Ethical diamonds: What Conscientious Consumers Need to Know

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From coffee to clothing, consumers are increasingly interested in how their products are sourced. Chief among their concerns is that workers are being treated fairly and that goods are being produced with the least environmental impact possible. It seems only natural that this shift in consumer culture would make its way to diamonds, often one of the most meaningful, and financially significant, purchases of an individual’s life.

The term “ethical diamond” has emerged as a way for conscientious consumers to identify diamonds that are mined without exploiting workers or the environment. But what are the issues facing miners and mining ecosystems? What are “ethical diamonds” exactly? And how do you bypass sophisticated, and often misleading, marketing tactics in order to procure one? The answer isn’t as clear as you may think.

Diamond Mining 101

When you look at a shimmering diamond, it’s hard to imagine that it began as a rough gem deep inside the earth. Most of us are so far-removed from what diamonds actually are and where they come from that it’s difficult for us to wrap our minds around their origins. However, in order to understand ethical issues surrounding diamonds, it’s important to first know a little about how they’re mined.

Diamonds are found two places: miles underground the earth’s surface in ancient kimberlite formations (extracted via pipe mining) and in riverbeds and the ocean floor (extracted via alluvial mining). While some diamonds are mined in Canada and Russia, the great majority are found in Africa, where they’re sourced from both deep-earth mines and alluvial beds. Wherever they’re found, each diamond takes millions of years to form and requires extensive resources—both equipment and manpower—and time to discover.

Deep-earth mines, which employ cutting-edge technologies to dig miles into the earth’s surface, are owned and operated by large corporations, the largest (and most well-known) of which is De Beers (a company we’ve talked about here before). Industrial mining companies, including De Beers, also perform alluvial mining. However, a percentage of this form of mining is performed by hand—a painstaking process, much like gold mining in the 19th and early 20th centuries, commonly referred to as artisanal mining—by individuals, mainly in African nations. This is where our ethical quandary begins.

What’s wrong with alluvial mining?

If alluvial mining is performed by a large corporation like De Beers, which adheres to strict ethical and environmental standards (you can read in-depth information about the company’s commitment to ethics and environmental sustainability in its 2015 Report to Society in Review), consumers can have faith that the practice is ethically and environmentally sound. It’s informal alluvial mining (i.e. artisanal mining)—the kind done by hand in unsafe conditions by non-unionized workers—that presents a number of troubling issues.

Mining by hand is backbreaking work. Despite this intense labor, and despite diamonds’ market value, an estimated one million African alluvial diamond miners earn less than a dollar a day. Without other employment options, they’re forced to live in extreme poverty in communities that often lack running water and proper sanitation. What’s more, many of these miners are children, some as young as five years old. Not only is the work physically demanding and unregulated (and therefore dangerous), all miners, including children, must work six to seven days a week. This means that child laborers typically do not attend school, condemning them to a lifetime of painful, dangerous work.

Since informal alluvial mining is mainly unregulated, conditions are unsafe and unsanitary. Much of an artisanal miner’s day is spent digging in stagnant, dirty water that breeds insects and disease. Workers lack proper tools, training, and safety equipment, and landslides, mine collapses, and other accidents frequently cause injuries and death. It’s not only mining conditions that endanger the lives of these alluvial miners, many are subject to horrific human rights violations—including violence, torture, and rape—by government militias and armed rebel groups seeking to capture and control mining areas.

This informal mining not only hurts miners and their communities, it wreaks environmental devastation across large areas of otherwise farmable land. In order to find diamonds, miners must first remove the sand along riverbanks, then wash the soil to sort through it. The process renders the land useless by stripping delicate topsoil, leaving large mining pits filled with dirty water in its wake, each quickly becoming a breeding ground for mosquitos and the diseases they carry. Rivers, often hastily dammed and rerouted, become polluted. Forested land is cleared. Fish are killed, wildlife is displaced, and, at its most severe, local ecosystems are destroyed.

What percentage of diamonds come from informal alluvial sources?

According to the World Diamond Council (WDC), 24 percent of the world’s diamonds come from alluvial sources. Ten percent of these diamonds are sourced through industrial means and 14 percent through small-scale, informal digging. Since the WDC represents the world’s biggest players in the diamond industry, and therefore, in our opinion, may be inherently biased (after all, who would want a diamond potentially unearthed by a miner—even worse, a child miner—facing human rights abuse?), we reached out to independent experts to verify this statistic.

