The term ‘smoke and mirrors’ could easily be applied to the lab-grown diamond industry’s environmental and social responsibility claims. Perhaps that’s being a bit harsh, but platitudes really don’t deserve a free pass in this day and age.
Whilst I’ve been involved in the jewellery business for over 12 years now, it’s only in the past two that I’ve become immersed in the machinations of the global industry.
As it happens, that was also about the same time lab-grown diamonds really started making waves as a serious competitor to mine-origin stones.
In particular I remember coverage of a red-carpet event in 2017 featuring Diamond Foundry jewellery. And honestly, my initial reaction was one of skepticism about the environmental claims being made.
My business partner (a gemmologist) and I had been aware of the existence of lab-grown diamonds long before this of course. But before 2017, lab-grown diamonds in jewellery were little more than a curiosity — in Australia anyway.
Then along came Diamond Foundry with bold claims about eco-friendliness and carbon neutrality, creating a whole new dialogue in the diamond retail space.
Shortly thereafter De Beers announced their intent to launch their own lab-grown diamonds product line (Lightbox). And almost out of nowhere, lab-grown diamonds exploded onto the mainstream jewellery scene.
As it turns out Diamond Foundry have proven true to their word, but they appear to be one of the few.
The actions (or rather, inactions) of almost all other lab-grown diamonds producers have left me more than a little disillusioned and more than a little frustrated.
What’s the problem?
Two years ago my initial negative gut reaction to lab-grown diamonds was in response to the marketing hyperbole surrounding the product.
Having been in the sales and marketing space since the early ’90s, I’m immediately dubious about claims that sound too good to be true.
Curious though, I did my research to try and find out whether or not these claims of superior eco-friendliness were legitimate.
Unfortunately that research didn’t turn up much useful information. The International Grown Diamond Association reported that lab-grown diamonds had a carbon cost some 1.5 billion times less than mine-origin stones. That definitely sounded too good to be true, but there was very little else to go on.
It’s well known amongst the gemmological community that producing lab-grown diamonds is a very energy-hungry activity. But due to the proprietary nature of most manufacturing techniques, specific information about how much energy has never been readily available.
My problem is, two years down the track, that situation hasn’t changed much.
We now know that many lab-grown diamond producers have sited their factories in India, China and Singapore — all of which rely heavily of fossil fuels for electricity generation.
But it’s not just about electricity consumption. The whole supply chain seems to be cloaked in secrecy.
It’s not just me
Very recently I had a conversation with the managing director of a diamond and jewellery wholesale business who, like me, has become very frustrated with the lack of transparency in the lab-grown production world.
Despite being one step closer to the point of origin, he has found it extraordinarily difficult to get meaningful information about the environmental and social credentials of lab-grown diamonds — even the ones his business wholesales!
Lab-grown diamonds — a ‘black hole’ when it comes to environmental and social responsibility credentials
Being active in forums like LinkedIn and Medium means I get frequent approaches from producers and wholesalers wanting our business to prefer their lab-grown diamonds.
Interestingly, all I have to do to make most of them go away is ask about where their diamonds are manufactured and cut. I don’t even have to ask about environmental and social responsibility issues. It seems the where and by whom questions are too difficult, too revealing or perhaps too compromising to risk answering?
Whatever the reason, it’s both perplexing and concerning.
Surely it isn’t so for the big industry players?
I wish I could say it’s different for the larger producers, but it isn’t. Trying to learn anything specific about the environmental and social aspects of lab-grown diamond production is like peering into a murky pond. You can’t see more than a few millimeters below the surface.
Try perusing the websites of the larger organisations looking for detailed information and you’ll almost certainly come away disappointed.
Some make sound-bite comparisons with the diamond mining industry raising concerns about environmental damage, water consumption and conflict funding.
Some claim ecological friendliness simply because they don’t dig holes in the ground. Others claim vegan-friendliness as a virtue, or that access to wind-generated power makes them ‘greener’ than their mine-origin counterparts.
And then there are those that make no mention whatsoever of any environmental or social issues. (At least these producers aren’t trying to jump on the ethical bandwagon.)
Why no detailed back-story?
The reality is lab-grown diamond producers don’t really need to tell the whole story to win over new customers. They already have several distinct advantages, namely:
- they have a clear price advantage over mine-origin for what is technically an identical product;
- they’re well clear of the stigma attached to the diamond mining industry’s history; and
- because they don’t dig holes in the ground, they avoid the baggage that goes with that kind of activity (namely things like habitat destruction, pollution, water consumption, human rights abuses etc. etc.)
