Beware of: Gold
The cost: Environmental damage and human rights. Gold ore is often sprayed with cyanide after extraction to separate the gold from the host minerals. The cyanide-contaminated leftovers, 20 tons of which are used to produce one gold ring, are often abandoned or dumped in nearby water sources. Moreover, gold mines from Indonesia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have notoriously poor labor standards.
The alternative: Currently, there is no certification for clean gold, as there is for diamonds, for example. The best option is to buy jewelry from gold that has been recycled. The bad news is that without independent, third-party verification, it is difficult to ensure that your gold is clean. The good news is that, once you find it, clean gold is no more expensive than normal gold.
The future: The human rights group Oxfam America and environmental group Earthworks are pushing a No Dirty Gold campaign for jewelers who demand responsible mining practices. A dozen high-end industry leaders such as Tiffany Co. and Zale Corp. have already signed on, but mass retailers including Target and Wal-Mart have not. Oxfam and Earthworks also encourage consumers to sign a pledge supporting responsible mining.
Beware of: Cocoa powder
The cost: Child labor. Seventy percent of the worlds cocoa (and most of the United States) comes from West Africa, where nearly 300,000 children under the age of 14 toil in dangerous conditions on cocoa plantations. In the Ivory Coast, where more than half of the regions cocoa is produced, more than 100,000 children work in near slavery, subject to both injury from the machetes used to harvest the plant and from toxic pesticides that are banned in the United States and Europe.
The alternative: Buy Fair Trade Certified cocoa, which comes from farms that only employ adults and use legal pesticides. The price is equivalent to that of gourmet chocolate. If you have to get your fix and cant find Fair Trade chocolate, look for products from Cadbury. The British company buys 90 percent of its cocoa from Ghana, where trafficking of child workers is prohibited.
The future: In October, the World Cocoa Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development announced the establishment of the Healthy Communities program to help West African cocoa farmers improve their economic, social, and environmental standards. The program is designed to help as many as 150,000 farm families during the next five years. But with 700,000 farmers in the Ivory Coast alone, its unlikely to affect widespread change.
Beware of: Burmese teak
The cost: The Burmese peoples freedom and environment. Teak is used primarily for outdoor furniture, and the Burmese variety is considered the strongest and most beautiful in the world. Sales have also helped fund the countrys brutal military regime for nearly three decades. Although the United States outlawed nearly all imports from Burma in 2003, more than 17.7 million cubic feet of Burmese teak was exported to 167 countries last year. Harvesting teak is also incredibly damaging to the environment. Forest land in Burma shrunk by 75 percent during the 20th century, primarily because of the extractive harvesting methods used to procure teak and other hardwoods.
The alternative: Consumers should purchase more common woods or try plantation teak, which, though not as strong as old-growth teak, doesnt contribute to deforestation.
The future: Burmese teak may be here to stay. Some teak industry Web sites boast that 80 percent of the worlds teak still comes from Burma. Moreover, though the United States is pushing for U.N. sanctions against Burma, the military junta maintains close relations with China, so it is doubtful that any sanction regime will get very far.
Beware of: Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), also known as vinyl.
The cost: Your health and the environment. PVC, a durable plastic, is everywhere. Its used to make building materials (including vinyl siding, flooring, and pipes), plastic childrens toys, and garden hoses, among other consumer products. The smell of a new car? Thats PVC. The smell is actually PVC toxins, some of which are suspected carcinogens, being released into the air. Children are exposed to the same toxins when they chew on PVC-plastic toys. The production and disposal of PVC also releases mercury and dioxin into the environment.
The alternative: Buy shower curtains made from Peva, which is a less destructive plastic. PVC-free childrens toys are also readily available, including Lego building blocks and Gerber toys. The Greenpeace Web site has an extensive report card for various toy companies.
The future: Although PVC is still legal for many uses, there are bans or restrictions on PVC toys in the European Union, Japan, and Mexico, among other countries. Some U.S. cities, including New York, Boston, and San Francisco, have placed limits on government purchases of the material. A number of companies, including Nike, Mattel, and Honda, have adopted PVC phase-out polices as well.
Beware of: Columbite-tantalite, also known as coltan, and cassiterite, aka tin ore.
The cost: Unrest in the DRC. The war-torn country is home to 80 percent of the worlds coltan, which is an important mineral for constructing circuit boards found in cell phones and other electronic devices, like computers and TV remote controls. Coltan is the best mineral for storing and conducting electrical currents on circuit boards. The DRC is also home to large amounts of tin, which is increasingly replacing lead as the material for solder on circuit boards. During the past decade, local warlords have used profits from the resources to fund an ongoing civil war.
The alternative: Australia also produces coltan, but tracing the source of your electronic goods coltan is nearly impossible. The best bet is to recycle your electronic goods so that the coltan can be reused.
The future: The prices of both coltan and cassiterite dropped with the end of the dot-com boom, so less money is ending up in the hands of DRC warlords. Plus, high-tech manufacturers are always looking for newer, better building materials. However, coltan is currently the most efficient conductor, and tin is a significant improvement on lead. The best hope is that the recent elections in DRC bring stability to the resource-rich country.