This year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will start revising its “Green Guides,” which lay out rules for environmental marketing claims.
Here’s one relatively small—but irritating—issue that I hope will be considered.
The FTC should not allow—or, at the very least, it should place strict parameters on—terms such as “mining-free,” “created without mining,” and “no mining.” These descriptors are frequently used for lab-grown diamonds. Examples can be seen here, here, here, here, and here.
From what I understand, the FTC judges claims and descriptions on two main criteria. First, they have to be true. (Obviously.) Second, they have to clearly communicate the nature of the product.
So, for example, the term “aboveground diamonds” might be technically accurate, but FTC lawyers say it doesn’t properly communicate the diamond’s lab-grown origin. (After all, some natural diamonds are found above ground.)
A descriptor such as “mining-free” does fulfill the second criteria: It clearly communicates the diamonds’ lab-grown origin. The problem is, lab-grown diamonds aren’t mining-free.
“Mining-free” implies there was no mining involved in the diamonds’ production. But very few products in this world can be considered truly mining-free. The iMac I’m typing this on certainly isn’t. Mined materials will also be needed to produce green technology. However you feel about mining—and it’s a sector with plenty of bad as well as good—its products surround us daily. Without it, we couldn’t get much done.
Manufacturing high-pressure high-temperature (HPHT) diamonds requires graphite. Producing lab-grown diamonds with the chemical vapor deposition (CVD) method requires high-purity methane and hydrogen. The methane is generally sourced from the mining of gas, oil, and coal, as well as oil drilling.
“Methane mainly comes from the ground,” says David Hardy, founder of Bringdiamonds.com, a diamond grower. “So does graphite.… Even the equipment used has metals, and they don’t come from the air either.”
Ryan Shearman, cofounder and chief alchemist of Aether Diamonds, which converts carbon dioxide captured from the air into methane to create lab-grown gems, asserts that “there’s no real way to source methane responsibly. It’s either coming from crude oil production or it’s coming from fracking.”
He says new ways of generating methane are starting to emerge—including from biogenic sources (i.e., farm animals)—but there aren’t currently established supply chains for that.
When one looks at the many pages of information about lab-grown diamonds online, these issues are rarely addressed. Pandora is one the few companies that mentions them in its lab-grown diamond sustainability report (which is only available as a PDF download):
In raw materials acquisition, the potential social and environmental impacts [of lab-grown diamonds] are associated with the extraction of raw materials such as natural gas and/or coal for the production of high purity methane and hydrogen. The extraction of natural gas and coal can be associated with significant inherent social and environmental impacts.
High purity methane gas is assumed to be produced from Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), and therefore raw material acquisition begins with the extraction of natural gas.
In Europe, hydrogen is typically produced from natural gas via steam methane reforming whereas in China, the world’s largest hydrogen producing country, it is mainly produced via coal gasification using hard coal.
Are major amounts of these materials used? Growers say no.
“They are very small quantities used, and they are in some ways far less important than the electric source used,” says Hardy.
Pandora’s report—which, we should note, was company-sponsored—says the emissions required to get these materials “cannot be completely eliminated but can be off-set through investments in quality carbon off-setting schemes.” It also says “that the risks ‘attributable’ to the lab-grown diamonds from the CVD process is potentially minimal given the industry’s share of total produced natural gas (to high purity methane and hydrogen) is negligible.”
I am not looking to engage in the tiresome lab-versus-natural eco-debate. It isn’t clear how much of these materials is used, as most producers are proprietary about their technology and almost never supply hard numbers. This is about terminology.
Regardless of the specific amount, mined materials are used in the creation of just about all lab-grown diamonds. To say that those stones are “mining-free,” or that “no mining” is involved in their creation, is just not true. While there may be a few exceptions, if mining went away tomorrow, so would lab-grown diamonds. Yet even respected outlets like Popular Science parrot assertions that lab-grown diamonds involve “no mining at all.”
One can easily conjure alternate verbiage that is just as clear but far more truthful, like calling lab-grown diamonds “non-mined” or specifying there’s “no diamond mining,” rather than “no mining” in general. But this is about more than just a linguistic tweak.
Diamond growers know how their products are created. They know they use methane and where it comes from, even if most of their customers don’t. Yet some still claim their product is “mining-free” or created with no mining.
This is about more than a poor word choice. This is about terminology that’s potentially misleading. That is why it shouldn’t be allowed.
“I doubt many things can be classed as mine-free,” says Hardy. “There is no real silver bullet.”
And even silver comes from the earth.
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