Ethical Diamonds: Why the Four "Cs" Need an "O"

| 4th October 2013

Currently it is very difficult for consumers to know just how 'dirty' diamonds are.

Human rights attorney Gregory Krauss tells the Ecologist that the diamond industry is still far from ethical, and believes consumers should start demanding stringent regulation, for the sake of both people and the environment ...

If you've ever shopped for a diamond, you probably know that diamonds are independently rated on four characteristics called the "four c's": cut, carat, color, and clarity. The last of these, clarity, is a measure of diamond transparency.

Most jewelers offer diamonds having only the slightest blemishes and internal flaws. Only a trained gemologist using a powerful microscope can spot the tiny imperfections in the majority of gem-quality stones.

But if diamonds are routinely scrutinized for their transparency, the same can't be said of the diamond supply chain. In fact, it's extremely rare for jewelers to know where their diamonds were mined, the labor and environmental conditions at the mine of origin, or the path their diamonds took from mine to customer.

If the diamond supply chain could be rated on its transparency, it would earn the lowest clarity rating of all: an "I"-meaning that its flaws and blemishes are readily apparent. Just go into any jewelry shop and ask, "Where is this diamond from?" Chances are, you'll get a vague response or a blank stare.

Why should the diamond industry be expected to offer diamonds with traceable origins? People often hold one of two assumptions about diamonds, assumptions which tend to negate calls for greater transparency in the diamond supply chain.

One assumption is that almost all diamonds drip with blood or are tainted by serious labor and environmental abuses. Another assumption, heavily promoted by the diamond industry, is that most of the ethical abuses have been rooted out of diamond mining. Whichever of these assumptions a person believes, transparency isn't necessarily a good solution, since all diamonds are basically the same.

In reality, both of these assumptions are false, and the truth about diamonds lies somewhere in between. Diamond mines actually vary widely in terms of social and environmental responsibility-which is why consumers deserve to know where their diamonds are from, and why choosing ethical diamonds can make a difference.

The most responsible diamond mines, like the ones in Canada's Northwest Territories, comply with strict labor and environmental regulations, monitor their environmental impact, and provide decent jobs to local residents. One Canadian diamond mine was even chosen as one of Canada's top 100 employers.

In other countries, however, diamond mining is beset by violence, corruption, and other shocking abuses. A good example is Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe's government massacred more than 200 diamond local miners, enslaved adults and children in the diamond fields, and stole an estimated $2 billion in diamonds for himself and his cronies.

Given such divergent ethical conditions, creating more transparency in the diamond supply chain ought to be a much bigger priority. Why isn't it? And how can a diamond industry that is so meticulous about measuring the characteristics of its diamonds be so casual about keeping track of where its diamonds are mined?

One issue is that diamonds often come from countries without effective government institutions. It's hard enough for some governments to stop child labor or prevent violence in mining areas, let alone require that every diamond be traceable to a particular mine.

The diamond trade, which stretches from Botswana to Belgium, is also very global. Diamonds often change hands many times, looping around the world, before eventually landing on a ring finger. Although it might be possible to keep diamonds separated by country of origin, or otherwise keep track of where each diamond is from, doing so presents logistical hurdles. Somewhere along the way-for example, in a cutting and polishing center such as Surat, India-diamonds from places like Canada and Zimbabwe can get mixed together if not properly tracked.

The world's attempt to impose more order on the diamond trade hasn't helped much either. The Kimberley Process (KP) is an international diamond certification scheme launched in 2003; its purpose is to combat the trade in "conflict diamonds." One problem with the KP is that its standards are pitifully low. The KP grants certification to more than 99 percent of diamonds, including diamonds from Zimbabwe. As a result, the KP actually defeats the goal of transparency by misleading consumers into believing they are buying ethically-certified gems.

But another weakness is that the KP only regulates the trade in rough, or uncut, diamonds. Once a diamond has been cut and polished, the KP system ends and no attempt is made to keep track of where the diamond was originally mined. The only information usually preserved along the supply chain is that the original rough gem received KP certification-an essentially meaningless piece of information, since almost every diamond gets certification.

What could change this state of affairs? The KP or the diamond industry could decide, on their own, to make transparency more of a priority. More likely, more diamond suppliers can invest in the technology to preserve origin information as diamonds move through the supply change. To spur this change, consumers will need to make it clear to the KP and the diamond industry that they want to know information about each diamond's origins-that in addition to the four c's, they want to know the "o."

Gregory Krauss serves as a human rights advocate for Brilliant Earth. An attorney, he has a decade of experience in human rights law, advocacy and scholarship.