Most of us have heard of blood diamonds, but how many have heard of dirty gold? Mining for precious metals more often than not fuels environmental destruction, mercury poisoning, gender inequality, child labor, economic exploitation, and endangers the health and safety of workers. Over 100 million people worldwide depend on mining for their livelihood. Small-scale mining is largely poverty driven, meaning awareness and aid toward ethical practices is low. However, many of these mining operations see mining as the best way to strengthen their communities, and are actively looking to lead the way for responsible mining. There are no easy answers to these complex issues, but the voice for change within the industry has been growing stronger and stronger, resulting in an increase in legislation and consumer awareness. With the right support and incentives, small community mining organizations offer the greatest opportunity for positive social and environmental change.
In 2006, Toby Pomeroy sparked a revolution in the jewelry industry by creating a line of recycled metals. It all began while Toby was fly fishing in a favorite Oregon coastal river and had a thought: Why not ask my refiner to purify previously used scrap gold and silver separately from newly mined metals, then create jewelry from these reclaimed metals. He called Torry Hoover of Hoover & Strong refiners who, after some deliberation, accepted the request. Toby’s intention was to give designers, manufacturers, and retailers reclaimed metals they could be proud of and put pressure on the mining industry, sending a message the world cares how we are treating the planet and its people. While this breakthrough has by now become a well-established choice for sustainable jewelry, it is no longer enough.
Recently, many in the industry have committed to lab-grown gems and recycled materials in order to reduce their ecological footprint. This could be considered a step in the right direction, but the fact is high-volume companies cannot source enough truly ethical materials to meet their needs in the current market. Empty green marketing in the industry like this makes us complacent. We hear recycled materials and think that solves the problem, but it is not enough. Gold was never headed toward the landfill, and there is no transparency beyond the last melt. We cannot verify where the recycled gold comes from, and it is easy enough to mix in dirty gold. Christina Miller, founder of Christina T. Miller Sustainable Jewelry Consulting and co-founder of Ethical Metalsmiths, poignantly explains this issue and more in her interview with JCK.
This article by Fairmined also questions sustainability claims, using the United Nations’ definition of sustainability as economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection as a framework to ask exactly how jewelers source materials to benefit those three categories.
As the jewelry industry becomes more invested in sustainability, it is an acknowledgement that the jewelry industry has a problem. Some are attempting real change, while others are simply tweaking their marketing. Unfortunately this distortion and lack of radical transparency makes it difficult for the consumer to know what is really going on. Bottom line, be wary and ask questions. Go with small companies that will actually show you proof of their sourcing and explain why they are doing things a certain way.
A pioneer in sustainable mining, Toby Pomeroy is the North American board member for the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM), founded in 2004 in Colombia. Our shared vision is for artisanal and small-scale mining to become a formalized, organized, and profitable activity that uses efficient technologies and markets to improve socially and environmentally responsible supply chains. To achieve this we need to collaborate with the whole supply chain: miners, legislators, industry bodies and buyers. ARM’s stakeholder alliance is the largest in the field and represents the diverse perspectives of different groups, with a shared agenda. In collaboration with these global stakeholders, ARM developed the Fairmined Standard for Gold and Associated Precious Metals to support sustainable development of artisanal and small-scale mining communities. The standard includes requirements to ensure responsible mining operations, environmental protection, ethical labor conditions, traceability of fairmined minerals, and socio-economic development through paying certified mining communities a fairmined premium for their precious metals.
Toby Pomeroy Studios’ fairmined metals (TRUE GOLD), and select gems aim to improve the entire supply chain, from the beginning of the mining process to the end result in our jewelry. Over the years, we have worked closely with ARM and artisanal mines to obtain our fairmined materials, ideally from a single source, ensuring there was no mercury or cyanide used in the mining process. These materials are as traceable, clean, and transparent as you could get in the jewelry industry. As of 2021, the best we are able to provide in our wedding ring and band lines are a blended Certified Fairmined Gold, and recycled gold with an unknown source.
Consumer dollars drive the market. By supporting small studios, and the Alliance for Responsible Mining, and transparent supply chains, you fortify this voice of change. You are investing in social development and environmental protection by demonstrating that the jewelry market is calling for responsible, ethical practices, both socially and environmentally. You support ethical labor conditions, fairness, and community empowerment. This is gold to be proud of.
Toby continues to spearhead the charge for truly sustainable practices with his organization Mercury Free Mining. The following resources host a wealth of information on sustainability in the jewelry industry.