An Environmental Expert on the Ecological Impact of Lab-Grown Diamonds

For the last few weeks, I have been researching the environmental impact of lab-grown versus mined diamonds for a future blog and article in JCK. And one of the people who I wanted to talk to was Dr. Saleem Ali.

For all the eco-friendly claims that we see from lab-grown diamond companies, there is almost no independent research on the topic—and most growers provide little transparency as to the energy they use or growing methods.

Ali (pictured), an environmental planner and a professor of energy and the environment at the University of Delaware, is the only academic, to my knowledge, who has studied it. His 2011 working paper on the issue is available here. It was eventually updated and published in the Journal of Bioeconomics in 2017.

Our discussion was so interesting I wanted to give it its own blog. Here, Ali talks about how he looks at these issues—and how he thinks consumers should, too.

JCK: As the only independent researcher to have studied this question, what is your conclusion?

Saleem Ali: One key point to drive home is we should divide the environmental and social impact questions. On the environmental side, there is no question that synthetic diamonds will be less impactful than mined diamonds. However, on the social side the situation is more complex. If managed well, mined diamonds will lead to employment opportunities. Obviously, if not managed well, they could have human-rights implications.

Some of the numbers I have seen suggest it takes less energy to produce mined diamonds than lab-grown.

A lot of the mining companies will give you misleading numbers. You have to take into account things like the exploration cycle. Energy usage is an important aspect. But people conflate energy usage with carbon. What matters is where the energy is coming from. Is it coming from hydropower or coal? A lot of these diamond mines have a bit of boutique projects. They will have a windmill, and it does nice stuff. But what about the diesel trucks and the airplanes flying to Yellowknife? What about the cycle of exploration?

The other part of the study talks about how mined diamonds are reused, and that is true of all gemstones. Companies like The RealReal are doing a great service by providing product that has very low [environmental] impact.

You have also said that it’s tough to gauge the full environmental impact of lab-grown because there are not many verified numbers. For example, certain metals may be used in the growing process and that has to be taken into account.

There are a lot of different methods. I feel uneasy giving you numbers on the different lab-growing methods. In the last few years, there has been a lot of development and innovation. I am pretty sure that the numbers will be better than mined.

Is there a way to really understand the environmental impact of these products and how much energy they are using?

There are things like Energy Star ratings by the EPA. You would need some kind of mechanism, be it industry-regulated or government-generated.

Lab-grown companies will also say that miners “rip up” the Earth.

There will definitely be some impact, but it can be remediated. You want to make sure you are not disrupting the land, the marine life.

When we think of social and environment impact, what should we prioritize?

I think of social and environmental impact as complementary. I am willing to sacrifice some environmental impact if it is willing to improve livelihoods. There are few other options for livelihood in far-north Canada or Botswana.

Synthetics are not going to generate a lot of jobs. When the diamond mining industry is well-governed, it has the potential to benefit people greatly in very poor areas.

With a lot of these companies there is a presumption that somehow mining is unethical. It doesn’t have to be. It has improved the lives of a lot of people who really need the money. Even the [Canadian indigenous population] First Nations are much better off.

You said you’re willing to sacrifice environmental impact to help people’s livelihoods. That seems to me an unusual position for an environmental studies professor.

I have always felt that environment and society are not distinct. As they say, we are now living in the anthropocene. Human beings are not separate from nature. We cannot solve the environmental problem without bringing in the human dimension. That means many times you have a sub-optical outcome for some kind of usage.

Obviously, in some instances, you really have to say no, like with tiger poaching. But in most cases, you really need to figure out how human development needs can balance with environmental needs.

How should consumers be looking at these questions?

As a consumer, what is important to me is disclosure and understanding the information. What Tiffany is doing, by providing origin information, it is all usable by the informed consumer. I would hope that gradually people will pay attention to these things.

When I wanted to get a diamond ring for my wife, I went to Jared to get a Chosen diamond. You can tell where it was mined, where it was cut. I think people are ready to use this information if it is made available.

And should consumers also be prioritizing development over the environment?

People consuming in the developed world should not only be trying to avoid harm, but they should focus on doing good. You should look for ways you are contributing to economic development. I am on the board of the Diamond Development Initiative, and they have started this process of tracking artisanally mined diamonds from Sierra Leone. To me that is much more meaningful and positive, I am helping economic development in a post-conflict area by my purchase. You can compare that to buying diamonds from [Canadian mine] Diavik. It’s fine, it’s not doing harm, but is it doing as much good as that diamond from a sustainably sourced artisanal miner? Consumers should have that option.

Anything else we should know here?

You are just focusing on diamonds, but I hope that the colored stone industry gives some thought to these issues more directly. That is tougher to change, as 80 percent of colored gemstones are mined artisanally.

One of the areas we are developing with our new Minerals, Materials and Society program [at the University of Delaware] is a more integrated approach. There is not really social science training for this. On one side, you have mining engineers, and on the other, you have NGOs that are critically studying miners. What we need is people who are better informed and have new ways to think about these things.

This would not be one of those corporate training go-and-eat-pastries kind of programs. This would be people going out in the field and really learning. We want people to get actual training to understand these metrics.

 (Image courtesy of Saleem Ali; photo by: Maria Ali)

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