Lab-created diamonds ethical credentials are vastly inflated but mined diamonds shortcomings sadly need no exaggeration.
Originally posted Augst 12, 2017
I’ve no strong opinions about lab-created diamonds. My instinct is that natural stones will always have a superior allure and will maintain their value, but that lab created stones will find a place within the industry.
How this will play out over the next few years I have no idea but it seems obvious they are here to stay.
Not only here to stay but with significant financial backing, the people behind lab created stones will be looking to grab market share and the battle lines with the traditional diamond industry are being drawn. ‘Ethics’ seems to have been identified as a battle the lab-grown diamond producers think they can win. And with good reason.
The traditional diamond industry has a shameful record when it comes to its supply chain and although efforts were made in improve things some of the poorest people in the world are still routinely taken advantage of by the international diamond industry with corruption and exploitation still seemingly inseparable from the trade. The industry has resisted attempts from the outside to change the way it operates, making only superficial efforts to address the concerns of its critics and failing miserably in making significant improvements in transparency and conditions. This inaction and resistance has left a vulnerability that lab-grown diamond producers are keen to take advantage of.
The claim from the Lab-grown producers is that while ‘mined’ stones cause massive environmental damage and are sometimes mined by people who have no choice but to live and work in vile conditions, lab-grown diamonds use less natural resources and are made by people who are paid good salaries and enjoy good and safe working conditions. A claim made nowhere more directly than this article on betterdiamondinitiative.org. While it is true that lab grown diamonds use less resources and have, to date, not been involved in any controversies about working conditions, this only tells part of the story and if you think that the welfare of miners in poor countries has played any part in the creation of lab-grown diamonds, then think again.
In the last 15 years both fairmined and fairtrade gold have appeared on the market, proving that despite the complex challenges the industry throws up, there is a way to make a genuinely traceable and ethical ‘mined’ product. The simple fact is, if the people behind lab-grown diamonds cared about these ‘people and places’ as mentioned in the ‘ethic mark’ image above, they would have invested their millions into similar initiatives rather than developing a product that threatens to take away a living from millions of people who depend on it. Sadly the task of making the diamond mining industry fairer for everyone involved isn’t a money maker in the same way that creating diamonds in a lab is.
‘EthicMark’ Gems claim to represent a movement to ‘protect people and places’ and are happy to cite examples of human suffering and environmental damage caused by diamond mining (all of which are true) but choose to ignore the advances made within the jewellery industry within the last few years. The attempt is to paint a simple picture for consumers, mined diamonds = Bad. Lab Grown diamonds =Good. By failing to mention that it is possible for mined materials to have a positive impact on the lives of the people who mine them and a lesser impact on the environment ‘EthicMark’ reveal the shallowness of their claims.
If lab grown diamonds do manage to wrestle a significant market share from the existing diamond industry and prices for ‘mined’ diamonds drop as a result, its the guys in artisanal mines who rely on their meagre income to eat and ,if they are lucky, send their children to school, who suffer the most. What are the big employers in rural Sierra Leone after agriculture and mining? What jobs will small scale miners in the Congo walk into and how will the Namibian treasury plug the billion $ hole in their finances. Without detailed answers to all of these questions the Lab-grown diamond industry and initiatives like ‘Ethic Mark’ are shown up to be doing nothing more than jumping on the ‘ethical’ bandwagon. Using the suffering of people in places they will never visit, to promote their product over their competition.
‘Transition for miners to sustainable jobs and livelihoods’ is mentioned by EthicMark but details are thin on the ground. I for one am sceptical that they have sustainable jobs lined up for a significant fraction of the workforce they seek to displace. If they do it will be a significant achievement, unemployment being a huge problem in many parts of the developing world. Such a huge problem in-fact, that to believe a fledgling industry like Lab Grown diamonds have solved it in one fell swoop, is risible. If they do have all these fantastic sustainable jobs for artisanal miners to transition to then why haven’t they told us before? Why wait until you have a viable lab-created diamond product to save all of these people from a life of hardship and toil? Why not start rolling these schemes out now, surely all these people who mine diamonds will jump at the chance to swap a life of misery down a mine for one of these sustainable jobs. Wouldn’t it be an advantage to undermine the existing diamond industry by disrupting their supply, by tempting away their workforce en masse?
Sadly, it doesn’t stack up. Unless the people behind ‘ethic mark’ can come up with far more detailed and verifiable answers to the question of finding jobs for people that artisanal mining can no longer support then I think its safe to assume there is no system in place for this. If prices for mined diamonds drop then its the higher cost operations that offer better conditions and care more for the environment that will likely suffer first with standards and conditions dropping across the industry as a result.
So in the face of this direct challenge what is the traditional diamond industry doing? Well predictably, not much, as groups from around the world continue to voice concerns about the governance of the industry.
Obviously the fact that their business is responsible for poverty, war and misery leaves them unmoved, otherwise these issues would have been properly addressed long ago, but this is different. Lab grown diamond producers are openly engaging in tactics to take away business from the ‘mined diamond’ industry maybe this will stir them into action?
Like I said, I am not opposed to lab-grown diamonds, as a designer and maker, if you would like me to make some jewellery with lab-grown diamonds I will happily oblige. What I do oppose is bullshit and the over simplification of complex matters like the ethics of the jewellery supply chain.