While it’s difficult to estimate the percentage of diamonds sourced via informal alluvial mining with complete accuracy, experts we spoke to confirmed the WDC statistic is fairly accurate. Top diamond industry analyst Chaim Even-Zohar puts the number at 15 to 16 percent. Ian Smillie of African artisanal miner advocacy group Diamond Development Initiative estimates the number is a bit higher, ranging between 15 and 20 percent.

What’s being done to improve the lives of Africa’s artisanal miners and protect the ecosystems in alluvial mining communities?

There are a number of efforts underway to help Africa’s artisanal miners and protect the environment in which they work and live. One major initiative, which also works to improve the lives of artisanal miners in South America, is the Diamond Development Initiative (DDI). Packed with government and industry representatives from around the world, the non-profit organization is dedicated to formalizing the artisanal mining sector so workers, according to its vision statement, “have access to the opportunities, information, and tools they need to work with dignity within flourishing, self-sustaining communities.” As it works to formalize the industry and provide much-needed environmental remediation, it responds to urgent community needs, providing clean water, sanitation, and education (including mobile schooling units) for children in mining communities so they can pursue futures outside the mining industry.

Strengthening and protecting local ecosystems is another priority of DDI. The organization trains artisanal miners and site operators in environmentally sound practices, so that land and water are kept safe for both humans and animals. That commitment continues after a site is retired, as DDI ensures each site is fully rehabilitated—often for agricultural purposes—once mining has ended.

Other artisanal miner advocacy groups—both also packed with a variety of government, industry, and community leadership groups—include the Peace Diamond Alliance (PDA) and Mwadui Community Diamond Partnership. Formed to uplift the lives of diamond miners and traders from Sierra Leone’s Kono mining region, the PDA ensures the revue from the diamond industry advances local development, educates miners on diamond values to prevent exploitation, and organizes diggers into cooperatives to improve working conditions and protect human rights. The Mwadui Community Diamond Partnership similarly seeks to transform the artisanal diamond industry, but across the continent in the western African nation of Tanzania. As it seeks to establish a practical, sustainable model for artisanal mining, it provides miners with healthcare, access to fair-market pricing for the diamonds they mine, and more.

Issues associated with purchasing “ethical” diamonds

If you’re a conscientious consumer interested in purchasing an ethically and environmentally sound diamond, this is the question at the heart of the matter. Unfortunately, despite all the background information we’ve already provided you, it’s one that isn’t easy to address without a perfectly clear answer. To start answering this question, we’ll first need to rewind a bit, back to the 1990s when red flags were first raised regarding the ethics of diamonds.

Issue 1: The misleading nature of “conflict-free” diamonds

You may have heard the term “blood diamonds.” Also known as “conflict diamonds,” the phrase was coined in the late 1990s in reference to violent rebel groups that were taking over mining areas in central and western Africa. Once they took over these areas (by brutal, deadly force, and, in some cases, systematic rape), they would illegally trade diamonds for weapons and money, fueling additional violence and horror. Unbeknownst to consumers, these “blood” or “conflict” diamonds wound up in jewelry stores around the world.

The Kimberley Process Certification System was established in 2003 to prevent conflict diamonds from entering the diamond supply chain. And while you can feel relatively confident (there’s debate about how well the Kimberley Process actually works) that diamonds sold through legitimate sources are not funding rebel-led civil wars (coined “conflict-free” in some marketing materials), this narrowly-focused certification process makes it perfectly legal to sell diamonds tainted by violence, child labor, poverty, and environmental atrocities.

Once consumers learn about the injustices facing artisanal diamond miners, many want to know how they can avoid purchasing diamonds free of exploitation and environmental harm. Some mistakenly believe the label “conflict-free” guarantees a diamond free of human rights violations and environmental wrongdoing. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to well-meaning consumers, “conflict-free” diamonds are still sometimes (potentially 14 to 20 percent of the time, according to the statistics we stated earlier) rife with unethical and environmentally unsound practices.

Regrettably, the Kimberley Process—and the mainstream diamond industry—has given consumers a false sense of security when it comes to ethically sourced diamonds. Diamonds certified as “conflict-free” by the Kimberley Process does not take those that have mined them, nor their surrounding communities and environments, into consideration. Despite what even the most well-meaning jewelers assure you, “conflict-free” diamonds are only regulated to avoid the rebel-funded diamond trade, without regard to ethically or environmentally sound sourcing.

Issue 2: Most diamonds are not traceable to their origins

As much as ethically minded consumers would like to believe, and despite what some conscientious diamond purveyors tell you, diamonds are not traceable to their origins like fair trade coffee beans or organic produce. From mining to selling, diamonds pass through many hands, not all of them honest. Unless the diamond you purchase is from a Canadian mine or is lab-created (we’ll get into these options shortly), there is no guarantee is has been ethically sourced.