In other words, lab-grown can (and often do) win over new customers simply by running a negative campaign. By highlighting the ‘bad’ things associated with mine-origin diamonds they’re able to earn themselves brownie points simply by saying; “We don’t do those things”.
For a lot of people, this is enough.
Many consumers have such a negative perception of the diamond mining industry that vague claims about being more environmentally friendly coupled with glossy images and bright and shiny technology is sufficient to win them over.
It’s no wonder the US Federal Trade Commission has started to crack down on claims that border on puffery.
Being an ethical consumer isn’t easy
If you want to claim the ethical high ground, promoting yourself by bagging the competition is undeniably an effective way to go about it. But it’s only half the story.
As far as I’m concerned if you’re not also being transparent about your own credentials whilst busily attacking your competitors about the same thing, then you’re being disingenuous at the very least.
As a dedicated ethical consumer (and an ethical business operator), I can’t just take your word for it that you’re better than the next guy.
For all we know, lab-grown diamond producers might be consuming hideous amounts of electricity sourced from old technology, coal-fired power stations that belch enormous amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Similarly, their workforces could be underpaid and the people cutting and polishing their rough product might work in appalling conditions.
In many ways, the lab-grown diamond industry could be very ugly. We just don’t know for sure.
Why the mystery?
Truth is, I don’t really think the lab-grown industry is as bad as I’m making it out to be — at least not for the majority of producers. But the lack of transparency does raise questions.
As I’ve already mentioned, lab-grown don’t really need to go all out to succeed. They already have a meaningful price advantage and they certainly have the edge when it comes to issues like habitat destruction and water consumption.
But what I want to understand is why all the secrecy surrounding actual energy consumption, point of origin and social responsibility actions?
For us as a bespoke, ethical jewellery company trying to be as transparent as possible with our customers, it’s frustrating. Trying to get meaningful information from potential suppliers is like pulling teeth.
You don’t necessarily have to be better to be thought of as the best
Imagine you wanted to buy a car and fuel efficiency is one of your most important decision criteria.
You go and question a bunch of different dealers about the performance of their vehicles in this regard and they all come back with the same response: “Our cars are much more fuel efficient than our competitors’.”
Unsatisfied, you press them further with; ‘Yes, but how efficient?”
How would you feel if the answer repeatedly came back as: “Well, we can’t be specific, but our cars are a LOT more efficient.”?
I expect your trust levels would be quite low.
Now imagine if you then came across a dealer who answered your question with: “Our cars typically use around 8 litres of fuel per 100 kilometers. And we’ve had this figure verified by this particular independent organisation.”
The thing is, that fuel economy figure may or may not be a good one relative to the competition. Who knows?
But when no one else will give you a straight answer, who are you going to trust — the evasive dealers or the up-front one?
This is what it’s like being in the ethical jewellery space right now.
There are plenty of people who want us to buy their lab-grown diamonds, but it seems few are prepared to do more than pay lip service to the issues of environmental and social responsibility.
Turning up the heat
If it sounds like I’m being hard on the lab-grown diamond industry, good. That’s my intention.
The majority are riding on the environmental coat tails of a few industry leaders.
By the way, none of this is to say I prefer mine-origin stones. I don’t. What matters is what customers want. My preferences are irrelevant.
Mine-origin have their own stories to tell and their own crosses to bear, but it’s easy to see why the mine-origin industry is becoming increasingly vocal and critical of the so-called eco-friendliness of their lab-grown opposition.
And in the absence of any meaningful proof to the contrary, it could be the mine-origin criticisms are more than justified.
Perfection isn’t necessary — but transparency is
Apart from not needing to, I wonder if part of the reason lab-grown producers are reluctant to tell the whole story is because they know they’re not perfect?
This is the crazy part. They don’t need to be perfect. All they need to do is be better than mine-origin.
If it turns out the carbon footprint of the average lab-grown diamond is about the same as, or even worse than mine-origin, then so be it. A known carbon footprint is relatively easy to compensate for — assuming you’re willing to bear the cost. The problem is being kept in the dark.
In any case, lab-grown have several other equally, if not more powerful selling propositions. So their not being dramatically better on the carbon cost front isn’t a deal-breaker.
What is becoming a deal-breaker though — for those of us in the ethical space — is the persistent use of weak, unverified claims about being environmentally and socially responsible.
The thing is if you want to grow and prosper in an ethical marketplace then guess what, you must behave in an ethical manner. That includes telling the whole story. Warts and all.