What Exactly is an Eco-Friendly Diamond?

What Exactly is an Eco-Friendly Diamond?

If you’re an engaged person like me, or soon-to-be engaged, you may have already looked into eco-friendly diamond ring options yourself, trying to find out the eco-friendliness of lab grown diamonds vs. mined diamonds and getting very frustrated! What exactly is an eco-friendly diamond anyway?

In an ideal world, eco-friendly diamonds would be diamonds that come into existence without harming the environment. Currently, neither lab grown diamonds nor traditional mined diamonds are entirely eco-friendly, both requiring substantial amounts of energy and emissions to be created or mined.

Having said this, there are certainty more eco-friendly qualities of lab-created diamonds over diamonds mined from the Earth, but there are also nuanced ethical and sustainability issues to consider regarding diamond workers around the world, making this issue MUCH more complex than many diamond companies would have us believe.

The current research suggests that scientists still have more tests to do before we can accurately compare and contrast the environmental impacts between these two existing diamond-creation processes (lab and mined). I hope to clarify some points in this post so that you can make the most informed decision when diamond shopping for your wedding!


Eco-Friendliness: Lab Grown Diamonds vs. Mined Diamonds

“Synthetic” or “lab created” diamonds are created artificially in labs over the course of weeks or months, but are chemically and physically identical to earth-mined diamonds.

They can actually achieve flawlessness of cut, color, and clarity unmatched by any mined diamond. Experts can’t even tell the difference between the two. And ironically, lab diamonds cost a fraction of the price of ‘real’ diamonds (usually 20-30% less!). It seems like the low cost of lab grown diamonds is really what’s been attracting many young people to buy them recently.

By contrast, mined diamonds are created slowly, deep in the earth (over 1-3 billion years) and are then mined and polished in questionable conditions before being marketed to we the consumers at exorbitant (in my opinion) prices at rates that have been fabricated by false scarcity.

We simply can’t yet draw any conclusions that point to either of these available options being deemed eco-friendly, despite how green or ethical all of the various diamond companies are claiming to be.

That being said, there is a lot of nuance and a lot of interesting research we can talk about right now regarding lab grown vs. mined diamonds and their environmental and ethical effects. Here are some of the issues at a glance:

ECO & ETHICAL FACTORS:Lab Grown DiamondsMined Diamonds
Energy usageCreated in factories often powered by non-renewable energy sources Gem exploration, excavation, and transportation from isolated sites can use a lot of energy but varies greatly by location
Impact on land No impactExcavators create giant open-pit holes in the Earth at mining sites; cause soil erosion; deforestation; destruction of entire ecosystems
Impact on wildlifeNo impactHabitat destruction of various species
Water usageConsumes 18 gallons of water per caratConsumes more than 126 gallons of water per carat
Worker conditionsVaries by company but no abuses reportedChild laborers in Sierra Leona and elsewhere; Dangerous mining conditions that have led to many accidents; long, unsafe and unregulated working conditions for diamond polishers in India that lead to tuberculosis and respiratory diseases, and suicide
Public health impactsNo impactWhen stagnant water accumulates in the giant open-pit mines, mosquitoes breed and exacerbate malaria and other water borne illnesses
Other issuesSome companies use mined metals in their process; impact of transportionImpact of transportation on the environment

As you can see, this table breaks down some of the eco and ethical issues I was concerned about as I’ve been researching the impact of diamonds.

When I look at the table, it seems to me that the mining of diamonds has a LOT of downsides compared with lab grown diamonds. However, we also have to consider that many people in countries around the world, despite the poor conditions of the diamond mining and polishing industry, rely on these jobs to feed their families.

“There is no question synthetic diamonds will be less ­impactful than mined diamonds. But on the social side, the situation is more complex. If managed well, mined diamonds can lead to more employment opportunities. If not managed well, they can lead to human rights abuses. But synthetics aren’t going to create a lot of jobs.”

Saleem Ali, Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware and the only academic to have published on this issue.

How can we be both eco-friendly and not promote the destruction of the livelihoods of diamond mining workers? I have come to realize the complexity of this situation means that we can’t simply say that buying one kind of diamond is better than another.