Although the majority of today’s diamonds are industrially mined, and DDI has made great strides in helping Africa’s artisanal miners, there is simply no way to distinguish an ethically sourced diamond from a corrupt one. This is because, believe it or not, even in the 21st century with virtually every technology at our fingertips, natural diamonds—unless they’re from a CDCC cooperating Canadian mine—are not traceable to their original source.

“Most rough diamonds are sorted and mixed before they are cut and polished,” Smillie explains, even those from the most stringent De Beers-operated mines in Botswana. “Because most diamonds do not have traceable certificates of origin, it is impossible to say whether they come from artisanal sources or from large mining corporations….Some Canadian diamonds are branded as such and do come with chains of warranty. Most others lose their identity as they work their way through the diamond pipeline.”

There’s also no way to visually tell the difference between deep-mine and alluvial diamonds, he continues, as “there are no distinguishing characteristics between diamonds from kimberlite and artisanal mining.”

Issue 3: Marketing strategies can give you a false sense of security

Sophisticated marketing language does not end at “conflict free.” Take, for example, the terms “origin” and “provenance.” Some jewelers may assure you that whatever diamond you’re interested in can be provenanced to any number of reputable-sounding countries. But, when it comes to ethics and environmental responsibility, it essentially means nothing.

“The words ‘provenance’ and ‘origin’ have two very different meanings in the diamond business,” Smillie states. “‘Origin’ means where the diamond was mined. ‘Provenance’ usually means its last stop before it got to you. For example, some diamonds are said to be Swiss in their provenance. That only means that their last stop on their way to the advertiser was Switzerland. ‘Provenance’ is elastic, so it could also mean other stops the diamond has made on its way to retail. Basically it’s a way of giving some comfort to a consumer if a jeweler can say that the ‘provenance’ is a known and reputable company. Where that company got the diamond, and how many hands it passed through before they obtained it, is much harder to say.”

One online diamond retailer that sells “beyond conflict-free” diamonds, offers “Botswana sort” diamonds to consumers. These diamonds—sourced from Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, then brought to Botswana “for sorting and sale,” according to their website—are independently certified by a third-party to be traceable to their origin. However, as we’ve noted, mistakes can be made, even by honorable companies. (As we note in our review of Brilliant Earth, if a company can unknowingly break its exclusivity contract by listing the same diamond as Blue Nile, it seems plausible that it can make a mistake regarding the origin of its diamonds.)

It’s also worth noting that they consider Russian diamonds to be “beyond conflict-free,” which seems counterintuitive, especially when organizations such as Human Rights Watch continues to identify the country as increasingly oppressive.

When conducting your own research, and we implore you to do so, you may read that Russian mining companies employ tens of thousands of people and give back to the communities where they operate. While this information may indeed be true, it’s important to link information about Russian mining back to the country where it originates: a country widely known for oppressing—and in some cases, violating—the rights of its population.

“Information is extremely tightly controlled in Russia, thus there are no reports about human rights abuses in the diamond mines,” according to Even-Zohar.

“[Take] a look at the very detailed annual reports of [Russian mining company] Alrosa,” which is majority-owned by the Russian government, he implores. “You don’t see a single statistics on mine fatalities.”

This lack of reliable information, or any information at all, “doesn’t operate in a vacuum,” he continues. “The Kremlin’s crackdown on civil society, media, and the Internet is taking an ever more sinister turn in recent years….Human rights mean one thing in Russia and something entirely else in other places.”

In other words, even though some companies such as Brilliant Earth (which, for the record, donates 5 percent of its profits to DDI, which is indeed admirable), tout ethics above all else, be sure to take time to decipher the marketing tactics, including the language, of any retailer, and make up your mind about what’s right for you.

This is a lot of information. What should I do?

It is a lot of information. Now that you’re knowledgeable about the troubling issues associated with artisanal mining, as well as the marketing tactics that skirt around and/or camouflage them, what should you do? How can you get an ethically sourced diamond that’s 100 percent, beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt free of human rights abuse and environmental harm? One possible strategy is to avoid the problem altogether and purchase a branded CDCC compliant Canadian, lab-created, or recycled diamond.

While these options will guarantee that you have not purchased a diamond mined in a human-rights abusing artisanal mine, they are nonetheless robbing the African communities that are dependent on diamond-sourced income of their livelihood. (More on that below)

Option 1: Canadian diamonds

Canada doesn’t naturally come to mind as a source for diamonds, probably because it’s relatively new in terms of diamond production. (Diamonds weren’t discovered in the northern country until the 1990s.) But surprisingly, Canada has emerged as a major source of high-quality diamonds, many of them completely traceable to their source. What’s more, all Canadian diamonds are mined in line with the country’s strict environmental and fair labor laws—and with respect to local indigenous people. The branded CanadaMark diamonds are also polished in Canada and are traced from mine to market with a unique ID number.

