Gold is highly valuable and rare; its mining and production processes can cause significant environmental and social harm. The rising price of gold has led to rampant artisanal mining of the material – particularly in areas with little regulation and high levels of poverty. ASM gold mines can expose miners to safety risks through poor infrastructure and lack of proper protective gear. There also tends to be less oversight with the use of child laborers and proper handling of toxic chemicals, including mercury, in ASM mines. ¹Industrial gold mines have been observed to have human rights abuses including forced labor, child labor, and sexual assault as recently as 2018.²Alternatives to mercury use in gold mining are becoming more prevalent as they help miners recover high rates of gold, are safer for miners and their families, and benefit the health of their communities and environment.
¹ Human Rights Watch. (2015, June 23). The Dangers of Mercury. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/video-photos/interactive/2012/06/15/dangers-mercury
² Kippenberg, J. (2019, February 13). A Brilliant Opportunity for the Gold Sector. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/02/12/brilliant-opportunity-gold-sector
Silver is generally a byproduct of other mined materials like gold, copper, and zinc. Although the risks around silver sourcing are less frequently highlighted, they are subject to the same concerns as these other extractive materials. Silver is a highly recyclable material and is increasingly being reused.
Using recycled and reclaimed metals helps minimize environmental impact by not further contributing to deforestation and the extraction of materials from the earth. A guiding sustainability principle, “circular economy” can be implemented in jewelry by keeping resources in use for as long as possible and extracting the maximum value from them. This concept should also be applied with diamonds, gemstones, and all finite resources.
Recycling precious metals is especially important when considering the environmental effects. There are now several options for purchasing recycled gold, but buyers should be aware of the nuances. Recycled materials are those which have been purchased or used by consumers (post-consumer), or are a byproduct of manufacturing or finished good that were never in circulation (pre-consumer) that are reused in the manufacturing of products³.
³ The Glossary Project. (2019)
Responsible Mining Initiatives
Responsible mining initiatives to support gold and gemstones as a source of economic and social value in artisanal communities are evolving. Nonprofit organization, Pact, recently developed a standard for mitigating supply chain risk and facilitating formalization of artisanal mining – the CRAFT code. The CRAFT code is a globally-applicable, open source tool to enable due diligence in ASM with the key component of continual improvement. Most artisanal miners are unable to immediately comply with high-level standards due to time, resource, and training restraints. The CRAFT code creates a path towards formalization for these groups.
Fairmined is an example of a responsible supply standard working beyond just due diligence. Fairmined gold originates from small-scale mining groups and is independently certified under the Fairmined Standard, which is comprised of economic, social, legal, and environmental requirements. Critical components of the standard include a premium on the gold price, fair pay and rights for the miners, legal mining operations, gender equality, no child labor, low environmental impact and strong trade relationships. FAIRTRADE gold is another example of responsible supply standards. FAIRGOLD also uses a premium and certifies that sources have met standards on working conditions, child labor, health and safety, and environmental management.
While the illegal gold trade has been immensely problematic in funding conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), an exciting point of recent progress is the first export of responsible and traceable artisanal gold from the area. Just Gold is a project led by nonprofit organization, IMPACT, which provides capacity building and technical assistance to incentivise artisanal gold miners to trade with legal exporters. Just Gold completed the first export of conflict-free artisanal gold from DRC in 2017 and is continuing implementation of their model.