We can only inform ourselves as consumers as much as possible, despite the very little amount of transparency provided from the (both lab and mined) diamond companies about their supply chains, and make our decisions from there.


The Eco-Friendliness of Lab Grown Diamonds

Most lab-created diamond companies do not provide us with much information on their websites about the eco-friendliness of their own diamond-making processes. You’ll notice when you start to shop around that their approach is more to tell us about what the mined diamond companies are doing wrong.

And much of this is fair in my opinion. We all know that there are a lot of problems with mined diamonds. They’ve contributed to so many human rights violations and environmental disasters that it’s insane how we can still have a thirst for diamonds knowing all of this.

How we can look down at our wedding rings knowing that they may have contributed to such horrible situations? It should frankly make us ashamed. Yet all of the shaming of mining processes doesn’t really tell us anything about the eco-friendliness of lab grown diamonds.

Here’s what we do know to be true:

Lab-created diamonds don’t make giant open pits in the Earth
This is an eco-friendly aspect of lab grown diamonds that we know to be true. Lab grown diamonds don’t cause gigantic holes in the ground that destroy ecosystems and threaten local populations with increased malaria exposure due to the stagnant water in the holes!

Lab-created diamonds use less water
Mining is an industry that notoriously pollutes and guzzles water, and requires tons of water for mineral processing, dust suppression, transport, and for the workers. Mine sites in isolates areas often have a water shortage already, and mining makes it worse. Lab grown diamonds use 18 gallons of water to create a carat, while mined diamonds require 126 gallons!

Lab-created diamonds don’t destroy the ecosystems of local wildlife
As previously mentioned, mining for ‘real’ diamonds destroys giant areas of land. In Australia, for example, there are thousands of abandoned, open diamond mines. Erosion and deforestation that can’t be reversed; and the loss of species due to habitat destruction, is a major downside of mined diamonds – and in contrast, upside to lab-created diamonds.

Lab-created diamonds don’t have a negative impact on public heath
Mined diamond companies create giant open pits in the earth, which collect stagnant water, and become breeding grounds for mosquitoes. These mosquitoes spread malaria and other water borne illnesses, and can wreak havoc on the health of local communities. Lab-grown diamonds do not have a negative impact on the health of workers or local communities that we know of.

Lab-created diamonds are conflict free
Lab-created diamonds don’t have a history of financing bloody wars abroad, or inspiring sad movies starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou.

Lab-created diamonds don’t use child labor
See what I mean? Most of the items are things that lab-grown diamond companies don’t do, and mined diamond companies do do or have done, or it’s unclear if they still do or not. And this is a big one. Despite having a system in place, called The Kimberley Process (KP), to reduce the trade of conflict diamonds, it isn’t perfect and we still can’t always know the suffering, including child labor, that may have came from the diamonds we’re wearing.


The Eco-Problems of Lab Grown Diamonds

So, what are the negative eco-issues that the lab-created diamonds aren’t mentioning and why? Some companies have been more forthcoming with this information and that’s great. They should be. There are certain things to celebrate in terms of lab-created diamonds, as discussed above, and diamond companies should embrace those things while being honest about their shortcomings.

The issue that I keep thinking about is how no reputable conservation organization has yet endorsed the lab-grown diamond industry. This gives me some pause and it made me look a bit more deeply into certain issues with lab-created diamonds.

What are the downsides of lab-created diamonds that aren’t being talked about enough? The two major issues that I see in all of this are non-renewable energy usage and the ethical impacts on workers.

Here’s what we know to be true:

Lab-created diamonds require a lot of energy, and it’s often non-renewable
Even diamonds created in labs need a whole heck of a lot of energy to make. In some of the countries currently making lab grown diamonds, renewable energy is not available. So we may be creating diamonds at the expense of using enormous amounts of power unnecessarily. There are some companies buying carbon credits, but very few.

“Even if lab-growns are more eco-friendly than mined, that’s an arguably inappropriate label to put on an item produced with large amounts of nonrenewable energy. If a cookie contains 30 percent less sugar, that doesn’t make it a health food.”

