I’m often asked about the ethics of diamonds, both lab grown and earth grown. I’ve done a lot of research and given it a great deal of thought. Here’s how I see it.
Are lab created diamonds ethical? Man-made diamonds are absolutely ethical. They have a smaller environmental impact than earth-mined diamonds. They are also ‘conflict’ free, so you can be sure that they aren’t ‘Blood Diamonds.’ Unlike most environmental upgrades, Lab Created Diamonds actually cost a lot less than mined diamonds too.
In order to really understand the ethical landscape of Lab Created Diamonds, you need to understand the issues surrounding mined diamonds.
Ethical Issues with Diamonds
Diamonds have a certain mystery to them. It’s almost magical how black coal can be transformed into the hardest natural materials on earth. Once cut and polished well, light refraction makes it dance with white and colored sparkles. Intense heat and pressure caused the diamond to form deep below the earth’s surface for at least several million years. Hard to imagine!
There’s another aspect of how diamonds get to us that can also be hard to imagine. The human and environmental toll that takes place once volcanic activity transports diamonds from deep below the earth’s crust to the surface. Miners are sent to excavate the Kimberlite veins that contain the diamonds. Mining impacts on the areas mined in several different ways.
Exploitation of People
There’s a very real human toll to diamond mining. At the very least, it’s backbreaking and very dangerous work. Mine walls can collapse, trapping or crushing workers. While excavating earth and picking out rock, minors can often be exposed to harmful elements that they aren’t protected from. One of these harmful materials that minors frequently come in contact with is asbestos. With proper training and equipment the effects of asbestos exposure could be minimized.
Without proper education and equipment, inhalation of asbestos fibers will likely mean serious health issues and significant suffering. Asbestos causes lung cancer among other things. Even when other minors contract serious illness and can’t work, coworkers may feel that they have no choice, but to keep mining so they can provide for their families. Minors are certainly looked at by some operations as disposable.
Even though mining is so dirty and physically demanding, it doesn’t pay much. Miners work to take care of the most basic needs of their families. Food and extremely basic shelter, is all that most can hope for. Their existence and future isn’t at all similar to what many in the Western world are accustomed to. When they constantly live hand-to-mouth. Saving enough to improve their standard of living or plan for some sort of independent retirement just isn’t possible.
One income often isn’t enough to provide food and cover school fees in many of Africa’s diamond regions. Many young children that want to learn, and hope for a the better future that education can provide, divide their time between working in the diamond mines and going to school. If they don’t work in the mines, their family won’t be able to afford books and fees. Many others reluctantly drop out of school because all of their time and income is required just to put food on the table. This is especially true if their father is a sick miner that can no longer work, or there are many children to feed and care for in the home.
Diamonds are an 80 billion dollar a year industry. The Jewelry stores that sell diamonds are lavish and beautiful. Major mining companies and distribution channels seem to realize significant profits each year. Why is it that so little of the money stays with the people that perform such hard labor to extract the diamonds from the ground. They live in squalor—especially when compared to most others along the supply chain. Why can’t more fo the profit form each diamond be left in the hands of African miners to help them lift themselves out of their constant to just survive?
Not all diamond miners are paid for their labor. Some are coerced in slave labor with threats of violence or death. Militant groups can take over diamond mines and then bring in slave labor to harvest the gems for them. Anyone that can’t work, won’t work, or that isn’t productive enough may become a gruesome example for the others—to keep them fearful. Slaves have often had their hands or arms chopped off by their captors as punishment for not working hard enough, or not being productive enough.
Diamonds mined under slave labor and coercion are typically referred to as ‘Blood Diamonds’ or ‘Conflict Diamonds.’ Rape, torture, mutilation, and murder have all been used as tools of the trade to gain cooperation and maintain control through fear.
In 2006 Hollywood produced a movie for the big screen that brought renewed focus and a lot of new awareness to the issue of Conflict Diamonds. The film was called Blood Diamond, and featured Leonardo DiCaprio in the leading role. After gaining awareness of the issue, there are many that refuse to buy earth mined diamonds, opting instead for various alternative stones that are conflict free.
