Why You Should Consider Ethical and Sustainable Diamonds

When it comes to buying a diamond, you should make the ethical and sustainable choice — here’s why. 


May 20 2019, Updated 11:10 a.m. ET

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A sparkler on your ring finger might be pretty, but it’s fairly possible that it was acquired by slave labor, underpaid workers, and in unsafe, life-threatening conditions. If your diamond wasn’t sustainably sourced, then chances are it is doing more harm than good.

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The truth about diamond engagement rings is that there is no tradition behind the popularized concept. In fact, perpetuating the idea of diamond engagement rings was actually a marketing scheme by De Beers Group, an international corporation specializing in diamond exploration, mining, retail, raining, and manufacturing. The marketing team at De Beers popularized the diamond engagement ring in the 20th century, a time when De Beers controlled 90 percent of the diamond market.

Much like the argument people make for Valentine’s Day, the truth about engagements is that diamonds are only associated thanks to successful marketing. Diamond engagement rings are a commercial commodity; there is no sentimental tradition behind them.

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Africa is the epicenter of global diamond production, a majority of which is managed by the aforementioned De Beers. Africa produces half of all diamonds; since diamond mining began in 1866, Africa has produced $158 billion worth of diamonds. That’s 1.9 billion carats.

So, diamonds come from Africa. Who cares, right? What’s the big deal? The issue with mined diamonds is multi-faceted. When the child of a Dutch farmer found the first 22-carat diamond in what’s now South Africa back in 1866, it kicked off a diamond rush. Miners flocked to the area soon after the second diamond was discovered (an 83-carat) and ever since, Africa led the world in diamond production. But part of the problem is De Beer’s monopoly over the industry. With so much control over the market, De Beer oversaw (and still oversees) much of the supply-and-demand and pricing.

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Problems with mined diamonds

Improper diamond mining practices can lead to soil erosion and strip the soil of its natural nutrients. Soil erosion contributes to deforestation. Dust and water pollution are also side effects of unsustainable diamond mining. Such land degradation—a decline in the productive capacity of the land and therefore its value as an economic resource—can cause proneness to flooding.

In Angola, Central Africa, the environmental effects of diamond mining were so severe, local populations were actually forced to relocate.

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Land degradation is a big part of why diamond mining is unsustainable. There are several methods to diamond mining, all of which are questionable. One method, called alluvial diamond mining, occurs inside river banks and beaches — secondary deposits of diamonds. Alluvial mining calls for walls to be built to divert the river’s flow; then the body of water is drained. Bulldozers come in and dig through the leftover dirt, looking for diamonds in the now drained river.

Another type of mining is diamond pipe mining, which requires shanks inserted into the ground with the goal of locating ore-bearing pipes. Large amounts of soil are then extracted, which contributes to the land degradation of the area.

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What are sustainable diamonds?

Sustainable diamonds do not require the unsustainable, negative mining processes that mined diamonds do. In fact, sustainable diamonds seek to eradicate the negative social and environmental repercussions of traditional diamond ming. 

In order to find sustainable diamonds, there are a few choices. First and foremost, you can opt for synthetic diamonds or lab-created diamonds. Synthetic diamonds are an environmentally-friendly choice because they require no mining; the East Coast of the United States is a lucrative hub for such diamonds. Synthetics also contain all the same physical, chemical, and optical characteristics as mined diamonds. Plus, synthetic diamonds have all the sparkle of the real thing at a lower cost. Synthetic diamonds are typically 42 percent cheaper than the real thing.

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Recycled diamonds are another affordable and sustainable option. Jewelers can reset or sometimes even recut a used stone to fit a more modern ring band. These diamonds do not require new mining. Sure, this option doesn’t ensure that the original diamond was sustainably sourced, but it does keep you from contributing to an industry dependent on unsustainable practices and unethical treatment of workers.

Other types of sustainable diamonds require that they were sustainably sourced. If a diamond was sourced in Canada, Russia, Namibia, Botswana, or South Africa, that is a good indicator that your sparkler was sustainably sourced.

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Why you should consider an ethical and sustainable diamond

“Blood diamond” and “conflict diamonds” are terms that have been coined for a reason. These phrases refer to diamonds mined in war zones that are then sold to finance rebel movements against recognized governments. Both terms seek to bring awareness to the horrible consequences of diamond production. Sadly, blood diamonds still exist today.

From a humanitarian perspective alone, ethical and sustainable diamonds should appeal to you. After all, the conditions diamond miners suffer is a far cry from anything the Fair Trade Certification would approve. 

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The monopoly De Beer has on the diamond industry is crucial to understanding the poor conditions, treatment, and small wages of diamond miners. De Beers pays a small tax to the South African municipalities from which the diamonds are sourced; a study by the University of Manchester found that De Beers was severely shortchanging areas that significantly contribute to the diamond mining trade. But De Beers isn’t the only guilty party; diamond mining around the world is dangerous, unsustainable, and as an industry, doesn’t value its workers. What’s worse: miners are treated very poorly; when paid, diamond miners wages in Zimbabwe add up to $277 monthly, but a lot of the time, workers go unpaid. In fact, in some countries, the diamond mining industry relies heavily on slave labor; in places like Liberia, Zimbabwe, and parts of India, children are enslaved to do the diamond mining work. To add insult to injury, diamond miners often don’t have access to health care, insurance, or acceptable living conditions. Physical abuse is rampant in diamond mining camps and sex trafficking is prevalent, which contributes to the high rates of HIV and other STDs amongst miners. In one diamond mine in Surat, India, 10 percent of male miners had at least one STI.

What are some ethical alternatives with mined diamonds?

There are several ethical alternatives to mined diamonds. Sustainable diamonds can include synthetic gems made in a lab, recycled diamonds that have been reused, recut, and reset, or diamonds that have been ethically and sustainably sourced.

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Diamonds sourced from Canada are typically required to adhere to the highest environmental and humanitarian standards. Some diamond mines in Canada, like Ekati and Diavik, rely on wind farms to generate most of their energy and are audited by the Responsible Jewelry Council.

Other sustainable diamond sources to look for include Russia and Botswana Sort diamonds, which come from either Namibia, Botswana, or South Africa.

Not sure where to start? Jewelry brands like Hume Atelier, Brilliant Earth, and Leber Jewler in Chicago are committed to ethical sourcing. Additionally, each of these brands advocates for certification changes and funds the Diamond Development Initiative, an effort to support small-scale miners.

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This article is part of Green Matters #EarthAfterEarthDay, a campaign to remind readers that preserving the Earth is just as important after Earth Day as it is on the annual holiday. To help you keep up your sustainable habits year-round, Green Matters is hosting a giveaway for a $500 gift card to Everlane, a fashion brand that sells sustainable, ethical, and modern basics.

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