The One Percent Myth: The Diamond Industry Responds to Brilliant Earth
Our last few blogs have discussed how the diamond industry relies on a deceptive statistic to convince consumers that diamond mining is now free from serious ethical abuses. We’ve called this statistic the one percent myth. The one percent myth is the misleading notion, heavily promoted by the diamond industry, that conflict diamonds make up “considerably less than one percent” of the diamond supply, or that more than 99% of diamonds are conflict free.
Last week, even before we’d gotten very far into our blog series, the diamond industry responded to us with a sharply worded message. The message is from the World Diamond Council (WDC), the organization representing most of the major corporations in the diamond industry. We’ve posted the WDC’s message below.
The diamond industry clearly isn’t happy with our blog series. But why is the diamond industry reacting so defensively? We believe it’s because our arguments ring true. We’ve been dismantling the one percent myth, point by point. And if consumers start to realize that they’ve been misled, a lot of them are going to react, with possibly disruptive consequences for the industry.
Before we get to the WDC’s response, let’s review what we’ve said in this blog series so far. We’ve shown how the only diamonds the diamond industry counts as conflict diamonds are the 0.2% of diamonds from Côte d’Ivoire. This statistic excludes diamonds tied to rape, torture, killings, and corruption in Angola and Zimbabwe – diamonds which could soon add up to 20% of the diamond supply, or more. The diamond industry’s statistic also fails to account for problems like child labor and the mass impoverishment of a million diamond diggers in Africa. In addition the one percent myth is an arbitrary statistic. A different statistic could easily be generated showing that almost all diamond jewelry is unethically sourced.
In the WDC’s response to our blog series, it states that it “stands by” the one percent myth. It points out that its definition of “conflict diamond” – a diamond used to finance rebels during a civil war – is the same definition used by the United Nations. Therefore, the WDC suggests, it is fair to tell consumers that the diamond supply is more than 99% conflict free.
The diamond industry misses our point. What we’re saying is that the diamond industry has taken a narrow definition of “conflict diamond” – a definition, incidentally, created eight years ago, in the aftermath of civil wars in Sierra Leone and Angola – and used that definition to avoid proper acknowledgement of the brutal violence that is happening today. It makes no difference to consumers whether diamonds are tainted by abuses by rebel soldiers during a civil war, or by despotic militaries that plunder and torture. And it’s wrong for the diamond industry to hide behind a technical, bureaucratic definition that produces a misleading statistic.
Furthermore, if we’re going to look to governmental sources of authority for definitions, a good place to start would be with the United States government. Because Zimbabwean diamonds support one of the most oppressive and ruthless governments on earth, the U.S. government maintains sanctions against the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation, the corrupt state entity that runs Zimbabwe’s diamond trade. (Unfortunately, the diamond trade is so haphazard and lacking in transparency that these sanctions don’t prevent Zimbabwean diamonds from reaching U.S. consumers.) Thus, the U.S. government considers Zimbabwean diamonds to be too tainted by violence and corruption to be sold to U.S. consumers. In other words, the U.S. government considers Zimbabwean diamonds to be blood diamonds.
The diamond industry needs to explain: Why does it adopt lower standards than the ones used by the U.S. government? And why is it not misleading to tell American consumers that the diamond supply is more than 99% conflict free, when the U.S. government believes that Zimbabwean diamonds – which could soon make up 10% to 15% of the diamond supply – are tainted and should be banned?
As far as international organizations are concerned, we should point out that Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s President, is widely considered a possible target for prosecution by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. If and when Mugabe and Zimbabwe’s generals are eventually rounded up and tried for their crimes, including crimes in Zimbabwe’s diamond fields, the diamond industry is going to look extremely foolish for having vouched for Zimbabwean diamonds.
Strangely, the WDC considers the Kimberley Process’s failures in Zimbabwe to have been a big success. The WDC states that through the Kimberley Process, it pushed for a halt to exports “until the situation changed on the ground.” This summation of what happened in Zimbabwe, again, is completely misleading.
True, we do not know of any large-scale massacres lately – such as in 2008, when the Zimbabwean military flew helicopters into the diamond fields and shot live ammunition down at diamond miners, killing an estimated 200 miners. But the military still patrols the diamond fields and even runs camps where diamond miners are tortured and raped. Robert Mugabe’s political party, Zanu-PF, is looting Zimbabwe’s diamonds, entrenching a despotic regime that has caused widespread suffering and misery. And the full extent of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe’s diamond fields – both ongoing and past – is not known, because the diamond fields are heavily guarded by Zimbabwean troops.