In reality, not all diamonds have roots in human slavery. It’s the vast minority of all diamonds that come to market each year, but the difficult thing, is that the Blood Diamonds that do make it into our supply Chain can show up anywhere. They can be in the display case of the jeweler at the mall, a high-end retailer, or a boutique on main st. There’s not way to know the true history of most of the diamonds that you purchase.
If you were to ask your local jeweler if their diamonds are conflict free, they would likely assure you that they all are. The simple reality though, is that it’s very difficult to track diamonds with absolute certainty. The same militant groups that produce blood diamonds smuggle them across borders, intermixing them into the supplies from other nations and mines in order to side-step international mandates aimed at stopping them from entering the market.
The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), better known as the ‘Kimberley Process,’ is an international mandate made by the United Nations (U.N.) in 2003 that many people had high hopes for initially. In the years since, even the U.N. has had to admit the flaws and failings of the Kimberley Process to stop the flow of blood diamonds into the international market place. Partners like Global Impact and Witness have revoked their support of the resolution, citing the failure of the program to keep Conflict Diamonds out of the diamond supply.
In fact, instead of keeping Blood Diamonds out of the international diamond market, Kimberley only forced the criminals to take a little different route to market. Drug cartels and other organized crime groups launder money to make it appear legitimate. The producers of Blood Diamonds do something similar to make their gems seem like they come from legitimate ‘Conflict Free’ sources. That’s the only way they can get it into the countries that are the biggest diamond consumers.
So when your jeweler tells you that all of their diamonds are 100% conflict free. They’re probably wrong, but they aren’t lying. That’s what they’ve been told. It might event appear that way based on the brands that they represent, but conflict diamonds really can show up almost anywhere
If you still aren’t convinced, think about this. Lab Created Diamonds look just like earth mined diamonds, so much so, that jewelers are sometimes selling consumers man-made diamonds that they thought were earth-mined diamonds. They purchase a shipment of earth-grown diamonds, but tests reveal that some portion of them are man-made. Obviously, they aren’t happy when they paid earth-grown prices for a man-made product.
If you went into the jeweler before they got test results confirming the nature of their diamonds, they would swear to you that all of their inventory consists of earth mined gems. What if there was a testing machine that could detect Blood Diamonds—do you think jewelers would be similarly surprised to find that they’re carrying those too?
How can laws stop criminals that have no respect for the law? Look at the ongoing war on drugs. Outlawing trafficking and possession of certain drugs hasn’t kept them out of the United States or other nations. In reality, the only way to be certain that you aren’t buying a conflict diamond, is to buy your gem from a Canadian mine (if you can be sure of the source), or to buy a lab-grown diamond.
Exploitation of the Environment
Mining is always disruptive to the environment. Diamond mining displaces massive amounts of earth to unearth each gem. In fact, it’s estimated, that roughly 1,750 tons of earth have to be excavated for every diamond that weighs 1 carat or more. That’s significant, because the marketplace is demanding larger-and-larger diamonds.
Eighty years ago, the average diamond engagement ring weighed in at .3 carats. Today, the average is 1.25 carats. That trend, combined with the fact that so many more diamonds are being purchased today, means that the environmental impact of diamond mining is scaling to keep pace with growing demand. That demand, of course, is the product of industry marketing efforts bearing fruit as they take hold in culture.
There are various mining techniques that are used. But the most common and fruitful for large-scale production, is Open Pit mining. That’s a really fitting name, because they literally just dig a huge cone shaped hole that follows lines of diamond rich Kimberlite. The pits can sometimes go over a kilometer into the earth.
Impacts of Open Pit mining can include:
- Exhaust and power use
- High water use
- Water runoff
- Soil erosion
- Destruction of Habitat
- Disruption of migration routes
- Exposure to toxic contaminants
- Increase of Mosquito population
- Growth of Mosquito borne illness
- Damming or Rerouting of rivers or streams
Vegetation roots bind soil and help hold it in place. As vegetation gets killed off in the mining areas as a result of traffic, toxic runoff, or excavation, soil erosion becomes more common. As earth is excavated, elements and minerals that are toxic to humans can be unearthed and left in mounds above ground. Rains can then cause toxic runoff over plants and into nearby waterways. These runoffs have been blamed for the death of area livestock and wildlife.
