Last week, The Washington Post wrote about “hygiene theater”—which it called “the deployment of symbolic tactics that do little to prevent the spread of the coronavirus but may make some anxious consumers feel safer.”
And now, in the jewelry industry, we are perhaps seeing “eco theater”—which I’d call the deployment of symbolic tactics that likely do little to halt climate change but make concerned consumers feel good. And, of course, they also make companies look good.
I wouldn’t exactly call these efforts greenwashing—as that is generally defined as outright deception. Yet, some of these efforts seem far more marketing- than planet-oriented: Sometimes I wonder if whatever carbon emissions they save are overshadowed by all the energy spent promoting them.
Which brings me to recycled gold, which has grown in popularity but has also faced a rising tide of skepticism. No one considers it a bad product, necessarily—provided it’s truly recycled, and from responsible sources (which we’ll get to). But the claims around it bear examination.
The most conspicuous advocate for recycled metals is Pandora. The Danish charm-maker has committed to using 100% recycled gold and silver by 2025. CEO Alexander Lacik called the company’s decision to use only recycled metals “a significant commitment that will be better for the environment.”
Pandora has done many laudable things to achieve carbon neutrality, including cutting emissions at its factories. But as with another, more recent Pandora announcement, it’s worth looking beyond the charming rhetoric.
Saying recycled gold is better for the environment implies that using it will decrease gold mining. (Whether that’s good, bad, or some mixture of both, is another conversation.) At present there’s no evidence—and there’s actually plenty of counterevidence—that embracing recycled gold has any impact on gold mining. In fact, a certain amount of repurposed gold, which is estimated at 30 to 40% of the market, has always been part of the equation.
“Over the last 10 years—the period when recycled gold jewelry claims have become prominent in the profession—the average annual production of newly mined gold has remained constant at 4,000 tons per annum,” wrote veteran jewelry activist Greg Valerio. “The jewelry brands that claim buying recycled gold rings will ‘alleviate the devastating environmental impacts of gold mining’ are simply not rooting their marketing claims in the facts.”
Even with all the companies currently using recycled gold, including several tech giants, consultancy Metals Focus predicts that gold production will hit a record in 2021.
“When you recycle paper, when you recycle plastic, you may have an environmental impact,” says Jonathan González, market development specialist for the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM), which oversees Fairmined gold. “But gold is something that has always been recycled for centuries. You don’t waste gold.”
By using recycled gold, jewelers might be lowering their individual carbon emissions. But it’s far from clear that they will be cutting the planet’s carbon emissions, which is supposed to be the point. So, while these moves may help a particular company’s image, it’s hard to say they will do much for the environment. And these efforts should be about truly leaving our kids a better world, not a bigger bankbook.
Plus, of course, not all recycled gold is “good gold.”
“Recycled is a positive modifier in most contexts,” says Tiffany Stevens, president and CEO of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee. “But with gold, it isn’t necessarily. Recycled from what? You have to know who you are dealing with.”
Not all recycled gold comes from grandma’s jewelry box. Some of it comes from drug dealers, organized crime, and others looking to launder ill-gotten gains. The London Bullion Market Association has called recycled gold “a particular money laundering risk because the origin of gold bars and scrap jewelry can be easy to obscure.” The Financial Action Task Force has said much the same.
In addition, some gold that’s labeled as recycled may not actually be recycled. Last year, SwissAid, a Bern-based nongovernmental organization, charged that a lot of the “recycled gold” sold by local refiners was, in fact, newly mined—sometimes by Sudanese militias implicated in human rights abuses.
Some recycled gold companies do take precautions; Hoover & Strong and United Precious Metals, for example, have their processes independently audited. Otherwise, sustainability consultant Christina Miller warns to always ask questions.
“Let’s say a retailer is using a caster on 47th Street, and the caster is saying the metal is 100% recycled and is coming from X source,” she told JCK last year. “The important thing is, you can’t just take their word for it. You have to get the details. They might say, ‘We use 100% recycled gold.’ Okay, what does that mean, and who is the supplier? Sometimes the answer is, ‘We only use “good gold.” ’ What does that mean?”
