Fairtrade gold

A new gold standard


John Childs takes a look at the launch of Fairtrade gold.


Fairtrade gold was supposed to be impossible. At least that’s what Michael Barratt Brown, Fair Trade pioneer and co-founder of Cafédirect, said in his clarion call heralding the Fair Trade movement’s arrival into the public consciousness in the early 1990s.

Metals and minerals markets were, he argued, too complex to be able to guarantee the supply chain “direct to the final consumer”1. Fast-forward through two decades of Fair Trade success, allied to the hard work of campaigners, experts and miners, and that assumption has been proved false. From February 2011, consumers will be able to buy fully traceable gold jewellery dually certified as both “Fairtrade” and “Fairmined”. This will be the world’s first independent ethical certification system for gold.


The label

The Fairtrade/Fairmined labels’ aim to benefit artisanal and small-scale gold miners who find it hard to achieve a fair price for the gold that they extract. Their work is dangerous, poorly regulated and often environmentally damaging. Moreover, small-scale miners are often characterised in profoundly negative ways.

Media and governments in their home countries are largely unsympathetic to their struggles, instead privileging the rights of multinational mining corporations. Instead, small-scale miners are represented variously as criminal, irrational, or mercenary. In Tanzania, where I have studied small-scale gold miners, they are blamed for anything from environmental destruction to the murder of albinos for body parts. .

It’s against this background that the Fairtrade model promises to mark a radical shift by recasting the figure of the artisanal miner in a positive way, capable of community-driven empowerment. The miner is re-cast as responsible rather than irresponsible, professional rather than irrational, trustworthy rather than opportunistic.


Different mindset

Changing the prevailing attitudes towards small-scale miners and challenging the stereotypes that feed into the marginalisation of millions of miners worldwide is at the heart of efforts to improve their livelihoods. Simply put, miners, and their families, need to be taken seriously in order for serious changes to happen.

Fairtrade gold has emerged through a network of campaigners, experts and, crucially, miners themselves. The collaborative nature of the certification process aims to combine both the marketing experience of the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation with the technical understanding of the Alliance for Responsible Mining (the ‘Fairmined’ element). Through this partnership, gold purchased is guaranteed to have been mined for a fair price, in an environmentally responsible manner and with high levels of labour standards.


New projects

The pilot Fairtrade gold projects are all in South American countries. This is perhaps unsurprising owing to the pre-existing Fairtrade networks in place there. However, Cred Jewellery’s Business Director Christian Cheeseman, who has been instrumental in the development of the Fairtrade standards told Ethical Consumer that plans are afoot to move into other parts of the world. “There are a heck of a lot of opportunities to work in Africa and we are looking into opportunities there,” he notes.

The scope of the movement’s focus is, then, geographically broad. However, artisanal and small-scale mining is, in many countries, usually undertaken  without a license (often for good reason given the high cost of obtaining one), and so effectively operates outside of the law. As Fairtrade will only be open to licensed miners the number of miners that Fairtrade can reach may be limited. Also, informal buying networks that offer prices above the market rate may be seen as a better option for some miners selling gold in certain countries.


The best way

Nevertheless, Fairtrade’s gold certification system is, simply put, the only way to guarantee that gold mined on a small-scale has been done so responsibly. There are, it should be noted, a number of ethical initiatives that attempt to raise the standards prevalent in large-scale mining. Oxfam’s No Dirty Gold campaign, for example, aims to raise consumer awareness of the environmental and human rights abuses that are a feature of certain large-scale mine projects worldwide.

For the consumer looking to buy ethically produced gold there are a number of questions. Should I buy large-scale or small-scale produced gold? Is recycled gold better? Should I even buy gold at all? Fairtrade’s promise of a fully traceable and transparent model offers hope to artisanal and small-scale miners in a long neglected and poverty driven industry.


Reference: 1 Barratt-Brown, M. (1993). Fair Trade: Reform and realities in the International Trading System. London: Zed

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