Good as Gold – A discussion with the precious metals industry about sustainability

The precious metals industry is multifaceted, encompassing numerous stages and processes. From mining, extraction, and refining to product fabrication and cling, the industry recognises sustainability…

The precious metals industry is multifaceted, encompassing numerous stages and processes. From mining, extraction, and refining to product fabrication and cling, the industry recognises sustainability concerns and is actively addressing them. Across Australia and New Zealand, numerous companies operating in the precious metals industry have made significant commitments to social and ecological responsibilities. For June, we highlight several businesses prioritising sustainability for the industry, population, and environment.

As part of its commitment to sustainability, Michael Hill recently launched its gold recycling program, Re:cycle. This program is the first step in the company’s sustainable jeweller ecosystem, which aims to renew existing precious metals and products. The biggest reward is that precious metals have unique properties that allow used materials to be refined and recycled numerous times without losing their value or purity. By launching this program, Michael Hill is taking a significant step toward creating a more sustainable and circular economy for precious metals.

The partnership between Michael Hill and Morris & Watson, a fourth-generation family-owned precious metals company, has aided in the development of Michael Hill’s new gold recycling program. The refining process of gold from each piece of jewellery is conducted with great attention to detail and rigour to ensure its quality and purity. Once the gold is ready to be reused, it is carefully crafted into new pieces, which reduces the need to source new material. Michael Hill’s chief executive officer, Daniel Bracken says, “We are committed to our sustainability goals and by 2030 [we] aim for all our products to be sustainable, responsible, or circular. We are fortunate to work with precious metals that never tarnish or decay, allowing us to provide an innovative service whilst building a more circular economy.”

Daniel further emphasises the importance of recycling in the precious metals industry. “Through research, we know that recycling 1g of pure gold can reduce an estimated three tonnes of ore extraction and avoid up to 16kg of carbon emissions. This program, combined with our customers, allows us to contribute towards reducing the need for virgin-mined gold,” he adds. 

Another company committed to their sustainability is CPG Group. When asked about customer concern regarding CPG Group’s environmental footprint, Richard Muñoz, the general manager, notes that such inquiries are relatively infrequent. However, Muñoz details that they have always taken its environmental responsibility seriously, “This is promoted on our website, and our customers, across various market segments, appreciate that the business is preoccupied with maintaining a sustainable environmental policy,” he explains. “This may be in part the reason why there is not a notable increase in enquiry regarding our environmental footprint as CPG has always espoused its environmental position in onboarding new customers.” 

CPG’s sustainability is a continuous process that involves regular reviews of its refining methodologies to ensure maximum efficiency. Its NATA-accredited laboratory works with the refinery to achieve its internal standards for purity in the most efficient manner possible. “[Sustainability] was considered a prerequisite of the business model when Michael Salib commenced building the refinery in 2013. Consolidating the best European equipment and a facility with a commercial capability in contingency for organisational growth facilitated the business’ ongoing economic sustainability,” Richard says. 

Richard explains that sustainability is a complex concept encompassing economic, social, and environmental aspects. While the Australian mining industry and precious metals have a reputation for sustainable practices, jewellery manufacturing faces challenges in maintaining profitability. He also argues that the future economic feasibility of the jewellery industry depends on promoting and supporting Australian-made products and that the industry should encourage sustainable practices to ensure long-term economic viability.

“Some of the more significant issues with sustainability in precious metals have centred on ethics and integrity associated with mining and the environmental, social, and corporate governance policies of the companies recovering the natural resource. In Australia, a robust political and regulatory landscape provides for governance and compliance that is absent in other countries producing precious metals,” he adds. Richard states the importance of corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies in the mining industry. These are crucial as stakeholder expectations around social and environmental issues intensify. 

Richard also acknowledges that there are still significant issues with gold originating across Africa and Oceania, as well as from artisanal mines that involve child labour and human rights violations. These issues contradict and undermine the social sustainability of the precious metal industries in those regions, underscoring the importance of implementing and enforcing CSR policies across the industry. 

He further highlights the company’s strict adherence to the Environmental Protection Authority of Victoria (EPA). All residual waste produced during the refining process is disposed of per these regulations, while gaseous by-products are captured and neutralised by a highly advanced scrubbing system. CPG constantly seeks to improve its environmental sustainability by investing in new technologies and machinery like refining by electrolysis, enabling them to maintain a leading edge in production capability while minimising its environmental impact.

Jacinta Collins, general manager of Golden Mile, has noticed an uptake in customers’ questions about sustainability. “We are definitely getting more questions, more frequently from younger clients about the impact we make. A lot of our customers are an older generation, who are less aware [of] environmental footprints, so it hasn’t been a huge demand yet, but it certainly is growing,” she says. Golden Mile takes several steps to ensure its processes are as sustainable as possible. To reduce the frequency of purchasing fresh gold, they accept customers’ old gold, which has a lesser impact on mining. In addition, the company has refining machinery on-site, allowing it to refine all its scrap and old gold. Golden Mile also waits until it has a few kilograms of gold scrap to warrant running the machinery, not just for environmental impact, but also to minimise running costs.

