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 oil, gas, and coal mining.
“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.