We all love gold. From the ancient Mesopotamians until the present day, gold has been prized for its beauty and become synonymous with wealth and power. Despite the global trade in gold, the people who risk their lives to extract this precious metal often receive very little compensation for their work. So what are the alternatives for consumers looking to support a more ethical and sustainable approach?
Where does gold come from?
Some of the biggest gold reserves in the world are found in South Africa, with smaller deposits in other parts of Africa, Russia, Canada and Brazil among others. As with all non-renewable natural resources there is a finite supply so once one source is exhausted another must be found.
The gold used in your jewellery starts life as a rough ore which is removed from the ground through a variety of methods including both large and small scale mining. The gold is extracted from the ore then refined to remove impurities and turn it into useable materials such as sheet & wire.
What is the difference between large and small-scale gold mining?
Large scale mining (LSM) is generally carried out at an industrial scale, highly mechanised and regulated to ensure reasonable working standards and reduce the risks to workers. By contrast, artisanal small-scale mining (ASM) is often unregulated with poor safety standards and a lack of resources and equipment to protect miners. Despite working long hours, small scale artisanal miners are often trapped in poverty and vulnerable to exploitation, injury and overwork.
In both cases, the effects of mining can be hugely destructive to the local environment – displacing communities and polluting water sources – as well as leaving behind a toxic landscape once a mine has closed and operations have moved to another location.
In the quest for a more ethical alternative, transparency and traceability are key to ensuring that artisanal small-scale miners are treated fairly and paid properly and the local environment is respected. For those looking at a more responsibly sourced options there are currently three main alternatives – Fairtrade, Fairmined and recycled gold.
Above: Fairtrade gold bands showing the Fairtrade logo (Source: www.fairtrade.net)
What is Fairtrade gold?
Fairtrade is a global certification system that works across a number of product areas to ensure a fair price for producers as well as an additional social premium which is invested back into their communities.
Fairtrade works with artisanal small-scale miners to improve working conditions and reduce the use of dangerous chemicals used extract the gold from its ore. It further supports them in gaining legal status for their organisations and securing better workers’ rights through collective action.
Fairtrade guarantees a minimum price and in addition to this a premium of $2,000 per kilo of gold sold which is used for projects collectively agreed on by the miners such as improving healthcare, investing in education or environmental protection.
What is Fairmined gold?
The Fairmined scheme seeks empower and reward small scale mining companies by using an assurance label that shows that the gold has come from regulated artisanal sources. It believes that this sort of responsible mining can have a positive impact on communities whilst also ensuring high environmental standards.
Fairmined gold is guaranteed to have been produced in responsibly managed mines and as well as guaranteed fair price for miners. As with Fairtrade gold, it also pays an additional premium. This money is invested in the mines themselves as well as social development and environmental improvement schemes.
Of course there are still environmental impacts from even small-scale mining, but consumers purchasing Fairmined gold can do so safe in the knowledge that it has been responsibly mined and the miners have been paid a fair price for their work.
Above: Bespoke engraved signet ring in 9ct recycled gold by Elin Horgan Jewellery
What is recycled gold?
Given the cost of gold, some form of recycling is pretty standard within the jewellery industry. Recycled gold can take two main forms – using old pieces of jewellery and getting a jeweller to melt them down and reuse them in a new piece, or getting a jeweller to buy ‘new’ recycled gold (sold commercially by bullion dealers) to create a design for you. Asking a jeweller to repurpose vintage or heirloom gold pieces is only likely to be viable on a small scale when they’re creating one-off bespoke commission pieces, but many jewellers arenow using recycled gold in their off the peg collections.
If you’d prefer an alternative that doesn’t use freshly mined gold then recycled gold could be a good option although of course there is also an environmental impact in terms of the energy used in the extraction & recycling process. Furthermore, choosing recycled gold does not have a positive financial or social impact on the small scale miners who in all likelihood originally extracted it.
Further reading about Fairtrade, Fairmined & recycled gold
There is no ‘perfect’ solution here, but all three of these gold alternatives are worth exploring depending on your own concerns, needs and budget. If you are interested in doing some further research into the topic then check out the resources below which are packed with useful information.
Ethical Making Resource website www.ethicalmaking.org has lots of resources for jewellers and consumers interested in buying ethical jewellery.
www.fairmined.org provides more information on the Fairmined scheme and shares success stories from small scale mining organisations who are part of the scheme.
www.fairtrade.org.uk is the Fairtrade organisation’s website which details how the Fairtrade scheme and gives more information on products that carry the Fairtrade label and the people who produce them.
A report from Atkinson's Bullion entitled Socially Responsible Mining in Developing Countries explores the impacts of mining , both the costs and benefits, including how to minimse the environmental effects and promote ethical working practices.
Elin Horgan designs and creates handmade jewellery in her Bristol studio. Elin’s beautifully simple handmade jewellery is carefully crafted and designed to be worn every day. You can read more about Elin’s work and the ethos behind her understated jewellery brand on her About Elin Horgan Jewellery page.