“Eco” Recycled Gold is a Greenwash BS Jewelry Lie: Read Why

“Eco” Recycled Gold is a Greenwash BS Jewelry Lie

Author: Marc Choyt | Friday, July 23, 2021

If you do not know where your gold came out of the earth, it is dirty gold that has destroyed some part of our planet’s ecosystem.

 

Is recycled gold ethical, eco-friendly, or sustainable? The answer is, NO. 

Here’s why:

Right now, gold mining is transforming intact ecosystems all over the world into wastelands. 

Yet, your purchase of recycled gold jewelry has ZERO social or ecological impact on mining. It does nothing other than support companies, both large and small, that do nothing for the environment or for producer communities.  

In fact, mercury poisoning, slave labor, ecocide, poisoned aquifers, + indigenous displacement are the toxic legacy of your “eco friendly” recycled gold wedding ring and recycled gold engagement ring.

So-called "eco-friendly" recycled gold contributes to the destruction of ecosystems and the plight of impoverished small-scale miners.

The bottom line is:

If you do not know where the gold was mined, it is dirty gold. 

But the good news is: if you really care, there are better options: Fairtrade Gold + Fairmined Gold. 

This article provides an essential insider view on recycled gold jewelry: info nearly impossible to find anywhere else.

I’m going to tell you how this all works, step by step. Along the way, you’re going to become more of an expert in ethical jewelry issues.

First, you’ll learn about where recycled gold comes from and how so-called “eco,” “ethical,” or “responsible” jewelers collaborating with large corporate supply houses spin recycled gold narratives designed to mislead and deceive socially-concerned customers. 

Second, you’ll discover how purchasing a wedding or engagement ring can empower grassroots economic development for the benefit of impoverished small-scale miners, reducing global mercury contamination. 

Lastly, at the end, I’ll provide you links to articles for further information on both gold and diamonds. This is followed by my bio. I've been a jeweler and activist for 26 years, and I write feature articles on ethical jewelry for top trade magazines.  

After reading, you will be more empowered to align your economic decisions with your heartfelt values — enabling you, with your jewelry purchase, to be part of a real solution. 

 

The Big Recycled Jewelry Eco Lie: Here’s How It Works

Jewelers have always bought gold to recycle and repurpose into new jewelry. It is a revenue stream. Just buy gold at a certain percentage (which you don’t tell the customer) and sell it at spot price.

The beginning of the journey of some "eco-friendly" recycled gold. Jewelers buy your old gold and jewelry to refine.

 Insider tip: if you ever sell gold to a jeweler, demand to know the percentage of spot price you’re getting. Anything less than 70% is unfair!

 

From there, it’s time to collect.  

This is done by refining the gold, as illustrated below. The friendly jeweler pours the gold into a refining machine. Basically, it is a complex chemical process that separates alloys from gold.

Your jeweler takes your "dirty gold" and turns it into...

 

In real life, scrap gold looks like this below, which is from my own shop:

Scrap gold I purchased from my customers. I sold this gold to a refiner and then bought Fairtrade Gold, because Fairtrade Gold benefits both small-small miners and the environment,

The basis for ethical sourcing is traceability to source. I purchased this gold from customers and used the money to buy Fairtrade Gold, which has the potential to transform the lives of millions of impoverished small-scale miners. 

 

This particular batch had a bunch of gold from teeth. Where did this gold come from before it was made into jewelry and dental fillings?  

Easy answer: From mines that have destroyed entire ecosystems, or contributed to the displacement or genocide of indigenous communities. Recycled gold could even come from teeth from Holocaust victims, for all we know.  

In the old days, recycled gold was never said to have “ethical” value. Every jeweler recycled gold. They’d send it to refiners for cash or to have the gold converted into pure 24K gold.  

But these days, jewelers take advantage of the halo effect of the term “recycled” to tap into the conscious consumer market. The word “recycled” is powerful! Recycled aluminum, cardboard, glass, and plastic can all make a difference — because recycling any of those products saves resources.  

But gold is a currency hedge. It is an extremely expensive material and it will always be mined, regardless of how much recycled gold is used.

Nevertheless, the jewelry sector in North America LOVES touting recycled gold, primarily because it is a double win: it appeals to green consumers and — equally important — jewelers don’t need to make any changes to their supply chain.    

Refining machines have become greenwashing machines!

Dirty gold is refined and pops out as “eco-friendly recycled gold.”

Nothing other than a "greenwashing machine" could turn dirty gold into "eco-friendly" recycled gold!

 

From there, the gold can be made into ethical recycled gold wedding rings and responsible eco-friendly recycled gold engagement rings!

