What Qualifies as ‘Recycled’ Gold?


Over the last few years, companies from Pandora to Prada have pledged to only use recycled gold in their jewellery, pitching the decision as a way to reduce environmental impact and ensure ethical production. But as interest in the material has increased, so has criticism from a chorus of industry insiders and sustainability advocates who argue that, under current standards, recycled gold doesn’t mean much at all in terms of sustainability and that stricter definitions are needed to avoid greenwashing.

Melting down and re-using metal that’s already in circulation has a lower environmental footprint than mining new ore, a carbon and water-intensive process that has also been linked to mercury pollution, labour exploitation and dangerous working conditions. But critics argue that gold is so valuable that it’s always been reprocessed and growing demand for certified recycled sources of the metal has so far done nothing to reduce mined volumes.

The debate burst into the open this week when the Precious Metals Impact Forum, a multi-stakeholder initiative that has been lobbying to toughen up how recycled gold is classified, published an open letter lambasting strong opposition from actors within the industry it claims are pushing to water down proposed new standards.

The bust-up has become so hostile, that PMIF founder Sabrina Karib says she’s had to leave a working group on the issue at the International Organisation for Standardisation, a usually staid NGO focused on developing codes of industrial and corporate best practice. The chair of ISO’s committee for jewellery and precious metals, Jonathan Jodry, acknowledged there have been tensions. The organisation’s role is to produce clear, workable standards that balance the interests of all parties, he said.

What Should Count as Recycled Gold?

Critics argue the definition of recycled gold is so loose that any gold that’s been reprocessed — even if it was mined just a few days earlier and has never come into contact with a consumer — can be sold under the label, giving recycled gold a “green halo” it doesn’t deserve.

There are supply chain issues, too. The origins of recycled gold are tricky to trace beyond refineries, amplifying the risk that gold with dubious provenance could make it into the supply chain. And there’s concern that promoting recycled gold draws attention away from opportunities to address social and economic issues affecting vulnerable small-scale miners and their communities.

The PMIF launched in 2022 aiming to address these issues. Last year, it chaired a multi-stakeholder working group that included trade organisation Responsible Jewellery Council in an effort to produce a new definition of recycled gold. The group concluded that gold should only be classed as recycled if it had been “recovered from any product containing less than two percent of gold in weight” and if it was “destined to be discarded.” This would apply to material found in e-waste, smartphones for example. Otherwise, said the PMIF, it should be “reprocessed.”

The definition was initially endorsed by the RJC as an update to its own standards, which are currently being revised. But it’s now been dropped from the proposal, according to Karib. The RJC has yet to publish its latest revision. At the same time, a working group at the ISO is consulting on a new definition that would allow for “pre-consumer recycled gold” and “post-consumer recycled gold.” This could be standardised by the end of this year, although no brand or refiner would be legally obliged to adopt it.

Karib said the RJC changed its mind about endorsing PMIF’s definition under pressure from its members, some of whom stood to gain from a less strict definition. “Refiners [of recycled gold] want to ensure they have volumes to provide to their clients, but there is this belief that if we call it something other than recycled, brands won’t want it,” Karib told The Business of Fashion.

One RJC member that opposed the PMIF’s definition is C. Hafner, a German refiner that produces unfinished recycled gold components for luxury brands and that is also represented on the ISO’s working group. Dr Philipp Reisert, the company’s chief executive, said the definition was arbitrary and also acknowledged that as brands move to recycled gold in a bid to meet ambitious carbon emissions reduction targets, his business could benefit. “We are becoming more important to our clients than we were,” he said. Reisert said the carbon footprint of recycled gold is around a thousand times lower than mined gold.

For its part, the RJC told The Business of Fashion it had to listen to its 1,600 members. “We work across the whole supply chain,” said Melanie Grant, the organisation’s executive director. “Everyone has a different opinion and a different approach.”

However, Grant agreed a new definition was needed. “We want to avoid bad actors using the term recycled to greenwash illegitimate gold,” she said. “We’re all trying to align as closely as possible without making the definition so tight that it can’t be practised, but not so loose that people have too much wiggle room.”

The ISO said it was obliged to produce a standard that could be applied across sectors. “All the experts have to keep in mind that they can’t write something that fits their needs or their own industry needs,” said Jodry, who serves as group business development director at Swiss precious metals refiner Metalor in addition to chairing the ISO working group for the sector. “We don’t [just] consider waste something that is being thrown away, we consider waste something that has no value for the user,” he added.

But the ISO’s definitions have caused a backlash, too. Damian Oettli, head of markets at WWF Switzerland and author of a report published last year that praised the PMIF’s definition, dismissed them. “They’re a wolf in sheep’s skin, a highly sophisticated word turning exercise,” he said. “If we reduce the possibility to claim recycled gold, then we can improve the accountability in the supply chains and reduce the impact of gold mining.”

Aurelia Figueroa, Breitling’s chief sustainability officer, who was part of the PMIF’s working group, agreed. “The ISO’s terms require footnotes,” she said. “Anyone making claims in the sustainability space owes it to the consumer to make them accessible and not to speak in jargon.”

What’s in a Name?

The impasse leaves many brands with a headache. “It’s become a war of recycled versus non-recycled, a semantic issue,” said jewellery designer Monica Vinader, who has spent years overhauling her supply chain to source only certified recycled gold. “We should not care about what we’re calling it, but where it’s come from. For me, that should be the focus.”

Vinader said she’s now rethinking her approach, as the loopholes and limitations in the sustainability claims linked to recycled gold become clearer. A perfect solution doesn’t exist, but it’s likely in the future the company will take a more blended approach to sourcing, she said.

For Pandora, the world’s biggest jewellery buyer, the switch to recycled gold is one plank in its ambitions to reduce carbon emissions. The company said it adheres to the “strictest standard in the industry” for recycled metals, the RJC’s chain of custody, and will always use the best standards available. Prada declined to comment.

Luxury giant LVMH is also keen to see more granularity around the origins of recycled gold, primarily because it will help support stronger processes and controls over a complex supply chain. “We believe gold is not responsible because it is recycled, we believe gold is responsible because it has been responsibly sourced,” the company said. “Of course it’s a bit more complex to explain to clients and stakeholders but that’s the reality of the gold supply chain.”

The dispute continues. For Karib, the outcomes of the RJC and ISO’s ongoing consultations will set the process of making responsible recycled gold back years. “Instead of addressing it, we’re hiding the problem under the carpet, and it’s going to become bigger,” she said.

Disclosure: LVMH is part of a group of investors who, together, hold a minority interest in The Business of Fashion. All investors have signed shareholders’ documentation guaranteeing BoF’s complete editorial independence.

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