Option 2: Lab-created diamonds

Lab-created diamonds, also known as lab-grown diamonds or synthetic diamonds, are another option. Completely man-made, these diamonds look identical to natural diamonds, and, since they’re “grown” in a lab, they are formed without any risk to miners or the environment. (While major synthetic diamond manufacturers claim lab-created diamonds are cheaper than their natural counterparts, our research has indicated information to the contrary. They also have little to no resale value. You can read more about both of those issues here.)

Option 3: Recycled diamonds

Dubbed “the world’s largest diamond resource” by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), recycled diamonds may seems like an off-beat option, but they’re increasingly popular, especially amongst consumers that want to completely avoid the ethical and environmental issues associated with newly mined diamonds. Identical to their recently mined counterparts, recycled diamonds are removed from their original settings, and, in some cases, recut, re-polished and/or re-certified.

Option 4: Kalahari Dream – The Optimal Solution

Quite recently, a new solution has come to the market. If you are a consumer whose primary concern is avoiding the ethical pitfalls associated with diamond buying while doing what you can to support the communities that are reliant on diamond-sourced income in Africa, then this is the only option worth considering.

Kalahari Dream is a venture created by De Beers sightholder Leo Schachter Diamonds to sell diamonds direct to the consumer that they have purchased directly from southern African mining companies (such as Debswana, ODC, and Lucara) and manufactured themselves in their local Botswana polishing factory (employing hundreds of local citizens).

The stark difference between Kalahari Dream and Brilliant Earth is that Brilliant Earth is essentially no different than Blue Nile in that they’re just listing diamonds that belong to someone else. You’re relying on other companies’ honesty in claiming that a diamond you’re buying came from one place or another. And furthermore, even if you can rely on them as to the origin of the rough, you can never know where the diamond was polished.

Kalahari is the polar opposite. They own the diamonds they sell. They have owned them since their initial purchase as rough from the Debswana partnership between De Beers and the Botswana government. They have polished the diamonds themselves in their factories which enrich the lives of the local population. Their system is airtight and does immeasurable good for the people of Botswana.

Empowering stories, like that of Kemmonye Kgatitswe and Goabaone Wetshootsile, successful polishers in their factory, are commonplace at Kalahari Dream.

Buy the diamond that feels right to you

Buying a diamond is much like buying anything else of importance: You do your research and make the decision that feels right to you (and perhaps to your partner as well, if both of you are involved in the decision-making process).

We live in a global society, where many of the products we use on an everyday basis (our cellphones, computers, and cars, for example) are composed of dizzying array of globally sourced materials, built by an equally dizzying array of global workers. Some of these workers are treated fairly, others are not. Some of these materials are sourced sustainably, others are not. Unless you have an infinite amount of time to immerse yourself in research (and most of us don’t), about every single product you buy, it’s unlikely you have this information on hand (and if you did, you may not buy anything at all!).

While you may stop to think about the diamond in an engagement ring you’d like to buy, it’s unlikely you stopped to consider the conditions in which the gold surrounding that diamond was mined (gold mining is ripe with its own issues) or under what conditions the diamond itself was cut and polished. (We won’t go into that here!)

And if you do decide to purchase a Canadian, lab-created, or recycled diamond, you’re directing funds away from those in Africa that depend on consumers like us to support their livelihood. (Diamonds account for one-third of the national GDP of the Republic of Botswana, thanks to the longtime Debswana partnership between the southern African nation and De Beers. With more than 4,000 employees and 5,000 contractors, Debswana is the largest private sector employer in Botswana.)

Furthermore, De Beers is developing new technology to recapture CO2 in the atmosphere and store it in the space left behind their mining operations. They aim to reach a level of carbon-neutrality in their mining operations (ie, to recapture as much carbon as they emit) within five years and to eventually capture a surplus of carbon in the atmosphere. This would make natural diamonds much more appealing than synthetics when it comes to the environmental argument.

This is a lot to absorb, especially if you’re shopping for a diamond to commemorate an important milestone. We’ve told you everything here not to rain on your parade, but to bring up all sides of these issues so you can make an informed decision that feels right to you. After all, we’re dedicated to being completely transparent about the diamond industry, and ethical issues are part of that.

If you have questions about any of this, or anything about diamonds in general, please reach out to us. We’d love to hear from you and one of our diamond experts will be happy to address your inquiry.


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