All That Glitters: Ethical Gold Shines in Canada

GoldApproximately 50 to 100 million people worldwide rely on artisanal and small-scale gold mining for their livelihoods. Because the gold extraction industry is dominated by large-scale mechanized operations, artisanal miners toil at the fringes, often extracting and processing ore by hand and selling their hard-earned gold for less than fair prices. By paying fair minimum prices and setting standards for safe working conditions, environmental protections, women’s rights, and more, ethical gold programs, including Fairtrade, are redefining how precious metals are mined, tracked, and traded.

For Canadians looking for Fairtrade and ethical jewellery, there are more options now than ever before. Jewellers are innovating, finding ways to source high-quality gold, while also ensuring high standards. This results in a better deal for those working to bring gold from the ground to your finger.

Fairtrade Gold in Canada

John Esposito, owner of Malleable Jewellers in Toronto, became a licensed goldsmith with Fairtrade Canada in 2018. Originally from the UK, Esposito is a certified diamond grader and established Malleable in 2017.

“I’ve been in the jewellery industry for almost eight years now, and for me it’s about how I can mobilize my beliefs and ethics around the industry,” Esposito says. “I announced I was going to be using Fairtrade in January 2019, and made it available to the public in March 2019 with six ethically minded rings.”

Esposito says his short-term vision is to use Fairtrade material in all his custom work, and long-term, to use Fairtrade gold in most of his ready-to-wear pieces.

“I’m not going to be able to change the world on my own. However, what I am able to do is help others to create change on a local scale, which will have a global impact,” he says. “But I’m not going to be able to change the consumer’s mindset by creating a piece and giving it an unattainable price. So when I launched my Fairtrade certified jewellery, I positioned the price lower than if it was non-origin gold, because I don’t want people to be scared away from using it.”

In addition to working with Fairtrade gold, Esposito upcycles materials like gemstones, and recycles gold by repurposing the material into new designs. He currently sources his Fairtrade-certified gold from a Peruvian mine through the supply chain Hoover and Strong.

Taking Ownership of Supply ChainsMuseum

Another Toronto-based company, FTJCo, established in 2006, was one of the first jewellers in the world, and the first in North America, to use Fairtrade-certified gold. As a Certified B Corporation, FTJCo has to prove the impact of its business on workers, suppliers, communities, and the environment. 

“We started with our two co-founders, Robin Gambhir and Ryan Taylor, and we’ve grown from there,” says Kesha Frank, FTJCo’s head of production and goldsmith. “Now we’re about 12 people, and we’re female-led, so the company is 80 percent women.”

Frank has been with FTJCo since 2015, and studied jewellery arts at George Brown College. FTJCo’s pricing is competitive and they primarily do engagement and wedding bands. Everything is done in house, including casting and setting. 

“The gold that we use is what we call our 50/50 blend, so it’s 50 percent certified recycled, and 50 percent Just Gold. We feel it marries both the social and environmental responsibilities,” Frank says. 

Just Gold is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and uniquely sourced from a supply chain that FTJCo helped to build with its sister company, Consensas, and IMPACT Transform, an NGO in Ottawa. Consensas is a technology firm led by FTJCo’s co-founder Ryan Taylor, who is a graduate goldsmith and master’s candidate enrolled in OCAD University’s Strategic Foresight and Innovation program.

While offering Fairtrade-certified gold was a good start, for Taylor the next step was creating a flourishing supply chain. Consensas was born out of the fact that small businesses often have difficulty managing the reporting and documentation necessary for various certifications. The company has developed systems to bring minerals to the market with full traceability and measurable impact.

“We were excited about the gold from the DRC because it’s in a conflict-affected area, with lot of challenges, very high risk, and a market that has no Western business access. We saw a real opportunity to be able to prove this idea that you don’t need a label—what you need is trusted data,” Taylor says. “It’s great to feel compelled to do ‘good,’ but where is the evidence that you are? Humanity isn’t a marketing scheme and we must begin to care about the data more than subjectivity, opinions, or fancy labels.”

Consensas and FTJCo emphasize the importance of providing information that is objective, unfalsified, and trackable to prove that materials and products are, in fact, fair trade. “Just Gold is segregated all along our supply chain,” says Frank. “So the gold we get from the refinery is actually the gold that the miners in the DRC physically mined.”

Taylor notes the work being done through Consensas also ensures miners are paid in full. “When the earth produces gold it produces all these other minerals too, which are married together when we dig it up. One of the things being lost to these communities is the value of silver, and silver can take up to 20 percent of the weight of the material they’re exporting,” Taylor says. “These people have been exporting hundreds of kilos of gold, where 20 percent of the weight was fine silver, which also has a value but they were never paid for it. So the ability here is to acknowledge and reconcile value with them. ‘Hey, you sold me $100 in gold, I actually owe you another $8 for silver.’ Although $8 might not seem like a lot, if people are living on less than $1 a day, then these are huge payments back to them.”

With Just Gold, FTJCo is able to give evidence to where their gold comes from.

“No other company or gold program has a fully traceable supply chain like this. Every time I finish a ring I assign it a serial number, and with that serial number the client is able to backtrack with this information and see who mined it on what day, so it’s a measurable impact,” Frank says.

Labels and Claims: The Challenges of Greenwashing

For companies like Malleable and FTJCo, selling Fairtrade-certified gold means they are subject to review and regular reports on their business activities. One of the issues, however, is that some businesses market themselves as “fair trade” without proper certification.

“You can’t really call anything fair trade unless it’s certified, and greenwashing is something that we’re starting to see in our industry,” Frank says. “In a perfect world, more people would understand the difference between ‘fair trade’ and ‘Fairtrade.’ Fairtrade means it’s certified, but the term ‘fair trade’ doesn’t necessarily mean anything. People are starting to throw around terms and that’s confusing for clients, because they’ll see ‘fair trade,’ but that company can’t necessarily tell you how or why.”

For the time being, ethical gold continues to grow in accessibility, and for Esposito, the choice to buy and sell Fairtrade gold is a natural one.

“This is an option that is accessible and has an impact on a local and global scale,” Esposito says. “For me, this isn’t just another aspect to my business, this is within my cycle, my ethos. I would like to see this become more readily available with more jewellers on board through the process—that’s my vision.”

Author: Naomi Zurevinski is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher based in Saskatoon.

Originally published in Fair Trade Magazine – Summer/Fall 2019 Edition

*Image copyright ILO / Minette Rimando