When consumers shop for responsibly-sourced products, they’re often greeted by a host of words. In the food world, consumers may see labels ranging from “organic” to “antibiotic-free” to “free range.” For a lot of products including coffee and now gold, there’s the “fair trade” label. In electronics, there’s the Department of Energy’s “Energy Star” label. And on and on it goes.
All of these words create challenges for socially-conscious consumers. It’s often necessary to do some research to know what a company means by its marketing claim—if the company can be trusted and what the company isn’t telling you. And socially-conscious companies face a challenge too. They must be honest with their customers while distinguishing themselves from competitors that don’t make ethical sourcing a priority.
When we launched Brilliant Earth in 2005, we were determined to create a luxury jewelry and engagement ring company like none that existed. We wanted to bring ethical jewelry to mainstream consumers. To do that, we needed to produce jewelry from only the most socially and environmentally responsible sources and make it stylish and of the very highest quality. Our goal was to compete with the finest luxury jewelers on quality and customer service and to out-compete them on sourcing.
We think we’ve done that. Unlike most jewelers, we use only recycled precious metals in our jewelry, thereby reducing the need for mining. Every diamond and colored gemstone supplier we’ve chosen has been carefully researched to be sure they meet high ethical standards; we know the labor and environmental conditions at all the mines that supply all our gems, and the path that those gems take through the supply chain. Very few of the diamonds available today—maybe less than one percent—can be traced to a mine or country origin, like ours can. We also have continually expanded our offerings to give more options to our socially-conscious customers: for instance, we offer antique jewelry and lab-created diamonds, both of which require no new mining at all.
On top of all this, we’ve hired the best jewelry designers, gemologists, sales representatives, and other staff members. We’re proud of the team we’ve assembled and of the amazing feedback we get from our customers. And we’re proud of the fact that for every sale, we donate a portion of our profit to communities harmed by the jewelry trade.
Still, we know that it’s possible to do what we’ve done—build a company that is unprecedented in the jewelry industry—but not do a good job explaining to the public what makes our jewelry different. From the time of our founding in 2005, we faced a tricky marketing question: what words should we use to describe our diamonds?
Good writers vary their word choices, so we’ve always allowed for some variation. On our web site, you’ll find words like “responsible,” “ethical,” “pure,” and “eco-friendly.” But for many years, the term we used most often to describe our diamonds was “conflict free.”
Tragic civil wars in Sierra Leone, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo—wars which were financed by diamonds and claimed an estimated 3.7 million lives—raised awareness in the late 1990s about the link between diamonds and violence. In the early 2000s, the terms “blood diamond” and “conflict diamond” entered the popular lexicon—helped enormously by the movie Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DiCaprio. To signify that their diamonds weren’t tainted by bloodshed, many jewelers began using the words “conflict free” in their marketing. We followed suit. “Conflict free” seemed like the best way to quickly communicate to customers that we’d sourced our diamonds responsibly.
We were, however, never completely satisfied with that terminology. Although “conflict free” grabbed our customers’ attention—many shoppers search for “conflict free” diamonds on the Internet—those two words didn’t fully capture our effort to create an ethical jewelry company. Our diamonds aren’t just from mines untainted by civil conflicts. They come from mines that meet high labor and environmental standards—mines that pay good wages, that are free from child labor, and that minimize their environmental impact.
What troubled us even more was the way that the diamond industry began using the words “conflict free” to mislead consumers. The most common definition of “conflict diamonds” is the one used by the Kimberley Process (KP), the flawed international diamond certification scheme launched in 2003. The KP defines “conflict diamonds” as “rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance armed conflicts aimed at undermining legitimate governments.” Left out of this definition is diamond-related violence by governments, plus all the labor and environmental issues, such as child labor, that we care about. Basically every diamond meets this low standard; about 99 percent of all diamonds receive KP certification.
It would have been fine if the diamond industry explained to consumers, clearly and repeatedly, that KP-certified diamonds are not all from ethical sources—that a large percentage of “conflict free” diamonds are tainted by bloodshed, dangerous working conditions, and child labor. Instead, it does the opposite; it has deliberately cultivated the mistaken impression that “conflict free” diamonds are ethical.
When consumers ask about ethical sourcing, jewelers often reply that their diamonds are certified by the KP as “conflict free”—without explaining that the KP doesn’t even set labor and environmental standards, or that almost every diamond receives KP certification. Many consumers, hearing that their diamond is KP-certified, think they are getting a gem with a special ethical certification. In reality, they are getting a bunch of baloney.
For our first seven years, we tried to overcome consumer confusion by explaining that Brilliant Earth’s “conflict free” diamonds were more responsibly-sourced than other “conflict free” diamonds. We argued that the rest of the diamond industry, relying on the KP, defined “conflict free” improperly—that according to our definition, to be “conflict free” a diamond also needed to come from a socially and environmentally responsible source. (For a good example, see our response to the question, “What is a conflict free diamond?” in our 2010 interview with Triple Pundit.)
But we were never quite sure that if customers understood how our “conflict free” diamonds were different from the “conflict free” diamonds they could find at any jewelry shop. We always felt like we were stuffing an awkward amount of meaning into those two words, “conflict free.” And by promoting our diamonds as “conflict free,” we were reinforcing the diamond industry’s own misleading terminology. Although we promoted our own diamonds as “conflict free,” we privately wondered whether our social mission would be better served if those two words were retired from our industry’s vocabulary. We were in a very interesting position. We were a “conflict free” diamond company skeptical about the words “conflict free.”
We faced a choice. We could continue to use the term “conflict free” ourselves and play on the diamond industry’s own terrain. Or, we could take a new approach: we could reject the “conflict free” standard altogether. We chose the latter.
In 2012, we made a switch. Instead of trying to redefine “conflict free,” we accepted as valid the KP definition of “conflict diamond”—a definition which has remained stubbornly the same for a decade, despite a U.S. attempt to expand it slightly. Thus, we now recognize that a “conflict free” diamond is simply one that didn’t finance a rebel militia in a war-torn country.
But we don’t leave it there. After explaining the narrowness of the conflict-free standard, and then educating consumers about all the violence and all the labor and environmental abuses that plague diamond mining, we pose a question: “Is this enough?”
As for own diamonds, we describe them alternately as “ethical” and “beyond conflict free.” The chart on this page illustrates the difference between “conflict free” and the meaning of our own “beyond conflict free” standard.
We acknowledge that the phrase “beyond conflict free” isn’t yet familiar to most consumers. But in those words, we convey that the “conflict free” standard hasn’t served consumers well—that it has confused diamond shoppers and kept them from asking hard questions about whether a diamond’s origins are ethical. We also begin to lay the foundation for a day when the “conflict free” standard can finally be discarded.
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