, but such claims hold as much meaning as a commuter under the above scenario reporting a perfect driving record, Randolph says.
“Just because you haven’t been fined doesn’t mean you’re not speeding,” he says.
Wal-Mart may have signed the Golden Rules, but its suppliers are not in compliance with those goals.
Newmont is known to have certain environmental and social problems with its operations in Nevada, where Wal-Mart claims to get its Love, Earth gold. One of the biggest problems is the impact of mining activity on the quantity and quality of water in the region.
Because much of the ore that Newmont is trying to mine lies deep in the earth, it must oftentimes excavate below the water table.
This means that water must be pumped out of the mines in a process called “dewatering.”
Dewatering creates a decrease in the aquifer for the entire region. The aquifer, which is unable to refill itself quickly enough to make up for the water removed through mining, has dropped to the degree that springs and wells have reportedly gone dry.
Not only is water — a precious resource in this desert landscape — being depleted, but what remains is subject to pollution from acid mine drainage. The 20 tons of mining waste generated to produce a single wedding band will, when exposed to air, water and the refining process, release a variety of toxins, including heavy metals, into the environment.
In addition to depleting and damaging the region’s water supply, Newmont releases mercury into the air. Mercury, a highly toxic metal, is liquid at room temperate and evaporates easily through the mining process. According to the Nevada Bureau of Air Pollution Control, Newmont released 1,647 pound of mercury into the air in 2007.
Mercury is a serious problem because it accumulates in living tissue, passing up the food chain to human beings. It causes permanent nervous system, kidney and immune system damage and is suspected in a range of illnesses and disorders, including autism. It is especially harmful to developing fetuses and small children.
As Randolph points out, these problems are inherent to gold mining in Nevada, but when Wal-Mart is taking credit for signing the No Dirty Gold’s Golden Rules and getting its gold from Newmont, this environmental damage does and should result in skepticism regarding the sincerity of Wal-Mart’s commitment.
Is Newmont abiding by the Golden Rules that Wal-Mart promotes on its Love, Earth website? No.
In Indonesia, the company still practices submarine tailing disposal, dumping rock waste in the ocean — a practice explicitly forbidden by the Golden Rules. Its mines in Peru and Indonesia exist in delicate mountain terrain and rain forest, respectively, arguably the exact sensitive habitat that the Golden Rules attempt to protect. In addition, Newmont’s activities, while generating jobs for some locals, have also brought the company into conflict with indigenous people, an issue also addressed in the Golden Rules.
Though Wal-Mart might claim that the gold it uses for Love, Earth products doesn’t come from Newmont’s Peruvian or Indonesian operations, what good does it do to buy gold from a multi-billion-dollar corporation that can use its profits from Nevada to expand mining elsewhere?
But then one doesn’t have to travel to Peru, Ghana or Indonesia to find indigenous peoples who feel wronged by Newmont.
Blood of the earth
Back in 1863, when the United States was busy carving up the west and forcing American Indian nations onto reservations, it made a treaty with the Western Shoshone, which traditional Shoshone now say the U.S. government has violated. At the time the treaty was signed, the federal government’s biggest concern was getting prospectors and settlers to California, much of the arid land in the American Southwest seeming good for little.
Now the Western Shoshone homeland — Newe Sogobia — is home to several gold mines, and land that traditional Shoshone, or Newe, believe is rightly theirs is claimed as public land by the U.S. government. Although some Newe welcome the jobs that mines provide, traditional Newe believe these mines violate their rights and are being run on their land without their consent.
In a scenario that would be familiar to American Indians living on disputed lands elsewhere, Newe still living on what the federal government alleges is public land have experienced intimidation, livestock confiscation and the loss of springs, burial sites and other sacred sites at the hands of federal land managers and mines. On Navajo and Hopi lands, the issue is coal and uranium mining.
Randolph, whose organization works with American Indian groups, says that the technique at use on Newe land in Nevada has been use against Indian people many a time before: divide and conquer.
“When you take an impoverished population in place without much economy other than what you’re promising, it’s not difficult to make that division occur,” Randolph says. “Here you have people who are saying the government has broken its treaty with them and is not recognizing what they signed saying this is your land. The Bureau of Land Management says this is public land.”
Among those Newe who continue to fight for this land is Carrie Dann, a Newe elder whose resistance, together with her late sister Mary Dann, has become legendary.
“When we look at what the mining is doing to Newe Sogobia, we see not only the disrespect given to our people, but also the destruction of sacred things,” Dann told Julie Fishel and Brenda Norrell in an interview published in CounterPunch. “We have lost hunting and fishing areas, food and medicinal plants. The wildlife is disturbed by the toxins in the air and the lights and noise made by 24-hour mining drill rigs and digging. Burial sites have been disturbed, and many cultural artifacts have disappeared.”
Particularly distressing to Dann and other Newe is the depletion and pollution of water. According to Newe spiritual beliefs, water is to the earth what blood is to the human body.
“They are pumping out the essence of life so the multinational corporations can get richer,” Dann says. “Our water table has dropped with some of our springs drying up. Most of the springs I used to drink from are no longer fit to drink and some are even posted with the sign, ‘Do not drink the water.’”
Although No Dirty Gold’s Golden Rules include a provision requiring that indigenous people not be forced off their land by mining and that mining companies get the prior informed consent of people who might be affected by their mines before breaking earth, Newmont is one of many companies still excavating ore on this disputed land.
