Can Lab-Grown Diamonds Be Called Eco-Friendly?

During the Natural Color Diamond Association panel on synthetic diamonds at the JCK show two weeks ago, Jewelers Vigilance Committee president and CEO Cecilia Gardner said something I found quite surprising: Calling a lab-grown diamond eco-friendly might not be permissible under the Federal Trade Commission’s standards for so-called green claims. 

That lab diamonds are eco-friendly is a regular contention from diamond growers. A rotator slide on the front page of Gemesis’ site declares that “eco-friendly just got prettier.” Scio Diamond just used a similar phrase in a recent press release. Given the growing interest among millennial shoppers in green products, that could be a potent positioning.

Other growers have been a little more circumspect. Tom Chatham told me in 2008 that environmental issues “are not something we like to take advantage of, but there are companies that we sell to that do it on the premise that it’s a green product. I can’t say anything personally, because every chemical we use comes out of the ground. I tell that to them, but they still think it’s better than these big holes in Africa. We just go along with it.”

As Chatham notes, even most growers aren’t saying that lab-grown diamonds are beneficial for the environment; they are, after all, produced by factories. They just contend they do less damage than mined diamonds. But according to Gardner, who points out that the FTC just released new Green Guides, that may not be good enough. 

“Eco-friendly is a claim like any other claim,” Gardner says. “Any claim you make in advertising has to be substantiated…. For a company to maintain the claim, it would have to show that the manufacturing process that results in a lab-grown diamond is eco-friendly. From what I know to be true about the manufacturing process, there are some environmental impacts to creating those diamonds.”

She noted that eco-friendly “is not a comparative claim. It is a claim straight up. And I think it would be difficult to make that kind of a claim. These diamonds are not being grown out of a compost heap.”

And, in fact, the Green Guides specifically frown upon the term eco-friendly (which, if you think about it, is a pretty nebulous phrase):

The brand name “eco-friendly” likely conveys that the product has far-reaching environmental benefits and may convey that the product has no negative environmental impact. Because it is highly unlikely that the marketer can substantiate these claims, the use of such a brand name is deceptive….

It similarly discourages general environmental benefit claims, noting they are “difficult to interpret” and “likely convey a wide range of meanings.” 

Still, even if certain wording may not pass muster (at least in the U.S.), one can imagine language that would be acceptable in this instance: While declaring created stones have “less environmental impact than mined diamonds” may not have the same punch as just pronouncing them eco-friendly, it still gets the message across. 

Which raises the question whether the stones really do have less environmental impact. That certainly makes intuitive sense—lab-grown diamonds don’t require tearing up the Earth, for one—but it has not been the subject of much independent research.

I did find two studies that have looked at this. One article, which appeared in the Stanford University alumni magazine, argues that “replacing [the Ekati mine’s] annual diamond production with synthetic diamonds created in a lab could save the equivalent of about 483 million miles’ worth of auto emissions.” (Singapore producer IIa Technologies uses a uses a similar calculation on its site, though with a smaller final number.)  However, a working paper on “Ecological Comparison of Synthetic versus Mined Diamonds,” by University of Vermont professor Saleem Ali, counters “this data may be misleading because we do not have any accurate metrics of the raw material used to make the synthetic diamonds,” as the companies have not released all the info on their often-proprietary processes. He says the subject requires further research.

Of course, even the eco-friendly vs. non-eco-friendly argument doesn’t tell the whole story of diamond mining. While some diamond production does have a destructive impact—which we all know quite well—other mines have had a positive effect, benefiting poor countries in Southern Africa and elsewhere. 

As Ali said in another article:

Botswana, which has risen out of poverty, has become a showcase of democracy and development in Africa. And the only reason that has happened really is because it’s the world’s largest diamond producer. It didn’t have many resources by which it could be lifted out of poverty before that. Their major industry before was cattle ranching. That wasn’t environmentally good, nor was it particularly lucrative….

The same is true, he notes, with certain Canadian diamonds.

And that is key. I’ve seen sites like GreenKarat say, “The time has come to start transitioning those employed in diamond mining to sustainable livelihoods in other industries, while phasing out diamond mining altogether. It simply isn’t needed any more.” That is too blithe and unrealistic. If diamond mining were wiped out tomorrow, that could have a potentially devastating impact on millions of poor people without a lot of other options. The idea that just-as-lucrative industries will spring up in its place doesn’t seem plausible.

None of this means that lab-grown diamonds are a bad product (or that there are no problems at diamond mines). But even if one admits that lab-grown diamonds have less environmental impact than their mined counterparts—which I think is fair to say—certain segments of the natural business still have a case to make to socially conscious consumers. But the point is, they have to make it—and, as Ali argues, show more guarantee of origin. Until then, whatever wording the lab-grown people use, with certain consumers the mined business will stand at a considerable disadvantage.

JCK News Director