When we think of gold mining for many of us it is the image of people working alluvial deposits that comes to mind. The old Western movies show us gold prospectors standing in river beds, scooping up water and mud in wide pans and slowly swirling the water and mud out to reveal nuggets of gold. And that is still the most ecologically friendly way of extracting gold from the earth. It uses naturally available resources with minimal disruption for the environment. 

Image: fairtrade.org.uk 


More aggressive techniques involve digging pits or breaking up hard rock to extract the gold ore for further processing. This involves pumping up ground water and sometimes toxic mercury is used to separate the gold from the ore. These techniques are used in small scale operations called artisanal mining as well as large commercial excavations. Often the entire community is involved in the mines, including children. There are approximately 40 million people working in artisanal and small-scale mining and Human Rights Watch estimates that includes approximately 1 million children. 

The World Gold Council indicates steady growth of the industry in developing countries over the past 20 years. Unfortunately most of these mines don’t comply with regulations and work with poor safety and environmental standards. The World Bank estimates artisanal and small-scale gold mines produce about 20 percent of the world’s mined gold. The annual gold supply from the artisanal and small-scale mining sector is equivalent to approximately 500 tonnes, with a market value of almost $29 billion, according to a UN report. 

However, tracing gold from mine to finished product along the global supply chain is complicated as different batches of metals are often mixed together at the refineries. By the time the final piece is in the shop window it is difficult to say whether the original gold came from a war zone or was mined by a child. Only about 2% of the large jewellery producers have the budget to trace metals to their source. It is getting the remaining 98% of the industry consisting of smaller makers that don’t have such budgets to change their ways of sourcing gold that is the challenge. 

That said, there are a number of initiatives working on turning the tide in favour of more sustainable practices. From efforts of individual miners to sell their ethically mined gold directly to the large jewellery houses, to cooperative efforts such as Fairtrade Gold and Fairmined Gold, many trail blazers are now finally beginning to gain traction in industry, particularly with the smaller makers.

image credit: fairtrade.org.uk


Fairmined gold

Fairmined gold is a certification that guarantees the metal was mined in a responsible manner and that its miners have received fair payment and an overall premium. The standard was defined in 2011 by the Alliance for Responsible Mining (Arm), a non-profit organisation that supports artisanal and small-scale mining communities in Latin America. In 2022, Fairmined miners sold some 130kg of gold, according to Olga Rojas, a spokesperson for Fairmined and Arm.

ARM and Fairmined connect certified responsible mines with gold buyers. It can take 10-24 months to obtain a Fairmined certificate to sell gold, after which miners receive a premium of $4 per gramme of gold, says Rojas. If miners obtain an ecological certification that ensures no cyanide or other chemicals were used during extraction, they receive $6 a gramme.

Miners often make contact through social networks such as Facebook to ask for assistance to become certified, says Rojas. A team of engineers is then sent to investigate. Arm currently works with eight fully certified mines, employing around 2,000 miners. Since 2015, Nobel Peace Prize medals have been produced with Fairmined gold from small-scale mines in Colombia and Peru.

Fairtrade gold 

Fairtrade Standards ensure fairer terms of trade between producers and buyers, protect workers' rights, and provide the framework for producers to build thriving businesses. Over 6000 products are governed by the Fairtrade standards including gold 2011. Fairtrade Standards are in line with Fairmined gold certification.

Fairtrade gold wedding band with Canadamark diamonds by Diana Porter

The ethical gold initiative represented a sea of change in the jewellery industry and, for the first time ever, put the needs of artisanal miners first. 

Nuggets by Grant

On another front, Nuggets by Grant is a US business founded in 2013 that sells gold from placer miners — small artisanal mining communities that extract the ore using eco-friendly methods and without slave labour or unethical practices. Clean extraction techniques are used, rather than pit or hard rock mining, which are detrimental to social systems and environments. 

California gold nugget by Nuggets by Grant


Nuggets by Grant offers buyers the option to purchase location-specific gold nuggets of various sizes and shapes. They source from regions such as Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon. The business works with small mining communities to reclaim land — areas that have been mined to an ecologically functional or economically usable state — and return it to life.

The last mile

The last mile is where additional issues can arise: mass produced jewellery made at best by machine, at worst by young hands under terrible conditions, is readily available. Economically priced it appears attractive at first glance, but experience shows these pieces lose their shine quickly as they are not built to last. 

In an attempt to remain competitive, large jewellery manufacturers, but also the tech industry demand a discount on their gold. Realistically the only way to achieve this is to buy from regions troubled with political instability or war, and unregulated, terrible mining conditions. Though even in tech changes are afoot with companies like fairphone using a variety of Fairtade metals in their phones.

Fairphone uses a range of fairtrade metals in their smartphonesFairphone uses a number of Fairtrade metals to build their smartphones 

Closer to home, there are many designers for whom ethical sourcing is just as important as getting the design right - such as Ronan Campbell and Diana Porter who use Fairtrade Gold for their premium designs. Most other makers at DesignYard are using recycled gold from reputable sources - that is scrapped gold that has been refined to investment grade gold (999), casting grain, and sheet or wire for use in jewellery or in fact the electronics industries. 

Spinel and 18k fairtrade rose gold ring by Diana Porter

Buying from designer-makers that produce their designs by hand or in small batches locally ensures you reduce the carbon footprint of your pieces. This level of control over the process ensures that their Fairmined gold does not get mixed with precious metal from other sources. You can rest assured that the pieces were made in accordance with local labour laws offering a strong level of protection.

Medeum Bezel diamond ring by Ronan Campbell at Designyard contemporary jewellery gallery Dublin IrelandEmerald cut Medeum Bezel ring in 18k fairtrade gold by Ronan Campbell

Although there is much room for change in the gold industry regarding responsibly and sustainably producing gold for various uses, many useful initiatives are in place that customers can avail of now. Besides asking for their jewellery to be made from sustainable and ethical sources, consumers can play their own part by remodeling or reworking gold items they already own

Bangle made from customer's old gold and set with reclaimed diamonds 

Handmade jewellery that is responsibly sourced and ethically produced does come at a premium and the challenge is to make sure the consumer understands and values this.

Curious to see our collections of ethically sourced jewellery in person? Book you appointment here:

December 10, 2023 — Ronan Campbell