Despite Zimbabwe’s ongoing non-compliance with basic human rights standards, the WDC supports a recent decision by the Kimberley Process to lift the partial ban on Zimbabwean diamond exports and grant “conflict free” certification to Zimbabwean diamonds. Such a decision helps preserve the 1% myth, but it only prolongs the agony of Zimbabwe’s diamond miners and the Zimbabwean people under Mugabe.
In another of its main points, the WDC criticizes Brilliant Earth for following an “exclusionary diamond acquisition strategy.” The WDC argues that diamonds from countries such as Botswana and Namibia contribute to the economies of those countries and that Brilliant Earth’s “implied boycott” of African diamonds contributes to problems such as lack of access health care, housing, education, infrastructure, and good jobs.
This argument is completely off base. At Brilliant Earth, we offer diamonds not just from Canada, but from Namibia and Botswana as well. We agree that diamonds make a positive contribution to economic development in Botswana and Namibia. That’s why we are proud to offer diamonds from both these countries.
Where we disagree with the WDC is on how to best help the people who live in countries where diamonds are a curse, rather than a blessing. It is our firm belief that telling consumers the truth is the best way to generate the political momentum needed for major changes in how diamonds are mined. However, the WDC seems to think that it is defensible to tell consumers that the diamond supply is more than 99% conflict free – which has the effect of blunting consumer pressure for changes that could address problems like violence and poverty.
In sum, we believe it is the WDC, not Brilliant Earth, that is putting profits ahead of people when it tells consumers that the diamond supply is more than 99% conflict free.
Below, please find the WDC’s response to our blog series:
DEBUNKING THE WORLD DIAMOND COUNCIL’S DEBUNKERS
The Brilliant Earth Blog attacks a statistic presented by the World Diamond Council, which is that considerably less than 1 percent of the rough diamonds traded today can be qualified as conflict diamonds. Such assaults on the reputation and motives of the diamond industry have become standard fair at the start of any shopping season, and frequently one may surmise that they are meant to serve the specific interests of the organization that is carrying them out. For its part Brilliant Earth is a jewelry retailer selling items including diamonds that it ensures its customers are “conflict free,” because they are sourced in Canada.
On its blog, Brilliant Earth criticizes the diamond industry for defining conflict diamonds “in the narrowest of terms,” because it says the industry insists that they only include merchandise that is “used by a rebel group to finance a civil war against a legitimate government.” For the record, this definition was devised by governments and endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly, which in its resolution calling for an end to the trade in conflict diamonds in January 2011 defined them as “rough diamonds which are used by rebel movements to finance their military activities, including attempts to undermine or overthrow legitimate governments.”
The World Diamond Council stands by its statement that only a small fraction of 1 percent of the rough diamonds sold today can be qualified as conflict diamonds. But at the same time the WDC does not contend that perfect conditions exist in all the countries and regions in which rough diamonds are mined. Violence and oppression certainly do occur, but rarely are they the only problems that ordinary people need to cope with. So are poverty, hunger, a lack of access to proper health care and education, insufficient housing, poor infrastructure, a shortage of jobs and minimal economic opportunity.
Brilliant Earth assures its customers that its diamonds are “conflict free” because they are exclusively Canadian. The jewelry retailer also states on its website that “5 percent of its profits are donated to Africa.” That is commendable, but for the millions of Africans, who depend on the diamond industry for their livelihood, it will be regarded merely as compensation for the possible consequence of Brilliant Earth’s implied boycott of the diamonds they mine.
The position of the World Diamond Council, is that while we have to work tirelessly to improve the human rights situation in the areas that diamonds are produced, at the same time we need to ensure that the revenues generated by diamond mining and processing serve to bring about positive economic development and social change. African success stories, like Botswana and Namibia, are good proof of this approach. Their situations would have been greatly different should the entire jewelry industry have followed Brilliant Earth’s exclusionary diamond acquisition strategy.
That is not to say that we should tolerate violence and oppression. As was most recently demonstrated concerning diamond from the Marange region of Zimbabwe, the World Diamond Council, through its involvement in the Kimberley Process, did not limit its attention only on goods sourced in regions caught up in a civil war. Even though there was no civil war in Zimbabwe the WDC pushed successfully for a halt to exports until the situation changed on the ground.
The recently concluded Kinshasa agreement, which the WDC supports, allows for the export of diamonds from three mines in the Marange region which are judged to meet Kimberley Process standards. There have been critics of the agreement, but it is worth noting that, after years of international boycotts and sanctions, the KP is the only organization that managed to address both human rights violations directly in Zimbabwe and also affect the way in which its government behaves.
We would suggest that, if there is a myth, it is the one of the industry’s alleged indifference to the plight of the people of Africa.