The Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil, made famous in the iconic images of Sebastião Salgado, now stands defunct. It has been closed since 1986. According to a study conducted by Watras and Huckabee(1994), methyl mercury poisoning still threatens thousands of people in the area.

This is not surprising for a gold mine. Mercury and arsenic are often used in gold and diamond extraction processes. Miners, most of whom are children, inhale these vicious fumes for as little as $1 a day.

While Fairtrade practices are looking to challenge the working conditions that miners work in, they are fairly new – with Fairmined gold having been introduced to the UK in 2011, and Fairmined silver in 2012. This Valentine’s Day, the I DO campaign was held outside of St. Paul’s cathedral to encourage couples to buy fairmined metals.

However, as of November 2014, the benefits of the fair-trade system have only reached 1.3 million farmers globally. Bearing in mind that only a fraction of these are miners, and that there are 30 million miners employed by small-scale mining companies, this paints a grim picture.

Why aren´t more jewelers getting on the fairtrade bandwagon, though? Caroline Broadhead, head of the BA Jewellery Design program at Central Saint Martins, explains: “It’s quite hard to get hold of fair mined gold, and fair-mined gemstones. It is also more expensive because they make more of an effort to get it out of the ground, there are longer-term processes, and if you taking precautions with health and safety etc. then yes it costs a lot more money, but there are ways of doing it.” There is a lot of truth to this. Fairtrade certified mines are required to not only use minimal toxic chemicals in metal recovery; they are also required to have efficient methods of waste disposal of these chemicals. Child and forced labour is entirely prohibited under Fairtrade laws.

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 To ensure that young designers graduating from CSM develop a relationship with sustainability, Caroline has her students put on a show where they are using entirely natural ingredients. Nothing that can cause any harm to the environment is allowed, and that includes glue. Needless to say, students are forced to get creative. The pieces are to be consumed by the end of the night in some way – eaten, washed away, or recycled with the anaerobic digester.

The show took place at the LVMH lecture theatre at CSM this Friday. Guests were greeted politely and given stickers that said CYCLE. In keeping with the theme of the evening, two students peddling away on a bicycle generated electricity that powered the bulbs in the theatre. While all students were given the same brief, as one audience member remarked “It’s interesting how from one brief, everything could be so different.”

While Ami Masamitsu chose to make a glycerin soap necklace that students washed their hands in before heading to their respective pieces, Nathan Dickson chose to denote force feeding of animals in industrial factory farming by designing a gag resembling ham with marshmallows, and eating his way out of it.

It would seem that all that matters to consumers is the price they pay. “Cost is a triumphant factor,“ says Hannah, a member in the audience. “If it is the same price, people might go in for the more sustainable option,” agrees Lanie, another audience member.

It is naïve to assume that a consumer will willingly pay more for the same product. But more awareness about these issues could tell a different story. It is appalling to know that working conditions, where an employee is not exposed to life-threatening diseases, or paid minimum wage, are optional. A company can choose whether or not it wants to be Fairtrade certified. Often, it is done more for positive PR than anything else. If consumers were more educated about the conditions that these miners work in, it could create enough public pressure for more companies to be Fairtrade. One step the government could take would be to force companies to follow this route.

For now, we can hope that upcoming designers will mend their predecessors’ ways. Colin Assdale, having taken a lesson from the brief, said, “I think it is possible to use material that is not bad for the planet. It doesn’t always have to be ephemeral, but maybe we can think of sustainable metal or recycle it.” Franceso D’Auria, another student on the course agreed, “It’s made me think quite a lot about how much we use plastic. We use plastic everyday. But for this we had to find different ways and open our minds.”

Words by Kriti Ashtana

Photography by Oliver Vanes

Video by Phillip Koll

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