Large-scale mining of low-grade ores is energy-intensive and generates vast wastes. It has limited suitability for production of specialist metals that are required in relatively small quantities. An approach that limits environmental impact by restricting mining to high-grade deposits requires the investigation of small ore deposits as alternative sources of metals. The return on investment from small deposits is incompatible with the expensive surveys needed to secure investment and the high costs of managing risk. But increasing energy and transport costs may create space in the market for small-deposit mining with highly-competitive technological solutions. It can be argued that small-deposit mining is ethical because it must involve cooperation between mining companies and local residents who share a collective expectation and responsibility for their quality of life. However, small-deposit mining tends to be a limited, short-term initiative, which requires consideration of the extended ‘afterlife’ of mines. This manuscript is the culmination of five years of cross-sector dialogue and stakeholder engagement activities. It debates what constitutes a small deposit and describes the interactions between mining and manufacturing, investment, environment and society. It reaches the conclusion that technological innovations will support the re-emergence of small deposit mining as an important part of a diverse raw materials production sector. We do not suggest a return to past approaches, to mining of small, high-grade deposits, but a consideration of alternative narratives of localised, community-orientated mining processes, thus giving social, economic and environmental context to the needs of the present day.