“I think encouraging people to be more aware of their waste and their impact will be a big step forward,” Jacinta says. “Something that blows my mind is the sheer amount of plastic and packaging waste within the industry. Each small piece of jewellery gets shipped in its own little plastic bag, then once the product is priced and tagged in the store, the packaging is usually discarded and thrown away. This is just one small element that is contributing to substantial waste within the industry.”

However, there are significant issues with sustainability in the precious metals industry that need to be overcome. Precious metal manufacturing requires a vast amount of chemicals such as acids, soaps, compounds, and gases, all of which contribute to a substantial environmental impact. Although most of these processes cannot be changed due to the nature of manufacturing, there is a need for more research and development to make sustainable practices more cost-effective and feasible for businesses to implement. Regarding the refining and alloying of precious metals, Golden Mile has a safe swap with gas/oxygen cylinders and collects waste for disposal by chemical waste companies when necessary. These measures ensure that its waste materials are less dangerous to the environment.

Family-owned business Chemgold has also taken notice of the growing demand for sustainable practices among consumers. Chemgold director, Darren Sher, notes the demand for sustainable products is increasing and Chemgold is fully prepared to respond to this demand. “Chemgold has always aimed to be ethical, responsible and sustainable in the way we operate.“ Chemgold has always aimed to be ethical, responsible and sustainable in the way we operate. We focus on integrity, honesty, and transparency at all touchpoints within our business and quality policies. Our sense of responsibility and accountability extends not just to our clients, but to society and the environment itself. Protecting human rights and upholding our social responsibility are also key factors in our manufacturing process,” Darren says. 

As a member of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), Chemgold takes pride in being held to the highest standards of excellence in jewellery production and ethical business practices. The company’s membership in the RJC assures stakeholders that they are committed to producing superior quality jewellery while maintaining a strong sense of morality and ethics with their business partners and customers.

“In terms of our precious metal casting, we can assure our customers that we utilise all current recycling methods available in the market. Chemgold is opposed to activities that benefit conflict, violence and human rights abuses. Chemgold follows international best practice standards, including due diligence [practised] on all new customers under our Know Your Client policy,” says Darren. 

Chemgold makes significant efforts to safeguard its employees and the environment through state-of-the-art kilns from Japan and Germany. These kilns are equipped with advanced technology that includes an exhaust system with an afterburner, ensuring no pollution or unpleasant odours from the furnaces or the exhaust. Additionally, Chemgold implements a steam dewaxing process, where the wax is removed by boiling water in a steam chamber before loading the flasks into the furnaces. This process has resulted in minimal environmental impact. Chemgold also ensures that slurry waste from investing and casting is filtered and collected by a specialised and environmentally-friendly company yearly. This approach prevents any waste material from entering the sewerage system and ensures that it is disposed of responsibly.

These changing consumer preferences have prompted businesses in the industry to adopt more sustainable practices. Michael Hill’s partner, Morris & Watson have swiftly jumped to meet these standards. Operations manager of Morris & Watson, James Bishop says, “Customers are aware more than ever [of] their environmental footprint and expect suppliers to be aware too. Frequent questions that we are asked [include] ‘Where your metal is sourced from’ and ‘How much of your metal is recycled or can we use recyclable or reduced amounts of packaging?’ It is also becoming more common for clients to act in a more environmentally friendly way, like recycling more metal or waiting until they have a larger order, [reducing] the number of shipments or even opting to collect in person if they are located close to one of our offices.” 

James also highlights the significance of finding balance between environmental sustainability and affordability. With metal prices rising recently, customers seek out businesses that prioritise sustainable practices while providing reliable and reasonably priced products and services. To address environmental concerns, Morris & Watson consistently strives to keep up with the latest technologies and processes. When investing in new plants and techniques, it ensures to incorporate greener features that aim to reduce energy consumption and waste. “An example of one of our recent investments is a new sweep furnace. The new furnace allows us to process clients’ sweeps with 40 percent less energy consumption and improved technology that reduces batch processing times, further reducing energy requirements,” he adds.

When asked about the broader industry’s efforts to encourage sustainable practices, James emphasises that many environmental impact factors are not exclusive to the jewellery industry. He also notes that reducing waste production and raw material usage can make a significant difference. This can be achieved by ordering larger quantities less frequently, sourcing from local suppliers, and adopting more environmentally friendly materials. “Our refinery operates under strict environmental licences… we are required to constantly monitor possible waste streams, water consumption and chemical storage. Further to this, we ensure we exceed all regulatory requirements and have also introduced internal processes to reduce the use of raw materials, energy and water across all departments,” says James. 

The precious metals industry is making strides toward sustainability, with companies like Michael Hill, CPG Group, Golden Mile, Chemgold, and Morris & Watson taking measures to reduce waste, conserve resources, and prioritise ethical practices. While challenges still need to be overcome, the industry’s commitment to social and ecological responsibilities is vital for building a more sustainable future. By aligning environmental concerns and economic viability, the precious metals industry can ensure the long-term prosperity of such businesses and the environment. 

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