Labelling and certification

The world market around sustainable alternatives is moving; certification is seen as a key to design sustainable standards, and also in the mining industry such forces are on the move. Initiatives to this regard originate from conventional and non-conventional groups.

Initiatives for more socially and ecologically responsible mining of precious methods already exist; however, a general international certificate for ‘green’ precious metals does not. So far, initiatives can set their own terms and rules that are to be followed to obtain the label. What they all have in common is their concern about human rights, consultations, information, safe and secure labor conditions, expropriation, waste dumping, fair wages and profits for local communities, no-go zones for ecologically sensitive areas, and regulation around chemical use and abuse. Some initiatives are more progressive than others. 

We can categorize initiatives into those falling in the conventional and those falling in the non-conventional sector:

The Conventional Sector

The International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) was founded in 1999 by nine mining and metal companies, who gathered to prepare for the international summit concerning sustainable development in Johannesburg (2002). The main goals of the ICMM were to design norms for ‘good practices’ concerning environmental and human rights in mining, and in this way promote sustainable development.

A second initiative from the conventional sector was the Responsible Jewelry Council (RJC). This council deals with broader goals and values than the ICMM; concerning human rights, labor rights and anti-corruption, amongst others. The RJC should be looked upon as an umbrella organisation for multinationals from the conventional sector. The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) was founded in 2006, and aims to go even further with a system of independent third party control mechanisms, based on volunteers, NGO’s, civil society and human rights organizations.

The RJC recently released a new standard: the RJC’s code of practices and Chain-of-Custody. At the London Olympics 2012, Rio Tinto was the first company to be certified by the RJC. United Steelworkers and the London Mining Network addressed an open letter to RJC to protest against this decision, given the highly desputed reputation of Rio Tinte.

The Non-Conventional Sector

Non-conventional initiatives can again be divided into two different types: those striving towards fair trade mechanisms (a fair price for workers, a decent working environment, sustainable development, and social rights) and those concerned with minimal ecological impact of mining (less water use, avoiding deforestation, no chemical use, and recovery of the mine site). Ideally, of course, an initiative would take both social and ecological aspects into consideration.

The most important initiative is currently the Fair Trade/Fair Mined (FT-FM) standard of ARM-FLO (Association for Responsible Mining/Fair-trade Labeling Organization). ARM and FLO joined forces to develop the FT-FM guidelines, which concerns four areas: environmental, social, economic and working conditions. The label is set up to certify small scale mining projects. Local communities are to be consulted and will receive fair prices for their gold; but it’s the whole chain that is certified: from mine to seller and everything in between. An important aspect of the certification is that every piece of gold and jewelry will be traceable back to the mine from whence it came.

The FT-FM standards, however, do not garuantee absence of mercury and cyanide use in the mining proces. Use of such chemicals are discouraged and a financial compensation is available to projects avoiding them, but right now it is still financially impossible for many of the small mines FT-FM works with to go without such chemicals altogether.

The Oro Verde project, in the Colombian region of Choco, is often regarded as a prime example of how FT-FM should work. Oro Verde (‘green gold’) is a cooperation of Afro-Colombian artisanal producers of certified gold and platinum. The project was set up by local communities, together with foreign partners, as a reaction to declining incomes and poor working conditions. The current extraction methods in the Oro Verde project means no chemicals are used, only an old fashioned artisanal method.

In 2010, the Cotapata mine in Bolivia was the first to receive FT-FM certification. Currently, nine FT-FM projects have been set up:  in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia; projects from Kenya and Ghana are to follow in 2014. On valentine’s day 2011, the first FT&FM gold reached the United Kingdom; within a year no less than forty British jewelers were using fair trade gold in their designs. In the UK, FT&FM gold can be purchased -for example- at Cred Jewelry. In the Netherlands, certified gold was introduced in 2012 and is available at Flamingo and Bijioux Moderne, for example. Other countries, such as Denmark and France, have also followed suit. Since October 2012, Ana Kindermans has become the first supplier of FT&FM gold in Belgium, located in Heusden-Zolder. Recently, two more jewelers in Belgium have become certified: Vera and Mario van der Heyden in Aartselaar and Roos de Krom in Houthalen.

The alliance for responsible mining hopes the share of responsible gold in total gold sales will grow to total 5% of all gold sales over the next 15 years.

It is still early days for all these initiatives. As long as no international recognized control mechanisms are unanimously accepted, a system that can be deemed entirely trustworthy, without the risks of greenwashing and window-dressing, will remain hard to find. This means all these small initiatives should not yet be seen as definite answers, but rather first steps towards more sustainable initiatives in the mining industry – with a long way to go yet. To be continued…