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De Beers - Friend or Foe?

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What is a natural diamond if it doesn’t have a social purpose? Let’s take the biggest brand and ask the killer question; “what, if anything, do De Beers and their ForeverMark brand really stand for?” …The answer may inspire you.

By Richard Chetwode. 12th April 2021. Private e-mail: richard.chetwode@btinternet.com

Thirty years ago, the simple perception that a natural diamond represented the Ultimate Gift of Love was good enough for most consumers. The internet and social media didn’t exist, and products and brands didn’t have to explain themselves; consumers took most aspects of them on trust.

Today’s young natural diamond jewellery consumer, the Millennials, Generations Y and Z, value honesty and integrity and more than previous generations, they also care about other people. They seek things to trust in, and they trust in brands that they believe in, associate themselves with, that they have learnt about. They want to know that their luxury purchase didn’t only not do harm, but that it did good. They need to feel comfortable that in today’s sustainable conscious environment, their friends think that it is a good thing that they are wearing diamonds. They are not just socially conscious, they are increasingly interested in “Glocal’’, (the commercial world is global, but it’s also local (did the ‘local’ artisans receive a fair wage; what were their working conditions like?). Young consumers want to know “What’s your purpose, what’s your social purpose? What good are you doing?”. They will form an emotional attachment with a brand that has an obvious social purpose… and of course…vice versa.

Only two weeks ago the founder of Scottish Brewery brand Brewdog announced plans to develop their recently acquired 10,000-acre (part of the) Kinrara estate in Scotland into the biggest Native Woodland establishment and Peatland restoration project in the United Kingdom. For every multipack of Brewdog beer purchased, the Company will plant one tree… in the end millions of native trees will be planted. The Brewdog “Lost Forest” should eventually be capable of capturing 1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; also included will be a “green” hotel, a sustainable campsite…etc, all to help people reconnect with nature… and all this from a beer brewing company. Why? Because successful companies recognise that today social purpose and sustainability are central to everything they do, in the same way that they are central to everything about successful brands; from the working environment to the way every employee lives, works, eats, sleeps and breaths; from the receptionist to the cleaning person to the driver to the salesperson to the CEO all radiate the values that the company and/or brand stand for. In the end of course, it’s good for business as well.

And that’s a challenge that is yet to be met by some mining companies in general. Many of them have in the past focussed first and foremost on producing (short-term) returns for the shareholders, albeit it as good employers with good working conditions, managing any environment impact within the strict existing rules. Much of their contribution to the communities in which they operated was through employment, taxes (in some countries the tax rates are almost punitive), local outsourcing, upskilling and training. Some have gone further; for instance, donating to local education projects and local small business initiatives, but it is a business environment where shareholders still have absolute primacy over other stakeholders. Too often it seems that Social and Environmental Responsibility and Sustainability are “add-on’s”; something to be done because they “tick a box”, or because they are a regulatory requirement to be addressed in the Annual Report. For diamond mining companies specifically who after all, mine not an industrial necessity but the Ultimate Luxury, sustainability either becomes a core value in more than just name or trouble may well lie ahead… because for the ultimate consumer product… the consumer is already watching.

So how do diamonds stack up? The good news is that in general terms, diamond mining is environmentally a very low impact activity. Firstly, there aren’t many diamond mines in the world and secondly, mining diamonds doesn’t involve chemicals which might affect the environment in a permanent way.  

If you want to challenge a single diamond company, the obvious one to look at is De Beers and its “ForeverMark brand”. In both diamond mining and branding they are arguably the biggest and are involved in every part of the diamond pipeline from mine to finger. Full disclosure: I left De Beers twenty years ago but to make this article completely objective, I decided not to speak with anyone there. So here are the questions… “behind all the corporate slogans and Public Relations speak… what do they really stand for? What is their Social Purpose?”