Paula Palmer, executive director of Boulder-based nonprofit Global Response, spends her work day taking distress calls from communities, many of them indigenous, from around the planet who are facing hardship and crisis due to mining, logging and other environmentally destructive activities. She worked closely with the campesino farmers near Newmont’s Yanacocha mine in Peru in the wake of a mercury spill that left many villagers sick. She has also worked to get out the word about Newmont’s activities on Western Shoshone land.
To say that Wal-Mart’s Love, Earth product leaves her deeply underwhelmed is a gross understatement.
“Wal-Mart still has never contacted them,” Palmer says. “Wal-Mart has not even had the courtesy to talk with them or invite them to a meeting. I think Wal-Mart has shown no respect at all for indigenous communities.”
To environmentalists, it sounds like the start of a joke: So, a CEO from Wal-Mart and a CEO from Newmont Mining Corporation walk into a bar…
Only the punch line of this joke isn’t funny. Though no one can say exactly how much of the Love, Earth line was discussed over drinks, many environmental activists and mining activists see something sinister in these two companies working together to promote their product.
“Love, Earth is Wal-Mart hooking up with various suppliers that said, ‘Oh, we’ll play ball with you,’ and proclaiming themselves responsible,” Randolph says. “Unless there are standards that are broadly accepted, and unless there is third-party independent verification that those standards are being met, then such claims are problematic of themselves. It’s green-washing by definition.”
Of course, green-washing is nothing new. One sees it every day in everything from advertisements for cigarettes to car commercials to proclamations from oil and gas companies that they’re on the cutting edge of green. In a consumer society, making people feel good about buying your product is key, and when a critical mass of the population identifies the environment as a priority, ad campaigns shift to accommodate that.
But, buyer, beware!
No Dirty Gold’s statement regarding Wal-Mart’s participation as a Golden Rules signatory cautions the company against making unsubstantiated or exaggerated claims.
“We encourage Wal-Mart and its partners to carefully qualify statements regarding the nature of its metal and mineral sources so as not to overstate or inflate the attributes of these mining operations,” the organization states. “To do so could jeopardize the value created by this first step.”
But, despite revisions made to the Love, Earth website in response to feedback from activists, the claims Wal-Mart is making defy credibility, observers say.
Palmer goes to Wal-Mart’s Love, Earth website and reads directly from the company’s claims.
“‘Wal-Mart is committed to giving our customers product choices that sustain our resources and environment,’” she reads. “Well, you know, seven open-pit gold mines on Western Shoshone land — you just can’t say that an open-pit gold mine is sustaining our
The impact on water quantity and quality and the release of mercury into the air demonstrate exactly how unsustainable gold mining is, she says.
“This is another quote: ‘Quality jewelry items that have a reduced impact on human health and the environment,’” she reads. “They simply cannot substantiate that.”
Using our current technology and standards, the most sustainable and environmentally friendly gold mine is the one that never existed.
Randolph says that although he has sent two letters and a white paper to Wal-Mart and has spoken with the company’s representative for Love, Earth by telephone, the company has not honored its promise to respond in writing to his concerns.
“They have never responded in writing to anything I’ve sent,” he says. “I asked them to, and they said they would. They have not. The time that request was explicitly made and explicitly promised was before Christmas, and I have not heard anything. They are not in dialogue. They said they would respond, and I feel fully justified in saying that they have not followed through. They will probably respond saying we have been in conversations with Dan Randolph, so I’m acknowledging, yes, we’ve had conversations. They are on a very, very limited and inadequate basis having conversations with me, basically about having conversations.”
The trouble with green-washing isn’t just that it takes advantage of the misinformed for the purpose of earning profits, but that it creates in consumers an artificial sense that environmental problems caused by our consumer lifestyle have been addressed and that people can shop without being concerned. This robs vitality out of the genuine efforts that are underway to make substantive changes in industry.
“It’s not just about Newmont in Nevada,” he says. “It’s an attempt at self-certification. None of us have the resources to launch media campaigns to say, ‘This is BS’ when it’s a company the size of Wal-Mart that does this. While we’ve been stepped on in this case by claims that Newmont is responsible, we want to be clear and say that it’s not just about that. It’s that this type of behavior — green-washing — is in itself not responsible.”
Though Randolph believes that we can move toward truly responsible mining, he does not believe we’ve come that far yet. Clearly, serious problems remain when it comes to getting the earth to give up its precious metals. Until such time as the mining industry has cleaned up its act, Randolph thinks people need to put their desire for gold aside. He points out that the vast majority of gold mined in the world — about two-thirds of it — is used in gold jewelry, a luxury people want but not something they need.
“Gold, because it is not a critical item in the bulk that we use, isn’t necessary. But the issues are the same for zinc or copper or other things that we all do use without question,” he says. “So I do think that ultimately, hopefully we can get to where we are doing so in an increasingly responsible manner.”
For more information go to:
No Dirty Gold: www.nodirtygold.org
Global Response: www.globalresponse.org
Great Basin Resource Watch: www.gbrw.org
Western Shoshone Defense Project: www.wsdp.org
Wal-Mart’s Love, Earth site: www.loveearthinfo.com
Newmont Mining Corporation: www.newmont.com/en/
Global Response is spearheading an international mini-campaign in response to Wal-Mart’s Love, Earth line of jewelry. Participants will send Wal-Mart a Valentine to share their perspective on Love, Earth products. For more information, go to www.globalresponse.org.
back to top