Recycled Gold vs. Fairtrade Gold: Comparing the Two on an Ethical Scale

Fairtrade Gold Vs. Recycled Gold
Shown here, a miner mixing gold and mercury by hand. This is a typical sight at non-Fairtrade Gold mines.
At a Glance
  • The use of recycled metals has symbolic meaning, and raises the awareness of sourcing issues among consumers. But it has no impact whatsoever on the mining industry.
  • Fairtrade practices ensure small-scale miners are paid fairly for their work. They also enable you (the consumer) to wield your economic power to benefit the most responsible small-scale mining operations in the world.
Fairtrade Gold Vs. Recycled Gold

Fairtrade Gold outweighs recycled gold, ethically-speaking.

Recycled and vintage jewelry often dominate discussions around 'ethical' jewelry. This is great for raising the issue of sourcinghowever, these options are not as ethical as they are perceived to be. If the goal is to elicit lasting change in the jewelry industrywhich has been steeped in exploitationwe must explore other options.

Here, we'll demonstrate that Fairtrade Gold is more ethical than recycled gold. We'll do so by breaking down the term 'ethical' into environmental aspects and humanitarian aspectsand comparing the effects of Fairtrade and recycled gold on each.

But First, Some Background

Recycling, as a concept, is nearly synonymous with 'eco-friendly.' It's the very foundation of many of our ideas around environmentally-friendly practices and often the baseline to which all other tactics are compared. And generally, it is a very effective process that genuinely does benefit the Earth and its inhabitants.

However, it's a simple fact that recycling precious metals (like gold) is not the same as recycling plastic bottles or aluminum cans. To put it baldly, using recycled gold has absolutely no environmental or humanitarian benefits.

Not convinced? Let's break it down.

Recycled Gold: The False Thinking

Recycling works by reducing demand for materialswhich in turn decreases production of them. When you recycle a plastic water bottle, you're feeding that plastic back into the supply chain. Rather than send it to a landfill and create demand for companies to produce another to take its place, the bottle is broken down and re-used. It essentially becomes another water bottle.

This same process cannot be applied to gold. Demand for gold is so high that it can likely never  be reduced to a point where people stop mining it. Think of it this way: Due to the immense value of precious metals, it will always be worth somebody's effort to dig them out of the ground. This mining will never stop, no matter how much recycled gold is used. As long as humans roam this planet, some of them will be mining gold.

The notion that recycled gold has any positive environmental or humanitarian impact is in reality a cleverly-contrived marketing ploy. These assertions are designed to mislead consumers, to obfuscate the issues and lure us into a false sense of complacency.

Ironically, when jewelers attempt to capitalize on the associations of terms like 'recycled’ and piggyback on eco-friendly and ethical product movements, they undermine any lesser-known efforts that have real potential to elicit change. An honest re-evaluation of jewelry sourcing would profoundly improve the lives of small-scale miners around the world. 

Environmental Effects

Gold is mined by both large-scale mining companies and independent artisanal and small-scale (ASM) miners. The latter group makes up about 90% of this industry's workforce, while generating only around 20% of total gold mined. These are some of the most impoverished people on the planetpeople who work themselves to the bone day-in and day-out just to feed their families. Often, they labor in remote conditionsmeaning they lack access to things like safety equipment and healthcare. Without proper channels to sell their gold, they are at the mercy of middlemen who can travel to themleaving the door wide-open for exploitation.

The vast majority of the time, ASM miners use mercury in the process of mining gold. If not handled safely, mercury can cause a host of neurological disorders and conditionsand can lead to death. Unfortunately, most ASM gold miners lack either the resources or knowledge to handle mercury properly. They mix gold and mercury by hand in the same pans they will later use to cook dinner for their children. They burn off mercury inside their own kitchens, releasing the neurotoxin methylmercury into their own, unprotected lungs.

All this is aside from the unlined, earthen pits that leech mercury into groundwaterand the inevitable spills that dump huge quantities of mercury into streams. This mercury pollution can remain in waterways for centuries, poisoning entire ecosystems.

When Fairtrade practices are implemented at an ASM gold mine, miners are educated about the dangers mercury poses to themselves, their children, and the greater environment. To begin, they are taught safe methods of handling mercury. Further down the line, Fairtrade works with miners to eliminate the use of mercury (or cyanide, another chemical commonly used) altogether. Gold produced without these chemicals is classified as 'Eco-Gold', and it generates increased premiums for these ASM mining communities.

Humanitarian Aspects

We've shown how Fairtrade Gold practices reduce the amount of mercury released into the environment. But what about the humanitarian side of things?

Recycling gold results in absolutely no humanitarian benefit. As given above, it would be virtually impossible to decrease demand for gold to the point where mines stopped operating. The best thing we can do is push initiatives that directly benefit these miners, rather than skirt the issue and pat ourselves on the back.

Fairtrade Gold ensures that miners receive a fair wage for their work. It also brings benefits already discussedsuch as safety equipment and training. In addition to all this, mining communities receive a premium of $2,000 per ounce of gold mined. This money is used for community projects like building schools or hospitals.

Essentially, Fairtrade Gold gives miners an opportunity to improve their daily lives. It provides hope for the future by shining a light on the end of the tunnel that is the vicious cycle of poverty. It also brings an end to environmental degradation, which is a boon for anyone living in said environment.


To imply that the purchase of jewelry made with recycled precious metals diminishes the atrocities and tragedies associated with large or small-scale metal mining is false. Certified Fairtrade Gold makes a real difference.

Our Verdict

In reality, gold and silver have always been recycled by jewelersunlike post-consumer waste. Recycled metals are, in fact, available to any jeweler. Just consider that most jewelers (and pawn shops!) will purchase unwanted jewelry from their customers.

The use of recycled metals is symbolic at best. At worst, it lends credence to the co-opted and patently false idea that these materials are somehow 'ethical'. It allows a person or company to 'wash their hands' of the situation without making any progress whatsoever toward lasting, meaningful change for producer communities.

Moving Forward
So how exactly do we evoke this lasting, meaningful change? By supporting efforts that stand on a solid, ethical groundefforts like Fairtrade Gold.

You can make a difference. Every purchase strengthens the supply chains necessary for these programs to grow. If the US consumer market were to move toward Fairtrade Gold as it has toward Fairtrade coffee, hundreds of thousands of small-scale miners would reap the benefits of increased income, access to education, and access to healthcare.

About Our Ethics

We are firmly against all large-scale multi-national precious metal mining, and even initiated and co-led a campaign against a large gold mine outside our home of Santa Fe. Too often, gold mining exploits local communities, destroys ecosystems, and displaces indigenous people. While large-scale mining is the politics of greed, ASM mining is the politics of bread.

We understand that recycled gold is most often the only ethical option available to jewelers. This was true for us before becoming the first certified Fairtrade Gold jeweler in the US. Even today, many of our products are made using recycled gold. As of July 2017, certain jewelry components (mill products such as gold wire and sheets) necessary for jewelry production are simply not yet available to the US in Fairtrade Gold.

In Fairtrade Gold mines, safe methods are employed to prevent human contact with mercury.

Copyright © 2019 Reflective Jewelry
Follow Us
Join In!