When water sources are polluted in arid climates, something especially precious is lost. Those waterways are a critical resource for drinking water, laundry, and bathing. Pollution can impact the health of local residents, and force them to travel much further to collect water each day.
As new mines are identified and targeted, new roads are built. Those roads can bring a continual flow of people into areas that are pretty remote and isolated. All the activity from vehicles, people, and machinery can spook wildlife and cause the to drastically change ingrained migration routes and other historic patterns of behavior.
Caribou in Canada have historically migrated across a land that is now occupied by an Open Pit diamond mine. Instead of traveling near the humans that now infest the area, the Caribou have rerouted, traveling about 5,000 miles out of their way to reach their destination. Changes like those aren’t without consequence to the animals that are affected.
The life, migration, and reproduction cycles of fish can also be severely impacted as rivers are dammed or rerouted. Farmers are also victims when waterways are polluted, dammed, or moved. The farms they’ve worked their entire lives (sometimes for generations) turn into unfarmable dust bowls without water to irrigate with.
Mining companies in certain parts of the world aren’t heavily regulated. Even when there are environmentally friendly laws on the books, they aren’t enforced. Because of this, Open pit mines are commonly left as they are, a scar on the land—just a pit for rainwater to collect in, and mosquitoes to breed and multiply in.
With so much stagnant water available as a habitat, mosquitoes thrive. They carry Malaria, Dengue Fever, and other serious illnesses that can sometimes even turn deadly. Mosquito borne illnesses often skyrockets once old Open Pit mines are abandoned.
Nearly all agree that current diamond mining practices in much of the world need to change, because of environmental and human abuses. They favor regulation as a tool for correction. Regulation comes at a cost and only works where there isn’t corruption. If cheating or intimidation is allowed the system breaks. If smuggling happens, as it currently does with conflict diamonds from militant groups, again regulatory efforts fail. Only a small portion of mines currently file regular environmental impact reports. How do you change this so they provide accurate, consistent, and timely information?
Ethical Issues with Lab Created Diamonds
Man-made diamonds do have an impact on the environment, but the the environmental toll is smaller than it is when diamonds are mined from the earth. It would be incredibly difficult to obtain a diamond without any impact on the environment at all, but diminishing the impact is a worth goal, and it’s possible.
Exploitation of People
You can be certain that lab created diamonds are not blood diamonds. No slave labor, or violence, was used to bring the gem to you. People that make a living in the traditional diamond industry sometimes contend that workers in some cultured diamond manufacturing facilities may not be paid much for their work. That they’re being exploited too.
The argument is valid—to an extent. Man made diamonds are manufactured all over the world. Wages are different in each area, because cost of living and competition for workers is also different in each of those areas. The key difference, is that employees in any man made diamond facility are free to leave for a different job at any time. They aren’t being forced to work without pay under threat of violence. Again, those aren’t the conditions for most mined diamonds that come to market, but it is for some portion—and even that amount, is far too many.
If you have made a decision not to purchase earth-grown diamonds because you don’t want to unknowingly buy a conflict diamond, lab diamonds are an ethical choice that will allow you to buy the gem you love without the possible human abuse implications that you fear.
Lab grown diamonds allow peace of mind and element of certainty regarding the origins of your diamonds that earth produced diamonds typically can’t provide.
Exploitation of the Environment
Growing lab diamonds requires power and water. So, there’s a clear environmental impact, but again the amount of power and water used, per carat of diamond produced is smaller than mining can provide. In fact, a study was done comparing the environmental impact of a specific diamond mine in Canada and the environmental impact of a particular synthetic diamond manufacturer from the United States. Environmental impact reports have to be submitted by law in both areas.
They found that if every diamond produced by the Canadian mine had been manufactured instead in a lab, there would have been enormous savings in greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, they estimate that the savings would have been equivalent to about 483 million miles of auto emissions annually.
What about land excavation? An existing building can be used for manufacturing facilities. Even if a new building is constructed, it’s likely to be located somewhere in the city, not in rural locations that are prime animal habitat. On the other hand, in many regions of the world, open pit diamond mines are dug wherever diamonds are—regardless of the habitat implications. Because of where diamond manufacturing labs are typically located, direct disturbance of animal health, habitat, or migration patterns is extremely unlikely.
