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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

Can diamonds ever be ethical?

By Lauren Cameron

While diamonds have traditionally been appreciated as symbols of wealth, abundance, purity and wisdom – the ultimate manifestation of immaculate beauty – their history is anything but beautiful. Diamonds sourced from Angola, Ghana and Zimbabwe are tainted by violence, corruption, forced labor and sexual violence, ironic given the final product is deemed a suitable way of sealing one’s love of a woman. In parts of Africa, namely Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone, diamonds are used to fuel lengthy civil conflicts – sold to finance insurgencies or to fund warlord activities in the region.

That this still occurs today is certainly not news. The blood diamond or “conflict diamond” trade has been acknowledged for its hideous crimes against humanity for more than 20 years. The United Nations definition of blood diamonds as “…diamonds that originate from areas controlled by forces or factions opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments, and are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments, or in contravention of the decisions of the Security Council”. The blood diamond trade is now so expansive that its products can be bought online via the Facebook marketplace. International non-government organization Global Witness recently produced an investigative report that found Facebook and messenger platforms such as WhatsApp are now used to smuggle stones sourced from conflict areas into the international supply chain – the reach of conflict diamonds knows no bounds.

International concern for the welfare of those embroiled in the blood trade – as well as what it was funding – grew to such proportions than in 2000 the United Nations came to a landmark decision regarding the trade known as the Kimberly Process (KP). A voluntary scheme, the KP has 54 participants representing 81 countries or approximately 99.8% of the global production of rough diamonds. Using a three-step verification method, the scheme forces member countries to certify that all rough diamond exports are produced through legitimate mining and sales activities and are “conflict-free.” While it remains the first international attempt to curb the violent effects of the trade, the resolution doesn’t quite go far enough. The scheme doesn’t take into account the broader human rights violations associated with the trade, nor does it require individual mines to be monitored by their own governments, meaning it remains relatively easy for an conflict-fueled mine to simply smuggle blood diamonds into the mine of a non-conflict or non-member country.

So, at a time where consumers are becoming increasingly ethically-conscious; where millennials have been raised to question the origins of their food and products, how can the luxury jewelry industry be reconciled with the diamond trade given its nefarious past – and present? The industry is certainly not in pace with increasing consumer consciousness.

One solution, which has already touted perhaps the most important disruptive innovation of the century, is lab-grown diamonds. While the chemical composition of lab-grown diamonds is exactly the same as that of natural ones, the environmental and social impacts of the process are vastly different, giving new age consumers an eco-friendly, non-conflict alternative to mined diamonds.

According to one study which compared the energy usages of diamonds mined a BHP Billiton’s Ekati mine in Canada with those produced in a lab, it was found that lab-grown diamonds produced less than one-fifth of the carbon dioxide emissions than that of the Ekati mine. It was estimated that by replacing Ekati’s annual diamond production with lab-grown diamonds would reduce the industry’s carbon footprint significantly – saving the equivalent of roughly 483m miles’ worth of auto emissions over 12 months. And while it remains small, the lab-grown diamond industry is growing fast. Will it be enough to usurp traditional competition, I wonder?

Many aren’t convinced that lab-grown stones are the solution, suggesting instead that we must focus on developing a more ethically and environmentally responsible mining industry by getting those involved in the industry to put pressure on mines. And retailers are taking heed. Boucheron, Tiffany’s and Blue Nile are just three of many jewelry retailers who have changed their sourcing habits, offering consumers only conflict-free diamonds, as well as recycled gold or other ethically-sourced gems in some instances. BlueStone, for example, sources its diamonds for rings from legitimate, conflict-free sources certified by the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, and US-based company Brilliant Earth claims to sell only the finest quality conflict-free diamond jewelry untainted by unethical labor practices. UK-based jeweler HK Jewellery now declares on its website: ‘We have always been passionate about using conflict free diamonds and ethically mined gemstones and together with the British Jewellers’ Association and our diamond suppliers put a lot of effort into ensuring that the diamonds that we use are not sourced from areas of Africa controlled by forces rebelling against the legitimate and internationally recognized government of the relevant country.

It is simple but profound messaging like this that will surely facilitate a gradual, industry-wide transformation to more ethical practices. And by improved ethical practices I mean not only those that relate to the environment and peace, but also to gender equality and poverty alleviation. Women entrepreneurship in the jewelry industry is one mostly limited to the production of handcrafted, homemade products. Rarely do women play a part in the diamond trade – beyond experiencing the negative ramifications of it, that is.

It’s time to turn a new leaf on a formidably tainted industry, developing it instead as one that supports, condones and advocates for peace, human rights and equality for all. We as consumers can certainly play our part.

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