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Q. Valentine’s Day seems to have become a sustainability-conscious guy’s minefield. Flowers? Pesticides. Chocolate? Is it Fair Trade? Jewelry? Is it conflict-free? Were the precious metals extracted without wrecking the environment? If I want to give my wife something that she will always have (rather than an experience like a nice dinner out) how can I be sure that a piece of gold jewelry doesn’t bear a heavy environmental burden?

Gregory H.
Seattle, WA

A. Dearest Gregory,

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I think you’ve finally hit on a good reason to unite all of us, lovey-dovies and swingin’ singletons alike, in disliking Valentine’s Day. But before we throw up our hands and give February over to Presidents’ Day, take heart: I believe we can ply our sweethearts and protect the planet at the same time. It just takes a little extra thought — which, incidentally, will make your Valentine gift all the more meaningful.

You’re clearly aware of the pitfalls associated with precious metals and gems, Gregory, but just to sum up gold’s issues: Gold mining is one of the most environmentally destructive practices around. I usually point readers to a box of tissues and the comprehensive resources available at Earthwork’s No Dirty Gold Campaign for the particulars, but they involve toxic chemicals seeping into groundwater, noxious waste piling up, mercury polluting the atmosphere, and human rights abuses.

Given the heavy toll extracted by getting the shiny stuff from earth to ring fingers worldwide, it’s in our best interest to keep that gold in the ground. But you can still gild your sweetie and go to sleep knowing your gift didn’t cause suffering in the Amazon. Option A: Reuse ABM (already been mined) gold jewelry. Option B: Go for new jewelry made from recycled metals.

Buying used — excuse me, vintage or antique — jewelry is of course a smart idea because it doesn’t require any new gold-digging. That, and old-school jewelry is often lovely, chic, and one-of-a-kind; if your wife is part of the Downtown Abbey-and-Art Deco set, a trip to the antique store might be just the ticket. Or do one better and ask around your families for any unused heirlooms lying around — you never know what you might find gathering dust in your great-aunt’s jewelry box.

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If you prefer a spanking-new bauble, there are plenty of stylish pieces to be had that originated from melted-down jewelry, industrial knickknacks, and electronics. I recommend searching for “recycled” or “eco-friendly” jewelry shops and asking a few questions about where the company sources its raw materials before buying. If you happen to have any unwanted gold or other precious metals at home (did you go through a Mr. T phase by any chance, Gregory?), you can also take them in to a skilled jeweler to be traded for or even refashioned into a custom piece. (Forgot about Valentine’s until right this minute? Give your love an IOU for hand-designed jewelry and you’ll probably come out smelling like an organic rose.)

And if your heart (or hers) isn’t set on precious metals, you might also consider jewelry made from another sustainable source: recycled glass, Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, or even beads crafted from recycled magazines.

What about buying new? No Dirty Gold does maintain a list of retailers who have committed to their set of mining standards, which call for protecting the environment, cleaning up toxic waste, and respecting worker rights. However, you should know that signing on is a signal of support for sustainable gold, not a promise that the company’s gold comes from sources that meet the standards. A coalition called the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance is currently working on independent certification for mining best practices, but that’s not due until 2015. That’s why I’m sticking to the Reuse/Recycle playbook this Valentine’s Day.

I am a big fan of gifting experiences rather than things, but I do see the appeal in giving your wife something she’ll have forever. I’d suggest setting up an IRA for her, but my colleagues on the upper floors tell me that’s not exactly romantic.


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