What makes a product sustainable? The most often quoted definition of sustainable consumption was proposed at a symposium in 1994 in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. It described the term as referring to “the use of goods and services that respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life, while minimizing the use of natural resources, toxic materials and emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle, so as not to jeopardize the needs of future generations.”
But in its publication “Promoting Sustainable Consumption, in 2008 the OECD elaborated on the definition to insist that includes both environmental and social elements. “The trend towards considering the social dimensions of sustainable consumption has led to more attention to how products are produced,” the document stated. “Consumers are increasingly concerned with not only the polluting or health effects of the consumption of products, but also the impacts which that consumption may have on the factors of production, including workers and resources.” In other words, sustainable societies and economies are important, as are sustainable environments.
It’s important to note that in neither of the two approaches is renewability a necessary requirement. That is important in the gemstone and precious metals sectors, for once a mineral is removed from the earth it will not grow back again. Indeed, the only truly renewable precious jewelry resource is cultured pearls, which are farmed, and can be produced on multiple occasions by the same oyster.
FUTILE ENVIRONMENTAL CAMPAIGNS
At least when compared to other minerals, from an environmental perspective diamonds and other gemstones are essentially innocuous. While it is true that they are generally retrieved from below the surface of the earth, requiring the removal of large amounts of rock and soil, they nonetheless do not demand chemical processing, emerging fully formed from the ore in which they are found.
This is sharp contrast to a precious metal like gold, for example, which is extracted during an often-complex processing and refinement procedure, where the potential for environmental risk is considerable.
But the diamond mining sector’s relatively decent environmental record has not prevented the laboratory-gown diamond sectors from claiming the moral high ground when it comes to sustainability. In 2015, Hollywood A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio famously tweeted that he had invested in a San Francisco-based operation that was “reducing the human and environmental toll by sustainably culturing diamonds.”
A rough diamond embedded in its kimberlite bedrock. Emerging fully formed, it does not require a-complex processing and refinement procedure, like gold, where the potential for environmental risk is considerable.
That set off a furious battle, with lab-grown diamond producers claiming that diamond mines leave massive open pits that can be viewed from space, and cause damage to vegetation, bedrock and groundwater levels. For their part, natural diamond producers charged that lab-grown diamond manufacturers consume massive amounts of greenhouse gas-creating energy to achieve the temperatures necessary to produce their products.
But in many respects, it was futile and mutually self-destructive argument. Neither of the two sectors are carbon neutral, but neither is any one them a particularly egregious environmental offender.
There are about 100 million artisanal miners globally, with more than half a billion people dependent on the income they generate.
PROBLEMATIC ETHICAL CLAIMS
But is the laboratory-grown diamond sector’s claim to be more socially responsible is more problematic. “If you’re interested in a broad view of ethics that includes issues like child labor and worker safety, the Kimberley Process is no help,” noted a synthetic diamond trader on its website. “And, the lack of a tracking system leaves questions around the journey of a diamond before it’s set in an engagement ring. Therefore, the only true way to know that you’re investing in a conflict-free diamond is by purchasing a lab-grown diamond.”
By that logic, if all consumers only bought lab-grown grown diamonds, all ethical considerations would disappear. However, it’s a claim that millions of individuals living in developing economies, mainly in Africa, would be hard-pressed to agree with.
For minerals, sustainability also refers to their potential to generate sustainable grass-roots economic and social opportunities in the countries and regions in which they are located. And here one refers to opportunities both in the mineral extraction and the jewelry industries, and also in other economic sectors, which are secondary beneficiaries of the investments made in and revenues generated by precious gems and minerals.
About 70,000 individuals are employed by industrialized diamond mining operations, which typically have massive social development programs, and are subject to stringent environmental regulations. But that number is dwarfed by the artisanal mining sector, where work often is carried out informally by individuals or two or three-person operations, using the most basic equipment. In terms of revenue, the artisanal sector is only moderately significant, but in terms of social sustainability in the countries in which is located it is hugely important.
According to the World Bank, artisanal and small-scale mining occurs in approximately 80 countries worldwide, and there are about 100 million artisanal miners globally, with more than half a billion people dependent on the income they generate. Artisanal and small-scale production represents up to 20 percent of diamond mining in terms of volume, although less than 5 percent in terms of value. But it accounts for an overwhelming majority of those who depend on the diamond industry for their daily survival.
Put another way, the natural diamond market most probably would survive the lab-grown diamond producers’ campaign to erode the contribution made by artisanal miners, by presenting their products as the “ethical” alternative. But the economic and social damage that such a program would leave in its wake would be devastating across the African continent, and certainly not worthy of any claim of sustainability.