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The Toxic Gold Mining Industry Goes Fairtrade

Traditionally, gold mining has been a messy, toxic business that leaves scars on the earth and mercury in the atmosphere. But the practice may get a bit cleaner with the growing Fairtrade gold certification, announced last year. successThe new standard, labeled as Fairtrade and Fairmined, sets social, environmenta,l and economic criteria to eliminate child labor, minimize or halt the use of toxic mercury and cyanide, and avoid the havoc mining usually visits upon the environment. It also aims to help the 100 million people, usually poor, who depend directly or indirectly on artisanal and small-scale gold mining with a minimum price and premium for Fairmined gold.

A handful of companies are already seeking to produce under the standard. Green Leaf Gold is among the most active, promising "jewelry that is ethically sourced and produced with no mercury or cyanide." The company says it is helping train miners to become more responsible and develop more sustainable businesses that will outlive the mine, as well as paying almost double the average salaries (about $300) to its first small mines in South America.responsibleSo far, Fairtrade gold is only coming out of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, according to Fairtrade. But within the next two years mines in Latin America, Asia, and Africa are set to join the standard, along with a growing number of retailers who sell their jewelry under the label, including Cred and Brilliant Earth.

Still, this won't make gold a "green" metal overnight. Fairtrade only covers small-scale and artisanal mining—about 15% of the global gold supply—and not the industrial-scale mines that supply the majority of the world's precious metals, so it only has a limited impact on the gold supply for now.

[Image: Wikipedia]

Reach Michael J. Coren via Twitter or email.

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  • Larry Bohlen

    Bruce (above) has a good point. Centralized, large scale production can apply the most efficient technologies due to economies of scale. Most of the people in gold mining today - about 10 to 15 million small scale, artisanal miners - cannot afford or do not have access to this kind of technology. They will continue to mine, just as small land holders in developing countries continue to farm, to feed their families. The Fairtrade price premium could provide a boost to the smaller producers to adopt cleaner technologies like mercury retorts and gravity methods. For a primer on the challenges the majority of miners face, see the Artisanal Gold Council's "Profitable Transition" slide show at
     - Larry Bohlen, President, Green Leaf Gold

  • Hume.Atelier

    Our studio has been involved in the development of Fairtrade gold since 2006, and have been certified by Fairtrade International to supply Fairtrade gold since the metal hit the market this past February. 

    While small-scale and artisanal mining (ASM) only produces 10-15% of the world's gold, ASM miners make up 90% of the world's gold extraction labour force. In other words, supporting ASM standards creates opportunity and reduces vulnerability for a lot of people.

    Fairtrade gold has been very successful thus far in Europe, we hope that North America eventually follows suit.

  • bruce.cavender

    Industrial-scale consumers of precious metals have been preferentially purchasing metal from companies with rigorous sustainable development practices for some time. For example, Tiffany's requires substantial verification of these practices, as does Wal-Mart for their "Love, Earth" jewelry line.

    Mercury is used by artisanal miners, but cyanide is used by nearly all primary gold producers. By using cyanide, the miners are able to safely extract a larger proportion of the metal from the ore. Given the impact a mine makes on the surrounding area, I want to see the miners squeeze everything they can out of that one mine--rather than start multiple mines, each more poorly operated, to gain the same quantity of product.