Fairtrade vs. Recycled Gold

When talking about sustainable gold, you often hear about recycled gold and fairtrade gold. So which is better and how do these two differ: 

Basically, they differ in that recycled gold - as the name suggests - comes from a secondary production cycle, meaning it has already been processed into a product once and is therefore in its secondary lifecycle. Fairtrade gold, on the other hand, is gold from a primary cycle, i.e. the gold was extracted from primary sources, more precisely from gold mines. 
Which is better or worse depends on the evaluation of the different factors - in this blog we show the differences based on social and ecological sustainability.

Recycled Gold

As the name suggests, this is gold that has previously been present in technical devices or jewellery and does not come from mines. 
Since industrial gold mining began in the 1950s, around 198,000 tonnes of gold have been mined. The underground reserves (gold that has not yet been mined) are now estimated at 54,000 tonnes. This means that 80% of the world's gold has already been mined and only 20% is still underground. Surprisingly, most of the gold that has ever been mined is still known to exist, suggesting that gold recycling is an effective way to get "new" gold.
However, difficulties in the recycling rate arise from several factors: 

  • Jewellery has a high sentimental value, so many keep their jewellery without wearing it.

  • Investors see gold as a generational asset and it is passed down from generation to generation without selling the gold.

  • Central banks see gold as important reserves and the trend shows that more gold is bought than sold.

  • Gold is also processed in technical devices, but since this is often unknown, the gold in the technical devices ends up in the rubbish instead of back in the recycling cycle.

Nevertheless, the recycling rate of gold is very high, although the tendency is rather that gold is hoarded. 
How ecologically sustainable - specifically, how much CO2 is saved with recycled gold as opposed to primarily mined gold? The Pforzheim University of Applied Sciences did a study on this and came to the astonishing conclusion that, depending on the purity of the gold delivered, up to 53 kg CO2 per kilogram of recycled gold can be saved. In other words, primary gold from mines consumes up to 307 times more CO2. This is a dramatic difference. If you focus on saving CO2, then recycled gold is clearly the winner.

Now what about social sustainability? While recycled gold saves a massive amount of CO2 in processing, there are risks in social sustainability. On the one hand, the recycling loops are large, which means that it is difficult to limit them, as the previous blog post showed. There we portrayed a case where gold from primary mining in conflict areas ended up in a certified, regulated recycling loop. 

Fairtrade Gold

With recycled gold the recycling takes place industrially and the many communities that depend on artisanal gold mining are left out. Therefore, if you look at social sustainability, recycled gold is worse than fairtrade gold.
That is the main argument for fairtrade gold - when you choose fairtrade gold, you choose to support small-scale mines on which many families and communities depend. 

Fairtrade gold is environmentally worse than recycled gold, but much better if you focus on social sustainability. 

Generally speaking, however, certified gold is always more sustainable (both socially and ecologically) than non-certified gold, whether from large-scale mines or artisanal mines (small-scale mines), as is the case with fairtrade gold.

The primary mining of gold involves the use of chemicals, including very toxic ones such as mercury and cyanide, which pose a very high risk to the environment and the people who work with it. With fairtrade gold, the miners are trained in the use of the chemicals, their working methods are regulated and the chemicals are reduced. In addition to social sustainability, which clearly prevails at fairtrade, there is also an increased environmental awareness, but where gold is difficult to mine, the necessary chemicals are still used.

As in many aspects of sustainability, it very much depends on where you place your individual focus. For those with an eye on social sustainability, fairtrade gold is the first choice - for environmental sustainability, recycled gold is better.

For our jewellery we work with fairtrade gold for the gold plating and for solid gold pieces recycled gold from a recycling loop in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Further information about the origin of our materials here