The diamond industry is wrought with historical strife that carries through to the present day and is home to rampant human rights abuses, but will turning away from mining and towards lab-growing provide a more comprehensive solution?
Elegance, timelessness, and true love: markers of what we all know to be the consumer side of the diamond industry. But it’s no secret that the sparkle wears off all too quickly when we look past the marketing and that the diamond industry looks very different on the other side of its long supply chain. The global diamond jewellery industry is worth approximately $79 billion as of 2019, whilst those who mine the diamonds in small-scale, artisanal mines, which produce 15 per cent of the world’s diamonds earn less than one dollar a day. Measures such as the Kimberley Process (KP) have been in place since the blood diamond scandal of the early 2000s in which the world became aware of the sale of diamonds to fund the civil wars of Angola and Sierra Leone.
However, the KP has many loopholes and does not exclude diamonds that have been mined in violation of human rights or labour laws. Its definition of “conflict diamonds” is limited to “gemstones sold to fund a rebel movement attempting to overthrow the state.” And where the KP has imposed a ban, diamonds from that place are still mined and sold by smuggling them over the border to an unbanned country. As diamonds are mostly impossible to trace to their respective mines, this practice is very difficult to regulate. It is in these loopholes that the abuses exist. The majority of small scale mining is unregulated in places where labour laws either do not exist or are not enforced.
“The lack of laws leads not just to well-below-the-poverty-line wages, but also to fatal working conditions, child labour, and the flourishing of public health issues as the sex trade thrives in many diamond mining towns, leading to the spread of HIV and other STI’s.”
The lack of laws leads not just to well-below-the-poverty-line wages, but also to fatal working conditions, child labour, and the flourishing of public health issues as the sex trade thrives in many diamond mining towns, leading to the spread of HIV and other STI’s. It also causes the displacement of indigenous peoples, destruction of the surrounding environment, and not to mention abandoned mining pits filled with stagnant water becoming havens for mosquitoes, leading to the spread of malaria. Although these abuses do not exist throughout the entire diamond industry, they occur largely across Africa which is responsible for at least 50 per cent of the total global production of diamonds. In short, if you are purchasing a diamond you cannot guarantee that that diamond does not have blood on it.
The global jewellery industry is dominated by thirteen companies that are estimated to generate more than $30 billion annually, making up a significant sector of the diamond industry. These companies which include Tiffany’s, Cartier, Pandora and others were assessed by Human Rights Watch for their responsible sourcing of gold and diamonds. They analysed the companies’ actions based on company information that they were given directly and by the publicly available information about the company. It was Tiffany’s alone that was awarded a “strong” rating in the report, as they could trace all of their newly mined gold back to one mine of origin and conduct regular human rights assessments with the mine. They have partial custody over their diamonds and can trace some of them to specific mines. Bulgari, Cartier, Pandora, Signet were awarded “moderate” as they took some important steps towards responsible sourcing.
The remaining eight companies were rated weak or lower, and overwhelmingly the research found that there was an over-reliance by most companies on the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) for their human rights due diligence. The RJC’s governance is flawed and certifies companies that fail to meet even basic human rights standards. It is clear from the report that where there exists more money there does not exist higher standards of responsibility. These companies are responsible for a huge part of the demand for diamonds yet they are largely irresponsible when it comes to regulation of their supply chain; naturally, the industry accepts that low standard as standard. Therefore we see the continuation of acceptance of human rights abuses across the industry.
But there is another side to the diamond industry, one that produces diamonds that are aesthetically and chemically indistinguishable from mined diamonds. Lab-grown diamonds were invented in 1954. Whilst there was not much interest to begin with, the industry is on the up, having grown “15 per cent to 20 per cent in 2019, following a similar trajectory in 2018.” The interest in lab-grown diamonds is rising after years of them being perceived by the consumer and perpetuated by large diamond companies as fake or cheap. However, according to the most recent Bain report on the global diamond industry the “continued advances in technology contributed to double-digit growth in production and lower retail prices for lab-grown diamonds in 2019 and 2020” they noted that the growing demand was also thanks to consumers and investors alike prioritising “sustainability, transparency and social welfare.”
What’s more, lab diamonds typically retail at 30 per cent cheaper than their mined counterparts making the industry accessible to a larger consumer audience. The industry is beginning to accept the shift towards lab-grown diamonds, however, it is doubtfully thanks to the realisation that the diamond industry is so harmful to so many, and more likely due to the acceptance that diamond supplies are dwindling and that there is more money to be made by expanding to include cheaper lab-grown diamonds. Nonetheless, the industry giant DeBeers has launched its “Lightbox” collection which is exclusively lab-grown, Signet jewellers (the world’s largest diamond retailer) sells lab-grown diamonds alongside their mined ones, Pandora aims to use lab-grown diamonds exclusively by 2022. While there have been concerns in the past that lab-grown diamonds come with a huge environmental cost, requiring large amounts of electricity to produce, and in China where 50 to 60 per cent of these diamonds are made, the electricity is powered by coal. But the largest US producer, Diamond Foundry, says its process is “100% hydro-powered, meaning zero emissions.” It is also important to consider and compare the environmental costs of mining, manufacturing and shipping “natural” diamonds.
And so, if there seems to be no catch when it comes to lab-grown diamonds, what’s to stop them from being the sole future of the industry? They eliminate the problem of abuses in the mining process of natural diamonds, and if we were to move exclusively to the synthetic diamond, it would follow that there would be no more mines in which to exploit miners, therefore removing the problem. However, this thought remains purely ideological, because, for many places where the mines are a source of injury, pollution and exploitation, those same mines are one of few or sometimes the only source of income for the people there – these places include the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. One Congolese boy who left school to work in an artisanal mine to support his father said to Time, “If people stop buying our diamonds, we won’t be able to eat. We still won’t be able to go to school. How does that help us?” In short, this represents a problem not just for the diamond industry, but for a plethora of industries.
Perhaps with the continuation of attempts to regulate the industry, there will remain both jobs and progress. But the change needs to be systematic if there is to be any hope that the mines will no longer be an equal source of suffering and livelihood. So, synthetic diamonds may be part of the solution but the diamond industry cannot simply turn its back on the portion of its supply chain that has provided for them for so many years, and turn the billions of dollars of profit towards creating change for those people who are responsible for 15 per cent of their supply. As consumers, we can continue to remain aware and educated and support only those companies that are taking responsible action.
Featured photo by Sabrina Ringquist
This article was supported by: STAND Business & Politics Editor Sean + Programme Assistant Alex