An Open Letter to Leonardo DiCaprio

Taking issue with the star’s rationale for backing a lab-grown diamond company

Dear, um, Leo:

Back in 2006, before Blood Diamond was released, Nelson Mandela reached out to the stars of the movie and the head of Warner Brothers, worried about its impact on diamond sales and, by association, economies in Africa. You later met with him in Africa.

You seemed to be profoundly impacted by your meeting with one of the great figures of the 20th century. You told one interviewer: “Ultimately, diamonds are a source of social and economic stability in Africa, so this movie isn’t to say people shouldn’t buy diamonds.”

Today, of course, you seem to have changed your tune. As an investor backing Diamond Foundry, the new producer of lab-grown diamonds, you have said the company is “reducing the human and environmental toll of the diamond industry by sustainably culturing diamonds without the destructive use of mining.”

I can understand why you invested in Diamond Foundry, which I talked to here. It has enlisted a lot of extremely talented designers and, recently, two well-respected industry veterans. But I take issue with your rationale, which represents a major departure from your statements in 2007.

Mandela died three years ago, so if you are no longer listening to a genuine icon and hero—who famously turned down an offer to be released from prison—you probably won’t listen to me. (That’s assuming you read this; I’m guessing you won’t.) Regardless, your views are slowly becoming conventional wisdom. In one recent video produced by the Jewelry Consumer Opinion Council, a consumer said that, by buying a lab-grown diamond, “I feel like I’m doing something good for the community.” Author Eric March writes in Upworthy that lab-grown diamonds “hurt pretty much no one.”

Not really. Let’s unpack this:

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that lab-grown diamonds damage the environment less than natural diamonds. (While this makes a certain intuitive sense, we lack independently derived hard data on this.) For now, lab-grown diamonds aren’t replacing natural diamonds; they are being produced in addition to them. That produces no discernable environmental or social benefit, and, in fact, involves building new factories that didn’t exist before. (Diamond Foundry does say: “We use solar power credits to reduce our carbon footprint to zero.”)

For lab-grown diamonds to actually show a benefit, they have to replace natural diamonds. But that brings about an even bigger problem. Some 10 million people depend on the diamond industry and diamond mining in particular, sometimes in the poorest areas of the world. That’s a lot of livelhoods at stake.

Diamonds make up 30 percent of Botswana’s gross domestic product and 70 percent of its foreign exchange earnings. Take that money away, and you are putting a knife in the heart of the economy of one of the few African success stories. As this report on lab-grown diamonds puts it:

For Botswana, which has sufficient deposits of diamonds to remain an important supplier on the world market for at least the next two decades, the stakes could not be greater. Botswana is also the world’s most diamond dependent economy and a catastrophic decline in price and profitability of the sector as a result of a loss of consumer confidence in the long term value of diamond as a store of value is a definite but unquantifiable risk.

What do diamonds mean for Botswana? Listen to former president Festus Mogae:

When [American consumers] buy Botswana diamonds, they are putting food on people’s tables and providing education for children. They are providing antiretroviral drugs for AIDS…. The people who benefit from their purchases are in far worse shape than they are. When they purchase diamonds, they are helping people who might otherwise starve ?…

The end of the natural diamond industry would also cripple the economies of South Africa, Namibia, and even Sierra Leone, the locale of Blood Diamond. As Mandela said in 2006:

It would be deeply regrettable if the making of [Blood Diamond] inadvertently obscured the truth, and, as a result, led the world to believe that an appropriate response might be to cease buying mined diamonds from Africa. We hope that the desire to tell a gripping and important real life historical story will not result in the destabilization of African diamond producing countries, and, ultimately their peoples.

What would also be deeply regrettable is if money that was going to some of the world’s poorest people is now re-routed to you and Diamond Foundry’s 10 billionaire backers. Yes, you all likely give heavily to charity, including in Africa. But with 60 or so billionaires now controlling half the world’s wealth, maybe we should eliminate the middleman.

Perhaps the best analogy may be to ad blockers, currently a hot topic. Everyone agrees that some online advertising does awful things to users’ computers. That is part of the reason many consumers, and now Apple, have embraced programs that block them. The problem is, many publications depend on ad revenue, and these programs block ads indiscriminately. If consumers adopt them, the journalism business will arguably suffer. The fight against bad ads could cut out the ones that serve a legitimate purpose.

It’s the same with diamonds. It is no secret that some diamonds are produced in poor conditions. Luckily, the vast majority of diamonds are not. If people stop buying natural diamonds, the people dependent on the mining industry in some of the poorest countries in the world will be thrown out of work. And they will have a lot fewer options than out-of-work Western journalists.

Probably the best-case scenario would be if lab-grown diamonds become such a hot item that the natural industry comes under increased pressure to boost chain of custody controls and solve the remaining existing problems. (Those things need to happen regardless.) Unfortunately, real life doesn’t always play out so neatly, or so well.

Lab-grown diamonds are a fine product. They are now part of the diamond industry. There are countless reasons why people may buy them, including the price, proof of origin, and designs being offered. But consumers, including you, must understand that buying a lab-grown diamond is not a big moral statement, as much as some may believe so.

P.S. By the way, if you or Diamond Foundry’s billionaire backers want to truly improve the humanitarian and environmental aspects of the diamond industry, the Diamond Development Initiative is an excellent group to contribute to. Blood Diamond director Ed Zwick is on the advisory board.

JCK News Director