-JCK

Lab-created diamonds don’t provide jobs
The concern of many people who are unsure of whether or not to support lab-grown diamonds is that they will take away the jobs of miners and polishers in parts of the world that rely on those jobs. This despite the fact that these workers are horribly underpaid, overworked, and definitely don’t enjoy fair labor practices.

But there’s no doubt that pulling the market out from under them would leave millions of people without a livelihood. One report says 10 million people work in the diamond industry and and that it contribute $8 billion a year to Africa (Source).

“For us, sustainability is linked to economic development, it’s about structural change, it’s about women’s rights, and it’s about inclusive participation. Synthetic diamonds don’t do any of that. They will take that away. It’s closing the door on the micro-producers to enter the international market.”

Joanne Lepert, Executive Director of Impact, a Canadian NGO (Source)

The bottom line seems to be that there is a lack of transparency. Consumers really care these days. They want to help. They want to make the world a better place, and they need to have trust in these diamond companies that they really are doing what they say they’re doing when they claim to be eco-friendly and ethical.

There aren’t any easy answers or easy decisions, but we can keep asking questions and keep demanding more transparency.


Can Earth-Mined Diamonds Be Eco-Friendly?

No, I don’t think so. Earth-mined diamonds, despite claims that diamond mining is less invasive and destructive than others types of mining, is still mining. It still can’t be good for the earth to dig giant gaping holes into it, use enormous amounts of water resources, and transport these gems from isolated areas.

Inadequate planning and regulation has also allowed diamond mining companies to destroy natural habitats in parts of Africa, Canada, Australia, and other areas of the world. There are even companies mining diamonds in the ocean and causing marine damage. For what? A shiny rock. That supposedly represents our love.

This isn’t even touching on the questionable fair trade and human rights issues, that though decreased, have not been eliminated. If ‘eco-friendly’ means not causing harm to the Earth, I just don’t think that we can ever legitimately call a diamond mined from the earth “eco-friendly.”


What is the Most Eco-Friendly Decision We Can Make About Diamonds?

I really like the idea of buying diamonds secondhand, if we absolutely need to have diamonds. Others agree with me:

“The really sustainable thing is to recycle diamonds from old jewelry. That’s the future in a world where energy is too precious to be used on luxury items.”

Estelle Levin-Nally, the founder of Levin Sources, a consulting firm concerned with responsible mining

If we can find pieces that are meaningful from family members, even better. But if not, we can visit secondhand shops or shop online on ethical fair trade sites such as the amazing Made Trade, which supports artisans all over the world.

If you absolutely want to have your own, never-worn diamond, the most eco-friendly decision you could make, however imperfect, is to get a lab-created diamond. The pros outweigh the pros of a mined diamond in terms of eco-friendliness.

Clean Origin is a company selling lab-created diamonds and diamond wedding rings that also has very affordable prices. They even create custom designs so that you can completely design your own engagement or wedding ring, for cheaper than it costs at a traditional diamond jeweler – by thousands of dollars.

It makes me laugh to think of the “three month” salary cost of engagement ring rule that some people are still following!

Look at the prices of beautiful diamond rings on Clean Origin (and they are real – they have the exact same chemical structure of any other diamond!) and tell me how mined diamonds can get away with charging as much as they do!

Alternative options to consider:

If you can skip the diamond altogether or if a smaller (lab-created) diamond will do, consider one of these beautiful ethical options:

Capsul
Price: From $150
An ethical jewelry company I love that makes custom designs. I love the idea of getting matching simple rings that have the dates of your wedding in Roman numerals, which Capsul can do. They also engrave text in cursive.

Joie de Viv
Price: $390
This is a company with ethically sourced diamonds and metals. It’s good if you want simple, thin rings, and not the traditional big giant diamond gem.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for the most eco-friendly wedding ring diamond option, you’re best going with a recycled or secondhand diamond. If that’s not an option for you, a lab grown diamond is probably the next best thing in terms of eco-friendliness.

Although no perfect solution has yet presented itself, as long as we continue to be aware of the current lack of transparency in the diamond industry, and to ask questions – and not accept everything at face value, we’ll be doing our part as best we can.

Brittany

Brittany is a writer, teacher, and a graduate student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. She started the website Wayfaring Weddings as a way to share her research on affordable, eco-friendly, and less stressful approaches to wedding planning.