18 April 2022 4 min read
There’s been a growing buzz around ‘sustainable diamonds’.
Thanks to the efforts of campaigners, people are wising up to the fact that the sparkling gems they admire might have cost more than their jewellery store price tag. We’re talking about environmental destruction, human rights abuses and conflict.
But what are ‘sustainable diamonds’? What does it mean for a diamond to be sustainable or ethical?
First, what does sustainability actually mean?
The UN defines ‘sustainable development’ as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.
The University of Alberta takes it a step further, asserting that sustainability is a holistic concept, bringing together ecological, economic and social factors. This looks like protecting the environment and consuming natural resources at a rate at which they can replenish themselves; economic systems that are equal and allow humans everywhere the resources necessary to meet their needs; and human rights available to and respected by all.
Most diamonds come from within the earth. They are formed from carbon, subjected to immense pressure and heat, becoming rough diamonds. Once they are taken from the earth, they are cut and processed to become the gemstones we see in rings, bracelets, earrings, etc.
To get them out of the ground, they must be mined. This involves digging up and moving earth. It is estimated that for each diamond carat, around 250 tonnes of earth must be shifted. This takes an enormous toll on the natural world.
To make space for mining operations, large-scale deforestation occurs. The mining itself leaves lasting scars on the land, impacting biodiversity, affecting water sources and releasing large volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
There’s no doubt about it. Diamond mining is bad for the environment.
But that’s not all.
Diamond mining operations are often unregulated, unsafe and unethical. Miners work in appalling conditions. Child labour is common as is forced labour. Many workers face human rights abuses. While, in several nations, armed groups profit from the diamond trade, funding wars with their spoils.
And while schemes such as the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme have made an impact, they have been criticised for not doing enough. Some small, artisan mining operations do promise better conditions. But the overall picture is bleak.
Thanks to loopholes and poor oversight, it’s very difficult to know which diamonds have helped fund conflict or have come from a mine where human rights abuses abound. There’s no way to be 100% sure, whether you have a certificate or not.
In a nutshell - mined diamonds are not sustainable.
The good news for jewellery lovers is that yes, diamonds can be sourced ethically. Just not from the ground.
If we’re following the criteria set out by the UN and the University of Alberta, sustainable diamonds should have a lesser environmental impact and workers involved in the sourcing of the diamond should be treated fairly and their human rights respected.
Enter the lab-grown diamond.
Created in a lab, using a seed crystal and grown over a short period, these stones are as real as those dug from the ground. They have the same visual, chemical and physical properties, despite generally being less expensive.
The difference is that to source these diamonds, it did not require hundreds of tonnes of earth to be moved, or forests to be cut down. They did not require child labourers to risk their lives to collect them.
While lab-grown diamonds are significantly kinder to the planet than mined diamonds, they are not without issue.
As a relatively new industry, there is still a lack of regulation and transparency around the impact of lab-grown diamonds, particularly when it comes to the carbon emissions resulting from their creation, which some say may be as high as those from mined diamonds. We do know that many labs make sure to use renewable energy, keeping their footprint as low as possible. In contrast, we’ve seen the environmental devastation wrought by traditional mining practice.
There’s also the impact of lab-created diamonds on the traditional mining industry and the millions of people who work in it. Many of these workers come from marginalised communities and the loss of income from the switch to lab-grown diamonds can have negative consequences for them. Their hopes of a better, fairer industry hang on the revenue from mining.
Lab-grown isn’t an easy answer to the question of sustainability. But, if you’re looking for a more sustainable diamond, without the heavy human and environmental toll, it’s a good place to start.
We started illi because we love fine jewellery. And we love our planet. We want to treat it with respect and protect it for future generations. Our vision is to create beautiful jewellery that is sustainable and ethical.
Shop our range of sustainable diamond jewellery today.
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