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Sustainable sparkle: The environmental impacts of mined versus lab-grown diamonds

By Giselle Saati

The growing popularity of gem-quality lab-grown (also known as ‘synthetic’ or ‘cultured’) diamonds has caused a relentless marketing battle between diamond mining companies and gem-quality lab-grown diamond producers. Both contenders know corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives are key in appealing to the values of consumers. In 2015, an Annual Global Corporate Sustainability Report from data measurement firm Nielsen indicated 66 per cent of consumers prefer to purchase products from socially responsible companies.

On the lab-grown producers’ side, companies such as Brilliant Earth, the Diamond Foundry, and Pure Grown Diamonds (PGD) market their diamonds as being conflict free and environmentally friendly. On the mining side, there is the Diamond Producers Association’s (DPA’s) ‘Real is Rare’ marketing campaign, which is intended to “promote the integrity and reputation” of natural diamonds.

Ali Saleem, a professor of energy and the environment at the University of Delaware, says “techniques for comparing synthetic and mined diamonds in terms of environmental impacts have yet to be refined.” (For more, refer to Saleem’s paper, “The Ecology of Diamond Sourcing: From Mined to Synthetic Gems as a Sustainable Transition,” published by Springer Science+Business Media New York in 2016.) Comparing the two types is complicated because there are several different factors to consider. First, diamond mining can take various forms, including open pit, closed pit, marine, and alluvial. The ecological footprint of mined diamonds also varies across geographic locations. Second, lab-grown diamonds are created through either high-pressure, high-temperature (HPHT) or chemical vapour deposition (CVD) processes, each of which has different energy usage.

There is also the problem of information asymmetry. Currently, access to information depends highly upon the company and location. However, most mining companies are expected to publish sustainability reports. Although this information could be biased, given the variability in how it is represented, the mining industry is regulated and in some cases employs third-party agencies to monitor environmental and social impacts. In the case of lab-grown producers, there is very little supervision and all companies are privately owned. As they are not obligated to disclose information, transparency is a concern.

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Despite these complications, I have attempted to create greater objectivity concerning a matter about which there is not yet conclusive evidence. I have done this by devising criteria with which to evaluate both industries’ environmental and social impacts.

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