Even when ground is broken for brand new manufacturing facilities, those buildings are likely to be located near population centers. The digging stops once a hole sufficient for the foundation has been excavated. In open pit mines, the digging only stops once they feel the mining company feels they’ve extracted as many diamonds as it’s economically feasible to harvest from the earth in that location. Again, the hole can sometimes end up more a kilometer deep.
Here’s Where it Gets Tricky
The decision to go with the man-made diamond that has less environmental impact seems easy and obvious, especially because it’s just a durable, equally beautiful, and far less expensive. Here’s where the ethics become more tricky for some.
The people in many diamond rich parts of Africa are desperately poor. They live subsistence lives of continual hand-to-mouth survival. The wealthy people, and organizations, that profit from the diamond trade remind us that any move away from buying earth mined-diamonds could be catastrophic for the impoverished diamond miners that bring them to us.
Michael Kowelski, the CEO of Tiffany’s, told The Guardian that though diamond mining has had a “long and sad association with human rights and environmental abuses,” In some regions, “mining is the only viable engine for social and economic growth.” In light of that, he isn’t sure that not buying earth-mined diamonds is the moral high-ground.
If sometimes feels like these impoverished miners are being used as human shields by the industry that keeps them alive, but also impoverished. How much easier would it be to make the decision to stop the environmental damage that diamond mines are inflicting if the welfare of the miners weren’t a counterpoint? It’s convenient for the industry to keep miners poor. It helps them deflect arguments that are very difficult to address and answer for otherwise.
The statement by Michael Kowelski is fairly typical of all those that profit from the industry. Their view can’t be discounted. It’s valid to an extent, but they have a conflict of interest. They benefit financially from the mining processes that damage the environment and keep miners working long hard days in unsafe conditions for meager pay.
hat’s going to happen when the area’s diamond resources are depleted, and we’ve taken all we can from the land? That day is bound to come eventually. When it does, the people will have no choice but to find new trades or move. They’ll move to find work in other areas, or they’ll move because their area they call home is too damaged to safely sustain life. Is it better for the people or the planet to wait until that point?
Your spending makes a statement. It’s at the leading edge of change. Mining an earth-grown diamond comes at a substantial cost to the environment, and perhaps in the form of human suffering too. On the other hand, when you buy a lab diamond, you can know that it didn’t have the same kind of environmental or human impact. The trade-off, is that it not buying the natural diamond may take away from the ability of miners to earn a living to some extent.
Is it ethical to turn a blind eye to the human and environmental exploitations—even to support miners under such a broken system? Currently, miners seem to get table scraps, just enough to keep them alive, while rich the international corporations that employ them harvest incredible profits. Is that ethical?
So, are lab created diamonds ethical? Yes, of course, but ethics aren’t always easy, and sometimes come with consequences. Earth mined diamonds aren’t likely to go away, but diamond mining’s future scarring on lives and landscapes can be diminished if enough people use their wallets to make their voices heard.
Are Lab Created Diamond Rings Cheap to Buy?
‘Cheap’ is a relative term, but they certainly are affordable by comparison. Lab Cultured diamonds are typically at least 30 to 50% less expensive than comparable earth grown diamonds. Nothing is sacrificed in exchange for the savings. The Lab stone is made entirely of Carbon, has the same scratch resistance of mined diamonds, and is visually indistinguishable.
What Are the Other Benefits of Lab Grown Diamond?
Because lab diamonds are cheaper, you put less money at risk when you buy them. If the diamond should get lost, stolen, or broken, your financial loss is lower. Diamonds are also often difficult to resell. You’ll commonly lose 50% to 70% if you resell right away. Spending less upfront can lower your downside risk. All of these benefits come without sacrificing on beauty or durability.
What are some Ethical Diamond Alternatives?
Moissanite is probably the non-diamond simulant that’s most like diamond in terms of appearance and durability. Moissanite is entirely lab created. It was first discovered at the impact site of meteorites, and is still primarily found at meteorite impact sites. It’s extremely rare in nature. Once produced in laboratories, we get a hard stone that’s durable for jewelry applications. While not 100% identical, it does look very similar to diamond. Other simulant options could include White Sapphire, White Topaz, or Cubic Zirconia.