"eco-friendly" recycled gold wedding rings and recycled gold engagement rings are the hot trend. But these claims do not have any merit.

 

These days, ethical/responsible/eco-friendly jewelry is the HOT TREND! Every jeweler can do it!  

All you do is tap into the recycled jewelry narrative, which is easy!

Suppliers, refiners — they are all feeding at the recycled jewelry troth, trying to engage your social media cred to boost their greenwashing to an even higher level.

Check out this Instagram post from Rio Grande, one of the largest jewelry supply houses:

Rio Grande marketing recycled gold as sustainable.

Rio Grande is owned by Berkshire Hathaway. Playing the recycled gold game is great for the bottom line! 

 

They buy scrap gold from jewelers at a discount. Then, they brand their gold as “certified recycled” which is really just a kind of spin. The “certification” in the term “certified recycled gold” refers to gold purchased from a refiner, NOT back to the mine. 

Generic dirty gold is now branded, certified recycled gold sold for a healthy healthy upcharge. 

Now, putting it all together, there can only be one conclusion: Marketing RECYCLED GOLD as ethical is a BIG LIE:

"Eco-friendly" or "sustainable" recycled gold is nothing more than greenwashing.

 

Here’s what it comes down to:

Just about every jeweler out there is now branding themselves as ethical. Jewelers co-opt the concept of “recycled” to construct a halo effect around their recycled gold engagement and wedding rings.

Jewelers, supply houses, and trade press all work together. Just check out all the blogs and articles mentioning “eco-friendly” recycled gold jewelers. The consistency in the deception has become a form of manufacturing consent.  

But there is one company that deserves a special call out for their recycled jewelry narratives:  Brilliant Earth. 

 

The Emperor of Recycled Gold

Brilliant Earth has several retail stores in major markets and their website gets over 1M visits a month. They dominate the ethical jewelry space. They describe recycled metals as part of their “movement” as the “global leader in ethically sourced fine jewelry.”

Here’s a screenshot about the value of recycled gold from their website:

Brilliant Earth argues that recycled gold "decreases the global demand for newly-mined gold." I call BS.

 

In fact, using recycled gold to buy a wedding ring from this company has ZERO impact on the practices of major gold producers, such as Newmont, or Barrick Gold who together mined over ten million ounces in 2020.  

But with Brilliant Earth, unfortunately, it gets even worse.  

If you are even considering buying from them read my Ultimate Brilliant Earth Review.  

To really understand "ethics" and  jewelry, you need to know this:

About 20% of gold comes from small-scale miners. They make up 80% of the world’s gold mining labor.  They are the largest source of global mercury contamination.

These producers mine in order to feed their families...and their lives are characterized by extreme poverty and exploitation. 

This Tanzanian gold miner is mixing gold dust and mercury, by hand.

I took this photo of a small-scale miner in Tanzania mixing gold in mud and mercury to create an amalgum. Later, he will burn off the mercury in his frying pan, creating methyl mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin. Millions of people are engaged in this process. Right. Now.  

 

Ethical jewelry should support small scale mining communities with best practices that allow them to protect their environment while feeding their families and supporting their communities. 

Out of millions of small-scale miners needing help, fewer than 15K have benefitted from programs designed to help them receive fair prices and work in safer conditions.

A big part of the reason for this is the "ethical jewelry" recycled gold big lie. A secondary reason is that refiners mark up this gold, making it unaffordable, but that’s a different story

 

PART 2: Gold That Has Positive Impact to the World

 

Some jewelers say that using recycled gold is a transition product. It’s better than using newly mined gold.    As a product itself, I have no objection to using recycled gold and offer it as an option for customers who do not want to pay for more ethically sourced gold. 

Many of my customers use gold which I purchase at 93% of its spot value to pay for their job.  I end up selling some of it to buy Fairtrade gold, but often I refine it into pure 24K gold and use for new jobs.

What I object to is the branding of recycled gold as ethical or green.

There is one condition where using recycled gold actually is the best choice.

Certain gold with great symbolic value can be used to create brand new designs. Here’s a before and after photo showing how we used old wedding and engagement rings passed down through a family to make new pieces:

We can turn a customer's old gold, wedding rings, or jewelry into brand one one-of-a-kind custom jewelry creations.

 

I’ve done hundreds of projects like this over my 26 years as a jeweler. 

Gold from Grandpa's wedding ring has infinite sentimental value, but using it has zero social or environmental value. 

