When you have a closer look at the environmental cost of gold extraction and balance it with its usefulness, you conclude that you would rather leave it in the earth’s crust and use recycled gold or an alternative metal when possible.
Mining is essential to our lives. There is no economic development without mineral extraction. You simply cannot transport electricity without copper, build cars without steel, or manufacture aircrafts without aluminum. But what about gold? Is the “king of metals” as strategic as its non-precious subjects? What are its contributions to our daily life? Whether held in jewelry or as an investment, the “metal of the kings” is not a staple commodity. It is not essential to our development (55% is used in jewelry, 35% for investment, and 10% for industrial use). Our world would continue to operate without its extraction knowing that current above the ground stocks represent 60 times the volume extracted in 2014; i.e., more than enough to meet the small needs of the electronic industry for many years to come (279 tons in 2014 or 0,15% of the above the ground stocks), its sole essential use.
This being said, why do we mine gold? In a country like Switzerland (#3 in the 2014 HDI index ranking) in 2012, the village of Medel voted against approving an exploration license to tap a gold deposit in the Grisons Mountains estimated at 25 tons of the yellow precious metal. In producing countries, an increasing part of the population opposes gold mining because of its high environmental impact (usually the extraction of one ounce of gold emits 1 ton of Greenhouse Gas, GHG, the most common environment metrics, which makes 32 tons for one kilogram) and its poor perceived benefits for the producing economies. I would rather agree with Medelians that gold is not worth to mine if its environmental cost would not be compensated by fair economic impacts. Therefore, we could rather use recycled gold that does not contaminate but does not bring any development neither.
But that is the perception; let’s go a little deeper and explore the reality behind mined gold. First, you have industrial mining known as LSM (large-scale mining). LSM is known to be gluttonous on investments and poor on employment. According to a recent WGC study on 15 LSM companies with operations in 25 countries representing 28% of the world mining output, one industry employee or contractor produces yearly 3,6 kilograms of gold generating, based on 1 ton per ounce GHG emission data, 115 tons of GHG. One kilogram of LSM gold would then have a social footprint of 0,3 jobs for an environmental one of 32 tons of GHG; a ratio of 1:107. In a more familiar metric, one wedding ring containing 5 grams of pure gold from LSM would generate half a day of revenue for an employee or contractor and would emit 160 kilograms of GHG.
On the artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) side, the situation is quite different. First, the perception of ASM as a nuisance is very high in the producing countries. Mercury, child labor, dangerous working conditions among others are a reality for ASM. Now, assuming one kilogram of ASM gold does not emit more GHG than a LSM one which should be the case knowing the very low mechanization that characterizes the sector (no research has been made on the GHG footprint of ASM gold), its social impact is quite high. There are an estimated 15 million ASM gold miners in the world producing approximately 470 tons of gold (15% of the world output). This means that one ASM gold miner produces one ounce of gold per year in average and thus emits one ton of GHG (in EU we emit yearly 10 tons per capita and 17 tons in the US). One kilogram of ASM gold would have a social footprint of 32 jobs for 32 tons of GHG; a ratio of 1:1. Going back to our wedding ring, if made of ASM gold, it would represent 2 months of revenue for a miner with an environmental footprint of 160 kilograms of GHG.
So, if you were to marry, what would you choose? For me, it’s a no brainer: a pair of ASM gold rings! It gives more sense to gold extraction as you provide jobs in the extractive countries and stimulate the local economy. Almost the entire value of ASM gold is spent nationally. So if it is distributed fairly, it becomes a terrific development tool. One question remains: how do we avoid or minimize the negative effects of ASM like mercury, child labor, security, conflict, etc.? I would say through two axes. First, with voluntary public policies that must include formalization, capacity building, technology transfer and access to market plans. Second, through certification that will guarantee consumers and businesses along the supply chain the conditions of ASM gold extraction. For instance, by requiring Fairmined certified ASM gold, the consumer, or jeweler would be guaranteed that mercury is used in a monitored way according to the recent Minamata convention requirements, that child labor is eradicated from the certified mines, that internationally admitted mining H&S regulations are in place and that the gold is conflict free according to the OECD guidance for conflict minerals.
So with that guarantee, by buying these certified ASM gold rings, the newlyweds would be contributing to the development of the extracting countries generating many jobs in the respect of the environment. And as those rings could be more expansive, they would buy a 4 grams one instead of a 5 grams to offset this difference in price due to the traceability it requires. I think that a slightly thinner ring that can claim such development properties is much more stylish than a larger one with a poorer social impact. So let’s recycle our wedding rings and buy ASM certified ones!