Now that lab grown diamonds are becoming more and more available, and more companies have them as as option, it only makes sense that more people would have questions. One of the biggest ones I hear is “are they really better for the environment? Eco-friendly? Sustainable?” There’s lots of different ways to essentially ask the same question. I mean, you’d think a lab grown diamond would be better, because mining in general is pretty bad for the environment. But lab grown diamonds aren’t without their own environmental footprint. So there’s that.
And don’t forget, a lot of the companies out there trying to sell you mined diamonds want to keep the competitive advantage they’ve had for years and years. It’s no question they see lab grown diamonds as a very real threat. Especially if they’re cheaper.
Let’s get into the details and I’ll tell you, from a consumer perspective, if lab grown diamonds have an environmental advantage over ones that are mined.
Diamonds in the environment
Before we talk about mining diamonds, it’s important to talk about where they’re found. The good news is that diamonds are found all over this wonderful Earth! They are here, in Canada, in South Africa, in Brazil, in Australia, in India. In short, they’re everywhere! The bad news is that they’re often in remote areas, and sometimes, very very deep underground.
Without getting too technical, diamonds really do take millions of years to form, under heat and pressure deep inside the earth. So you can wait until they pop up, sometimes in rivers or streams. Or you can dig for them. And all that digging is what makes diamond mining so expensive. And so bad for the environment.
The best way, from an environmental perspective, to get diamonds is just to see something sparkly and pluck it out of the creek. In gemologist language, we say diamonds are alluvial, meaning they’re found in streams and rivers. Sometimes, they’ve been sitting in the stream bed for hundreds of years and they’re nice and smooth from all that water washing over them. When people talk about artisanal miners, it’s usually just a single guy (or gal) hunting for these alluvial diamonds. This kind of mining is still done all over the world.
But getting diamonds like that, one by one, is not the way to go for big mining companies. They like to use lots of machinery, dig really big holes, or scrape the bottom of the ocean. Basically, whatever they need to do… Because they want LOTS of diamonds. They need to be able to provide a constant supply of diamonds to their clients.
How are lab diamonds made?
So now, let’s switch to lab-grown diamonds. How are they made? I’m oversimplifying, obviously, but they’re grown in a laboratory (or factory) from a carbon seed. Because diamonds are pure carbon. So you take your seed of carbon, add tons of heat and pressure, and voila, after a a few weeks, you have a diamond!
The factory itself can be large or small, but the diamonds themselves are small. As far as I know, the largest lab grown diamond of gem quality was a little over 6 carats. But most are one or two carats or less.
Environmental toll of mined diamonds
It takes a lot of effort to mine diamonds. And the land usually plays the price. Mining companies will destroy the land to get at the diamonds. Wherever the diamonds are, that’s where the mining takes place. Was it a forest? Not anymore. Now it’s great big hole in the ground. One diamond mine in Russia has a hole so big you can see it from space! It generates its own air currents. The Russian government had to declare the space above it a no-fly zone!
Of course, diamond mining and environmental regulations have both improved over the years. Still, mining, at a minimum, gives you incredible land disruption, usually leading to deforestation and/or ecosystem destruction, soil erosion, dust issues, and groundwater and surface water pollution. Plus, they use a ton of water. So, all in all, not good things.
A lot of times, diamonds are in remote areas. Which means you need to build roads to get there. And transport heavy equipment across them. That, too, takes a toll on a land.
There’s lots of numbers thrown around the web about how much dirt you need to move to get a carat of diamonds (either rough or polished). At the low end of all the estimates I saw, you’d have to sift through 250 tons of dirt to get 1 carat of diamond.
Environmental toll of lab grown diamonds
Contrast that environmental footprint with lab grown diamonds. Their biggest environmental issue is that they do take a lot of energy to produce. So they are getting that from somewhere. Some labs are using renewable energy, some are not.
A lot of articles I’ve read talk about the comparing the carbon footprint between mined diamonds and lab grown diamonds. And how it’s complicated, and how not all companies are providing all the data, or providing good data. Which all could be true. But it’s also missing the forest for the trees.
Because environmental impact is not just about carbon emissions. Lab grown diamonds do not cause anywhere near the same kind of pollution that mined diamonds do. And even if you count their energy usage as pollution, it’s not even on the same scale as what diamond mines do.
Taking all things into consideration, lab grown diamonds use less water, less resources in general, emit less greenhouse gas, and don’t take the same toll on the land.
Are lab diamonds eco-friendly?
Eco-friendly means something is not harmful to the environment. Mined diamonds are not eco-friendly. Lab grown diamonds are far more eco-friendly than mined.
Take the current mining for diamonds that’s happening in Namibia. They discovered there’s a lot of diamonds right off the coast, on the ocean floor. Yes, I said they’re at the bottom of the the ocean. To get them, they have a fleet of six ships that scoop up sediment off the ocean floor, sift through it for diamonds, and then dump the sediment back into the ocean.
That’s a lot of disruption for the marine environment. What’s the environmental toll? The mining company’s own monitoring said it takes the seabed and its marine life between two and ten years to recover (more if the area is rocky) from the increased ship traffic, noise, light, and pollution.
For lab grown diamonds, there’s none of that.
Are they sustainable?
The definition of sustainable is the “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.”
I want to talk about the diamond mines in Canada because they’re often held up as an example of “good” mining. That’s because Canada is a first-world country with stringent environmental regulations.
Right now, Canada has three operating diamond mines, making them one of the top three diamond-producing countries in the world (behind Russia and Botswana).
Even with all their protections, Canada still drained entire lakes to make way for these mines. Guess what happened to all the fish and wildlife that depended on them for their survival? The Canadian diamond mines can be seen from space, they’re so large. Previously pristine wilderness with teeming wildlife has now been altered to include open mining pits, roads, equipment, and pollution.
Are they better for the environment?
So yes, in my view, and from a consumer perspective, lab grown diamonds are better for the environment. They do have an an environmental footprint, however it’s much, much less than that of mined diamonds.
But if you take things one step further, just producing diamonds takes resources. Mined or lab grown, you’re making at least some negative environmental impact. So, if you want to take your advocacy to the next level, the very best thing you can do is to buy an antique or vintage diamond ring.
Think about it. It’s already been mined. You’re reusing a resource. And reusing is always better than new.
Despite what you may hear, diamonds are far from rare. There are plenty of them on the open market, both old and new.
Whatever you decide, I hope you feel like you have the information you need to make a purchase that you enjoy.