It’s no secret that the natural diamond industry, with its gnarled imperialistic roots, is muddied by violence and exploitation. To refer to a lab-grown diamond as ‘ethical’ in comparison, then, is not totally unjustified. Avoiding the need for further mining altogether, lab-grown diamonds are an appealing opportunity for the environmentally-conscious, to whom this futuristic phenomenon is marketed as the ultimate sustainable choice.
With 6-7 million carats of diamond lab-produced in 2020 alone[i], however, this alternative is by no means a product developed on a modest scale. And now, with an estimated 150 registered companies manufacturing diamonds worldwide[ii], consumers and jewellery industry members alike are not faced with a straightforward solution to their concerns about mining, but myriad voices vying for attention with competitive prices and promises of low environmental impact.
In 2020, The Economistestimated that lab-grown diamonds would account for roughly 80% of the global diamond market by 2050[iii]. Boasting a growth rate of approximately 300% in the last two years, the lab-grown diamond sector can be confidently considered a subindustry in its own right, a prosperous future guaranteed. But, like all industries, the world of lab-grown diamonds is not without its murky waters.
If we are to embrace this new marvel as an established aspect of the jewellery industry, it’s crucial that we begin paying attention to its nuances, differentiating between those making tangible efforts to minimise their environmental impact and those doing more damage than good, quietly operating beneath a greenwashed guise. If all that glitters is not gold, then perhaps all that sparkles is not a truly sustainable lab-grown diamond.
Lab-grown diamonds are cultivated using technology that simulates the geological processes by which natural diamonds are formed. The result? Man-made stones that are chemically, physically and optically identical to those grown beneath the Earth's surface.
There are two processes used to produce diamonds: High Pressure-High Temperature (HPHT) and Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD). A HPHT diamond begins as a small diamond seed placed in carbon. Both are exposed to temperatures of around 1,500°C and pressurised to approximately 1.5 million pounds per square inch. The carbon melts and starts to form a diamond around the starter seed, before being cooled to form a pure carbon diamond. Meanwhile, a CVD diamond begins as a slice of diamond seed, placed in a chamber and heated to 800°C. The chamber is filled with gases which are ionised into plasma using technology similar to that of microwaves or lasers. The ionisation breaks the gases' molecular bonds and the carbon adheres to the diamond seed before crystallising.
The intense pressure and substantial machinery required by the HPHT method requires greater volumes of energy than that of the CVD, which runs on moderate temperatures and low pressure, therefore requiring smaller equipment and less energy.
China is the world’s largest producer of lab-grown diamonds, accounting for over 40% of the world’s man-made stones.[iv] As a nation, China sources 55% of its power from coal and just 20% from renewable hydro sources.[v] In India, another major producer of lab-grown diamonds, 75% of grid power comes from coal and 10% is hydropower. Singapore, home of lab-grown diamond industry leader IIA Technologies, uses little renewable energy at all.
The vast amount of power required to create a diamond in a lab can lead to a significant output of carbon pollution if the energy source is dirty, with greenhouse gas emissions thought to be three times greater for some lab-grown diamonds than their mined counterparts.[vi]
There remains very little transparency around the sustainability claims of most lab-grown diamond companies and explicit data on their energy usage is thus virtually impossible to obtain. What doesremains clear, however, is that the majority of these companies rely on heavy-duty machinery powered by energy that is mostly non-renewable.
So, how do we navigate this issue?
Unfortunately, certain carbon emissions are simply impossible to avoid. This is particularly true of industries like the lab-grown diamond trade, for which factory equipment is an inextricable aspect.
Meanwhile, carbon offsetting enables a business to pay another entity to remove a given quantity of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. This could take the form of financing a wind turbine generator to displace fossil fuels on the power grid or planting a body of trees to sequester CO2. For example, we at Lebrusan Studio are planting 10 trees in Colombia for every piece of jewellery we sell.
Carbon offsetting is a controversial approach to environmental sustainability because it doesn’t eliminate the issue of carbon emissions in the first place; only attempts to negate them at a later stage. However, advocates argue that carbon offsetting offers enormous potential to combat climate change, preserve nature and direct money to parts of the planet that need it most.
In July 2017, lab-grown diamond company The Diamond Foundry announced its status as the world’s first carbon-neutral diamond producer. To achieve its certification as a CarbonNeutral® company, The Diamond Foundry worked with Natural Capital Partners, the experts on carbon neutrality and climate finance. It achieved net zero greenhouse gas by undergoing an independent assessment of the CO2 emissions produced by its operations, then funding sustainable development and renewable energy projects around the world.
Following suit, Washington D.C.-based lab-grown diamond producer Latitude later announced in June 2021 that it’s the first company to be Sustainability Rated by the SCS Global Services’ Jewelry Sustainability Standard and achieve the ‘Fifth C’ of Climate Neutrality. Through strategic sustainability investments and improvements to the production process, Latitude now offset, mitigate and reduces its environmental impact by eighteen times.
Leading by example, these companies demonstrate the opportunities available to any diamond industry player who wishes to leave a smaller footprint in its wake. There areways to operate more sustainably; it’s just a matter of inclination.
In our current state of climate emergency and with conscious consumerism firmly on the rise, it has become the priority of many jewellery companies to appease the needs of ethically-conscious consumers with the words they want to hear. Steadily evolving is not only the way we shop, but the way brands communicate with us. ‘Ethical’, ‘green’ and ‘eco-friendly’ are buzzwords now cemented firmly in the lexicons of many lab-grown diamond companies, but as we know, this language is often fuzzy. When shopping for a lab-grown diamond, take heed of the brands that are speaking in specific terms; quantifying their claims ‘of environmental sustainability’ with tangible data. Do they explain the process by which their diamonds are formed? Are they doing anything to tackle the carbon footprint left behind by this activity? If so, they will probably be shouting about that. (You can learn more about how to spot greenwashinghere.)
As demonstrated by the likes of The Diamond Foundry and Latitude, lab-grown diamond companies making genuine efforts to offer a somewhat sustainable product are often advocated by third party certifications. As well as substantiated claims, keep an eye out for seals of approval from organisations such as CarbonNeutral, SCS Global Services and B Corp.
Looking to the future, we foresee the lab-grown diamond market segmenting into more and less sustainable options. The latter will continue to churn out diamonds via energy-intensive processes, making little effort to counteract the negative effects and capitalising on the widespread notion that lab-grown diamonds are simply a ‘more ethical’ option than those that are mined.
Meanwhile, the former will focus on carbon neutrality, renewable energy, and vertically integrated supply chains.
As consumers, it’s our responsibility to dig beneath the surface in search of those diamonds in the rough.