Living Room Session: Recycled GoldMar 03, 2021
What do you really want to accomplish by sourcing recycled gold?
Our February Living Room brought together varying perspectives to examine recycled gold in the context of responsible sourcing. This session was done in partnership with Initiatives in Art and Culture and was a preliminary conversation to an upcoming webinar on this material. This Living Room session sought to identify what we know and don’t know about recycled gold, the true impacts of the material, how it fits into a responsible sourcing practice, and other considerations to explore such as how the material is marketed and what justifies melting down an existing piece of jewelry.
When making a piece of jewelry, there is a desire to create something beautiful, to communicate a feeling, and put our ideas and feelings into artforms. These pieces are meant to represent love and care - so it is especially difficult to find out that the way in which the materials we use, like gold, are often produced in a way that causes harm to the environment or people. In trying to figure out how to manage this and have the best impact we can, we need to closely examine the impacts of these sourcing practices, work to close gaps in our understanding, and continually improve.
When we hear the term “recycled,” we tend to associate the practice with reducing waste and demand for newly produced products. Unlike other materials, gold is not a resource that is wasted. Instead, almost all of the gold that has ever been mined is still in circulation. Because gold is a financial asset and often interchangeable with currency, the demand for newly mined gold is not impacted by the increased use of recycled gold.
The term ‘recycled’ can be confusing. What exactly is recycled gold and who writes the definitions? It can be a difficult question to navigate because the jewelry industry is still working to develop consensus around how recycled gold is defined and to what extent users of the definitions can be accountable to them. For example, is it a legally binding, mandated by a standard, or collectively agreed upon definition? Generally, recycled gold can be understood as gold that has been previously refined. It can be post-consumer, meaning that the material was recovered from consumer products after they were used. Recycled gold can also be made of pre-consumer material, meaning the material was recovered as a byproduct of manufacturing or that it was reclaimed from uncirculated consumer goods.
The London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), which includes refineries located internationally in its association, defines recycled gold in the following way for its voluntary members:
“Gold that has been previously refined. This term traditionally encompasses anything that is gold-bearing and has not come directly from a mine in its first gold life cycle. In practical terms, recyclable material includes end-user, post-consumer products, scrap and waste metals, and materials arising during refining and product manufacturing, and investment gold and gold-bearing products. This category may also include fully refined gold that has been fabricated into grain, good delivery bars, medallions and coins that have previously been sold by a refinery to a manufacturer, bank or consumer market, and that may thereafter need to be returned to a refinery to reclaim their financial value.” (Source)
The United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also provides definitions for making legally compliant recycled content claims.
These laws state that marketers should make recycled content claims only for materials that have been recovered or diverted from the waste stream during the manufacturing process or after consumer use. Marketers should also qualify claims for products or packages made partly from recycled material – for example, “Made from 30% recycled material.” Additionally, marketers whose products contain used, reconditioned, or re-manufactured components should qualify their recycled content claims clearly and prominently to avoid deception about the components. You can read more about the FTC’s Green Guides here.
If we take a close look at the existing definitions for recycled gold, it becomes apparent that it is possible for “recycled gold” to be made with material that has a very short journey from the mine to becoming recycled feedstock. It is very difficult to know how recently the material came from the mine. Additionally, investigations have shown that it is possible for recycled gold supply chains to become an avenue for illicitly-mined and traded gold to make its way into legitimate supply chains.
Jeweler and responsible jewelry advocate, Toby Pomeroy, shared the story of his journey working to address environmental concerns with gold.
“I was a designer - a goldsmith in Corvallis, Oregon, and loved what I did. It was just like a passion to be able to create beautiful things and have people really be happy and delighted with the results.
...It was just dumped on me - that realization of how nasty mining has been. I kind of had known it before, but I was now faced with the realization that I couldn't pretend that I didn't know. And, and felt like I just could not keep making jewelry if I couldn't find some way around it.
I called Torry Hoover up, who has been our regular supplier for many years and asked him if he would be willing to sell us what we called reclaimed gold. He graciously agreed, and we began using that and then our jewelry brand got a lot of attention from that and it was really a strong boost for just that - differentiating that we were using something that we could at least say what its origins had been, the most recent origins, we knew that it wasn't irresponsible.