The reason why I oppose ALL narratives that elevate recycled gold is simple: positioning recycled gold jewelry as the ethical solution is not only  greenwashing-- it actively damaging to programs that would actually allow the people of the land to benefit from the resources on the land.  

Specifically, I'm talking about Fairtrade or Fairmined gold.

Here’s why: 

Take a look at this video I took in Tanzania. This small scale miner is mixing gold in water and mercury, poisoning himself. 

 

Gold is mixed with mercury because mercury creates an amalgam of mercury and gold, as shown in this photo:

This little nugget is what an amalgam of gold and mercury looks like.

 

Small-scale miners typically burn off the mercury often using their frying pans, producing methylmercury — one of the most dangerous neurotoxins known to man.

Small-scale gold mining is the #1 contributor to global mercury pollution.

In the UK, where the ethical jewelry sector doesn’t mislead the public, no serious jeweler would advocate for recycled gold. Fairtrade Gold is the choice for over three hundred jewelers. They want to help small-scale miners. 

But in the US, there’s only one Fairtrade Gold jeweler. Full disclosure — it’s me. There are a few more Fairmined jewelers, which are similar in their gold programs to Fairtrade. 

At certified Fairtrade Gold mines, miners are paid about 99% of spot value for their gold — typically 25%+ more than what they had been earning. Plus, mining communities receive an additional US $2000 premium per kilo of gold.

The families of Fairtrade Gold miners benefit tremendously from the increased wages miners earn — as well as from the social premium that is invested into community projects.

The families of miners at Macdesa also benefit from fair wages and community premiums.

 

A democratic system determines how this premium is spent. Typically, it goes to projects such as healthcare and education.

Our current source for Fairtrade Gold is Macdesa, a mine located in Peru. (Read their story here!)

These Fairtrade Gold miners are part of the Esperanza Miners' Association in Peru.

A team of truly empowered Fairtrade miners from the Esperanza Miners' Association in Peru.

 

By keeping mercury out of streams, rivers, and groundwater, Fairtrade Gold brings huge benefit to the Earth — and all of us living here.

Small-scale mining through Fairtrade requires less waste than large-scale mining to produce gold for a wedding ring.

Large mining operations can crush over 160 tons of rock to get an ounce of gold. That means the gold used to create a single wedding ring might generate 100,000 pounds of mine tailings (waste). 

Small-scale mining often takes place in areas where there is an ounce of gold per ton of dirt. That means the gold used to create a Fairtrade Gold wedding ring might cause a mere 500 pounds of mine tailings.

Here’s what’s really great: 

Fairtrade Gold allows you to align the sourcing of your wedding ring with its beautiful symbolism.

Fairtrade Gold allows to you align the sourcing of your wedding ring with its beautiful symbolism.

 

Marc Choyt is president of Reflective Jewelry, a designer jewelry company founded in 1995. He pioneered the ethical sourcing movement in North America and is also the only certified Fairtrade Gold jeweler in the United States. Choyt’s company was named Santa Fe New Mexico’s Green Business of the Year in 2019, and he has been honored with several awards for his efforts to support ethical jewelry. His ebook, Ethical Jewelry Exposé: Lies, Damn Lies and Conflict Free Diamonds, is available online. Choyt can be reached on Twitter at @Circlemanifesto or by email at marc(at)reflectivejewelry.com.

 



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Comments ( 8)