There’s a lot to like about these products. Unlike with some recycled gold, you never have to wonder about their provenance and production; they often come with huge amounts of data on how they were extracted. They help artisanal mining communities in poor countries. And these brands are still small enough that companies can have a direct impact on how much gold is produced and therefore how much support is returned to the community. The good they do isn’t theoretical; it’s something you can actually see.
I hope to go more in depth on these products, and the issues they face, in weeks to come. But the biggest problem has always been that they sell at a premium. That’s what helps support the local communities, but it can turn off consumers, especially with the price of gold being so high. Retailers like Robin Gambhir, co-owner and CEO of FTJCo. in Toronto, has found that, when given the choice between Fairmined and recycled gold, consumers often opt for recycled, as it’s cheaper, and they consider it to be as “good” as Fairmined. As a result, he’s taken to using a combination of both in his products.
And while the concept of recycled is easy to grasp, that of fair mining requires an explanation, and lacks eco-cred. Newly mined products don’t comport with the current popular notion of sustainability, which is almost solely limited to how something impacts the environment. Yet the United Nations’ sustainable development goals clearly call for a redoubling of, as the organization says, “efforts to reach the people furthest behind.” And in the jewelry industry, those people are small-scale miners.
The problem is, poor miners don’t have the funds to gussy up their environmental credentials. ARM hasn’t yet calculated the carbon footprint of Fairmined gold; it lacks the resources. Given that the extraction methods used are relatively primitive, that footprint is almost certainly low. Yet while its methods are gentler on the Earth than most, all production has an impact, and these small cooperatives can’t afford carbon offsets to make that impact vanish (on paper, at least).
So these products may not get you to that magic carbon-neutral number. Yet, advocates say they don’t just make companies look good, they actually do good.
In November 2020, a group of NGOs—including Pure Earth, whose leadership council includes the CEO of recycled gold user Diamond Foundry—put out a statement, urging the jewelry industry not to disengage with the small-scale sector.
“The artisanal and small-scale mining sector employs approximately 42 million people; more than 150 million people worldwide depend on mining to make a living,” the statement said. “Buying exclusively recycled gold excludes this sector, which employs many people who already face vulnerable situations.”
Says González: “Our call to action pretty much says to jewelry brands, ‘If you want to use recycled, that’s okay, just be careful about the claims you make about it, and don’t disengage from responsible artisanal and small-scale miners. They need this.’ ”
Again, this doesn’t mean recycled gold is bad product; some experts prefer it to buying gold that lacks any kind of provenance information or certification (though, as we’ve mentioned, a lot of recycled gold also lacks that). Toby Pomeroy, founder of the Mercury Free Mining, has called recycled gold a “fine way to start” on the responsible-sourcing path. That said, it is a path.
Two weeks ago, someone reached out to me on LinkedIn, saying she had a “new ethical fine jewelry brand” made with “lab-grown diamonds and recycled gold.”
No offense to this person, but responsible sourcing involves more than just ordering a product at the JCK show. Ethics aren’t marketing tools; they are principles you live by. Just like how relying on the Kimberley Process doesn’t mean that your mined diamonds are fine and dandy, selling recycled gold or lab-grown diamonds doesn’t mean your products automatically get a clean bill of health. Both products have plenty of issues.
Responsible sourcing is difficult. Gold has a complex supply chain that includes well-run professional operations, exploitive terrible ones, shady characters, material that’s impossible to trace and might date back thousands of years, and small-scale mines that sustain some of the poorest people on Earth.
If you become a licensee of Fairmined or a similar product, you must follow specific chain-of-custody protocols. That isn’t always easy. But it shouldn’t be.
If you’re going to argue that you’re better than the rest, you should do more than others. You need to put in the extra work, do the extra research, and consult with people who really know and care about this stuff. You need to know your customers, find out who owns them, and understand their production methods and sourcing protocols. And any claims you make should be independently audited and verified.
Otherwise, it might as well just be theater, with you just an actor.
(Photo courtesy of the Alliance for Responsible Mining)
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