It’s huge that Hoover and Strong has made the difference they’ve made in the industry by making this a presence, making it a reality, and a possibility.
But, also it was for me, almost immediately, the realization that this wasn't really the answer I was looking for. That it was necessary to take it another step, somehow, because we still weren't solving that problem of mining. We still weren't demonstrating that mining could be done responsibly and was being done responsibly somewhere so I began looking for that. Where can we find responsibly mined gold that we can really all be proud of?
I heard of a small mining community, and a program in the Chico rainforest region of Colombia and got in touch with them, bought some gold from them, eventually traveled down there to visit. They're a really inspiring mine. Very small scale micro-scale - but no mercury, no cyanide, all hand labor basically and just delicious gold. I then was invited to join the board of directors of the Alliance for Responsible mining, which it's now my 11th year with them, and of course they are the source of Fairmined gold. It’s completely inspiring. And that’s where I am now - so reclaimed and recycled gold has been kind of in my rearview mirror.”
Like Toby - many of us are dismayed when we learn of the true environmental impacts of mining. We don’t want to contribute to harming the environment. So when we consider choosing recycled gold, it’s important to reflect on our values and the impacts we really want to have.
When we hear “recycled gold,” our first thought might be - “recycled gold sounds like it has the potential to reduce the environmental impact of mining” or “We could potentially avoid contributing to human rights abuses and illicit trade.”
The reality is - we still have a lot to learn about recycled gold. We asked sustainable fashion and jewelry writer, researcher, and designer, Danielle Keller Aviram, to share a bit about how recycled gold, as it is currently defined, fits into a sustainable practice.
“One of the first challenges is the fact that there is a big lack of data. When we think about recycled content in general, we have this assumption that it's more environmentally friendly, because it saves every resource, which, to a certain extent, it does. We need much less energy. When, potentially, we recycled material. But there is no accurate data about the actual emissions that are used or generated when we recycled gold.
Currently, we also assume that we don't use mercury when we recycle gold, but there might be some other environmental impacts that we are not measuring or we are not taking into consideration. So on one hand, it makes a lot of sense to reuse and recycle these minerals, because they're not going to biodegrade. And there is more and more research proving that, actually, all the gold, that was ever mined since the beginning of human history is still existing with us, above ground. We're talking about hundreds and thousands of tons of gold. And this is not mentioning silver, not mentioning copper, not mentioning brass, or any other metals that are used in the jewelry industry.
I see a great opportunity to reuse these materials again, because they have these great characteristics that they can be recast and remelted again and again and again, without ever impacting their performance.”
So is recycled gold still okay to use even though it doesn’t have the environmental impacts we think?
While supporting responsible mining practices is crucial for a responsible jewelry industry, there is also a need and an opportunity to develop transparent, sustainable, and circular supply chains for gold and other precious metals that draw from existing gold supplies and that based on data, are proven to actually achieve the low impact desires of its users and consumers.
Beyond learning more about the environmental impacts of recycled gold, other challenges like illicit trade must be addressed as well. While we want to channel support for responsibly-mined artisanal and small-scale gold, it isn’t realistic for every jewelry company to suddenly shift their practices whether it be for logistics, financial limits, or another reason. Some jewelry companies may be completely focused on circular supply chains based on their values. Some may rely on recycled gold as an important supplement while transitioning to responsibly-mined artisanal and small-scale gold. Thus, recycled gold remains a critical supply chain for the jewelry industry to include when looking to advance responsible sourcing.
Looking at the topic of recycled gold from yet another angle, Lisa Koenigsberg of Initiatives in Art in Culture asks us to consider how we determine what gold should be reused and recycled. Using historical notes and stories of how Incan gold jewelry was destroyed, she begs us to more closely examine the cultural, social, and economic effects of melting down jewelry.
To learn more about how gold is actually recycled, how the practice of using recycled gold fits into the industry’s antiracism work, and ideas for how the industry should use recycled gold going forward, watch February’s Living Room recording here.
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