It’s widely accepted in the diamond industry that De Beers has been a leader in pushing good business practices. Box ticked on that one. It is also accepted that at the core of their mining and sales operations are responsible mining, good and fair working practices, industry leading environmental standards and ethical sourcing…etc. Another Box ticked. Great stuff, except that a critic would possibly, very reasonably say – isn’t that what any business should be doing anyway? Agreed, so unfair though this may sound, now that we’ve ticked those boxes we’ll leave it at “we are pleased you are doing what we would hope any industry would be doing anyway”, and move on. Better question: is that on its own going to be enough for the new consumer of today…?

No, indeed it is not… but when you do some real digging, then it really gets quite interesting. When you buy a De Beers ForeverMark diamond that was mined at, say the Jwaneng Diamond Mine in Botswana, you aren’t just buying a responsibly mined diamond. The reason that a little schoolboy or schoolgirl is smiling as they play in the school ground at their school in Jwaneng; that they and their friends are happy, healthy and getting a great education; that they have a future with real opportunities, is likely because their mother and/or father have a highly skilled job working directly or indirectly at the diamond mine. Unlike so many other people in Africa, those children are being given a real chance in life for only one reason - because you just bought that diamond. How can you not be pleased with that purchase?  

Just look at what diamonds have done to Botswana; Botswana was one of the poorest countries in the world when in the 1960’s De Beers discovered diamonds on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Today, it is a middle-income country and probably the best example of good government across Africa, and where did that money come from… from diamonds.

But as for De Beers itself, they have evolved into a company whose DNA is no longer just about contributing to the communities in which they are involved in terms of the people - they go so much deeper. If you think of natural diamonds as Nature’s Miracle, then you have to protect the natural world from which they came, and for fifty years or more, De Beers has championed conservation at all of its mining operations.  

Today, for every hectare of land that is disturbed by mining, they will manage 6 hectares purely for conservation and what they are doing with this land to help protect some endangered species makes for a pretty inspiring story.  

Driven by the seemingly insatiable lust for ivory products in the Asian market, elephants are increasingly endangered throughout Africa, more often than not through poaching. A century ago, there were an estimated 12 million elephants in Africa, now there are less than 400,000 with 20,000 being butchered every year for their ivory. In a few places there are too many. In too many areas, the elephant population has been wiped out by poaching, yet they are so important to the sustainability of the economies of Africa because of ecotourism. More than that what kind of world would we be living in if there were no elephants left?  

I remember visiting De Beers’ Venetia Diamond Mine in South Africa shortly after it was officially opened in 1992; 6 orphaned baby elephants had just been delivered to the 32,000hectare game reserve which surrounds the mine. Today that reserve holds lions, cheetahs, leopards, African wild dogs, giraffe and different types of antelope…. except there is a problem - quite a major one. De Beers have done such a good job of protecting the elephants that 270 of these amazing giants now live in an area which can ecologically only support between 60 to 70. Too many elephants in a small space will eventually destroy the entire habitat and endanger the lives of not just all the elephants, but all the other animals that you are trying to protect as well. In other game reserves in years past, when too many elephants are threatening to destroy the entire habitat, hunters would be brought in and (paying huge sums of money) they and guests were allowed to cull the population and the money would (hopefully) be ploughed back into supporting the development of local communities. But if you care about nature, then culling seems fundamentally the wrong thing to do in a world where elephants need to be protected.

So, De Beers got involved in an extraordinary project; they set about transporting 200 elephants 1,700 kilometres from the Venetia Diamond Mine across Africa to a secure area in the Zinave National Park in neighbouring Mozambique. The Zinave National Park covers 400,000 hectares but after decades of war and poaching, only 8 elephants remained. To be part of an industry where a mining company is transporting these elephants across Africa to help the people of the neighbouring country rebuild their eco-tourism and wildlife industry is utterly amazing… and this isn’t like driving on a western motorway, this driving in rural Africa! I would suggest that anyone who doesn’t think “Chapeau to you” for this project is meanfisted and probably someone you should cross the road to avoid… but more than that, what they have done is really the right thing to do.

In Botswana, De Beers and its partner, the Government of Botswana, are the largest breeders and protectors of white rhino in a world where they are being wiped out for the so-called aphrodisiac properties of their horns. How many people knew that when they bought a De Beers ForeverMark diamond they were helping give their grandchildren just a tiny chance that they might actually see one of these rare and magnificent animals in the wild?  