Posted by: Ian Nicholson on Jul 27, 2018
While this article is great and informative, you (again, as I have posted on your page before about this) have seriously failed to fly the responsible flag by stating that only Fairtrade is the choice. Fairmined is not only equally as responsible but it gives a better premium back to its miners and artisnal communities and is available in silver too.
Posted by: Lisa on Mar 16, 2019
Whilst I agree with certain points regarding the pros of fair trade/fairmined gold, I fail to see how your claim that using recycled gold has no environmental benefit is accurate? Gold is a finite natural resource, the mining and refining of which (whether mined fairtrade or otherwise) has massive environmental implications. The process of recycling existing gold already in circulation has dramatically less environmental implications (although it is still acknowledged that it’s not entirely “carbon neutral” nor does it have a positive environmental impact, it is most certainly less than the process of mining and refining). Yes, the use of recycled gold may not reduce the amount of gold being produced by mines, and yes you cannot be sure that the gold was originally mined ethically, but it is false to say that there are no positive environmental implications of using existing gold in circulation over disrupting habitats to mine new gold
Posted by: on May 17, 2019
I don't claim that recycled gold has zero environmental benefit. What I do claim is that it has zero impact on small scale mining. This is a critical point and difficult to grasp because in other industries, such as paper, reuse does reduce demand. Because of gold's unique qualities as a currency hedge, it will be mined. While the viability of large scale mining is subject to spot price , small scale miners will mine because it is the only way for them to feed their families. A decision to choose a recycled gold ring versus a fairtrade gold ring means that you're not supporting an initiative that alleviates poverty and reduces global mercury contamination.
Posted by: Sacha on May 17, 2019
I'm currently writing a thesis on the subject and found your article. You don't give much sources except the one that serves you. Recycling gold saves 80% of the CO2 impact (source : https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/bf03214988.pdf), not only it brings down environmental impact of making a ring but it also helps to recycle electronic wastes and creates new jobs and new industries. Social, environmental and economic justice will come by giving to these communities the opportunity of learning how to recycle what we have instead of destroying landscapes, forests, ecosystems, for the sake of pretending helping communities "because it is the only way for them to survive". Please show me a study that will demonstrate that in Macdesa in Peru people would die if they couldn't extract gold. To me it sounds as some greenwashing, playing on customers feelings to make them feel good, as if small scale mining with illegal practices going against environment and people wellbeing could make a drastic change by giving back 5% of the gold price (2.000$ / kg when current gold price is 40.000 $ / kg). Please don't get me wrong, it's a great initiave, but don't pretend that's the only way and don't try to shame other companies. Something is better than nothing, you have no real fact to justify your position and you should focus on what you do and can do better, not on explaning to people what they should think about other initiatives.
Posted by: Marc Choyt on May 17, 2019
Thanks so much for your comment. It’s awesome you’re doing research on this topic. We’re in agreement that recycled gold is critical at all phases— whether that be electronics, dentistry or jewelry. Regarding that 80% stat in Co2 reduction, I did not see any analysis in that breakdown that distinguishes between large scale and small-scale mining because the carbon impact between those two is not the same. Nevertheless, we should recycled as much as we can. jewelers have been recycling gold as long as jewelry has been made. 90% of recycled gold already comes from jewelry (https://www.gold.org/about-gold/gold-supply) So, the current linkage between recycled gold as eco-friendly gold jewelry does not represent any significant change in how jewelry’s been made, except in one regard: there is now third-party certification on that the supply is 100% recycled gold. Many jewelry suppliers of mill products also recycle gold and rebrand that gold as eco-friendly gold. That gold, however, is still untraceable to source and is essentially dirty gold at its origin. So it has, as you say, “destroyed landscapes, forests, ecosystems.” The industry gets an initiative which creates a great consumer facing narrative while making no changes to their supply chain, and that is one of my core critiques about ethical initiatives. I go into this argument in detail in The Ethical Jewelry Expose: Lies, Damn Lies and Conflict Free Diamonds. It’s a 45,000 word journalistic piece that’s published on my website. Obviously the people in MacDesa would not die, but had they not been supported they might still be eating mercury. Small scale mining pours over 1000 tons of mercury into the environment. https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/news-centre/news/2019/-180-million-investment-on-gold-mining-to-tackle-health-and-envi.html. That’s 40% of the annual total. In the US alone, 300,000 babies are born annually with mercury contamination. Also, small scale miners live exploited and impoverished lives. Fairtrade gold changes has environmental and social standards that eliminate poverty, child labor, mercury contamination etc etc. Perhaps my most important argument is that recycled gold does stop small scale mining. These 20 to 25 million people mine to survive and they are going to use mercury to refine and children who would be better off going to school. Ethical jewelry sourcing, in my view, should aim to improve the lives of small scale producers.
Posted by: Lucia Alfonso on Aug 31, 2021
Hi Sacha, did you finish your Thesis? We are trying to source jewelry brands that have the lowest sustainability impacts. We were going with recycled gold and/or fairtrade/mined, but would love to get your opinion and feedback around this.
Posted by: Yahaira on Feb 24, 2021
WOW! Thank you so much for writing this entry. I graduated college March 2020 with a BA in Jewelry Design and there were no courses on this topic at my school. I have had to do my own research and have felt so confused along the way. Making jewelry inspires me so much, but I am also so disturbed by the shadow side behind all the glitter. I feel frustrated seeing so many jewelry brands claim to be "eco-friendly", "ethical", or "sustainable" while bypassing so much that needs to be said and addressed all which you have shared here. Thank you for all this info because it makes me feel more inclined to speak up and out. Something I still don't understand is why more retailers don't use/sell fairtrade gold? I also have questions about silver....
Posted by: Marc Choyt on Jul 12, 2021
Thanks for your kind words about the article! These days, more and more people are waking up to the need to help small scale miners. Spread the word!