But sustainability also means protecting the environment in which you operate, and young new diamond consumers are more than aware that they will be left to deal with the full impact of the damage done to the planet by previous generations. Maybe that explains why many of them are ready to change where they shop if it reduces their environmental impact.

Just as protecting endangered species is a core part of De Beers’ DNA, so is protecting the natural environment, because the natural world is inherently what natural diamonds are about.  

An environmental critic of natural diamonds would probably just point out that to mine a diamond you normally use large diggers to dig a large hole in the ground which remains forever…and you should not be doing that. The answer to that comes in two parts. Firstly, from the mining and processing side, De Beers have committed that their next mine will be carbon neutral. It’s relatively common knowledge that they are part of a group that is a leading force in the mining world in the march to zero emissions – intimately involved in the innovative development of green hydrogen power - great! But that same critic might then say that not only have you created a giant hole but when you have extracted the natural diamond from the crushed kimberlite ore (the host rock for diamonds) you have to deposit that crushed ore somewhere… in a large pile; a very well-structured pile of course, but it’s still a pile. How can you justify that? Actually, quite easily, but let’s take a step back to understand why.

Only 1% of the rocks in our earth are what are called “Ultramafic” rocks which means they naturally soak up (and capture) large amounts of carbon dioxide. Kimberlite is one of those Ultramafic rocks, but obviously only when it is brought to the surface does it capture carbon emissions, but even better than that – once it has been crushed during the diamond recovery process, its surface area is dramatically increased thereby increasing exponentially its ability to capture those emissions. Which is why in 2016, De Beers started piloting a project in partnership with a number of internationally based universities to study the potential to capture carbon in Kimberlite. The early research seems to suggest that the entire carbon dioxide emissions from a typical diamond mine would only take up 10% of the rock’s carbon emission storage potential leaving 90% available to soak up other carbon emissions. Put it another way, when you dig that hole you are extracting huge quantities of rock that can now absorb carbon emissions far in excess of what they might produce. Which translates into when you buy a natural diamond, you are almost certainly going to be helping the planet.

Greta Thunberg, your future husband or partner better buy you a natural diamond… or else!

But that’s not all. There’s another key value that De Beers and ForeverMark stand for: Women and Women’s Rights. It’s true that they are not alone… as former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton put it “I believe that the rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century”, but it’s still the right thing to do. Seventy odd years ago, Marilyn Monroe launched into the iconic song “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in the 1953 hit “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”. That title probably wouldn’t go down very well with many people today, but De Beers has taken the song title to have a completely different meaning in the context of today’s world. Natural diamonds cannot just be the friend of the women who get to wear the diamond jewellery; they must be the best friend of every women involved with natural diamonds from the minute they are mined to when they are purchased as part of a piece of beautiful diamond jewellery. To make that so, they have focussed on empowerment and creating opportunities for women in every part of their business, and that’s particularly important in an industry that has historically been male dominated. In 2018 they joined with the United Nations programme “HE4SHE”; which recognises that men have to be part of the solution to women’s empowerment, not part of the problem. Their commitment to the United Nations was to achieve parity by 2020.  

Natural diamonds make a huge financial, environmental, and social contribution to countries that need employment and need the wealth natural diamond mining creates to work for the betterment of all the people of those countries. The natural diamond story, particularly but by no means exclusively De Beers and ForeverMark, is one of contribution, particularly because most diamonds come from the developing world and are cut and polished in India.  

It’s why the natural diamond story is an extraordinarily positive one. Natural diamonds have always represented a unique way to express exactly who you are without having to speak. When you put on natural diamonds, more than just the Ultimate Symbol of Love, you are silently projecting another set of values. Beauty, authenticity, rarity, sustainability, and social contribution, that’s a great story for natural diamonds and a story that needs to be told.   

Richard Chetwode runs a diamond consultancy business. He is also Chairman of Namibian Diamond Mining Company Trustco Resources, is Chairman of the Advisory Board of Australian technology company Fine Arts Bourse as well as consulting to several diamond (and other) businesses. All the opinions in this article are his own.