Question: What do diamonds have in common with soccer balls and Chicken McNuggets?
Answer: They are products that have come under pressure to become more transparent. Increasingly, consumers and activists are asking questions about where they come from and how they are made. Theyâ€™re getting answers, too.
To show that its soccer balls aren’t made in sweatshops, Nike publishes reports on factory conditions in the developing world. Just recently, the company announced that it may have a shortage of soccer balls this fall because Nike has stopped buying from a supplier in Pakistan because it could no longer verify that the soccer balls were being made at the factory, and not at homes, where child labor is likely to be employed.
As the obesity crisis has worsened, McDonaldâ€™s has agreed to list all the ingredients that go into a McNugget on its website. (Warning: You do not want to know.) Eventually, it’s likely that the ingredients and nutritional content will be more prominent in the restaurants as well.
As for diamonds, their image has been tarnished for about a decade because some of themâ€”known as conflict diamonds or blood diamondsâ€”have been used by rebel groups in Africa to finance brutal wars that have displaced, maimed or killed millions of people.
The question of how many diamonds are conflict diamonds, and how to stop the illegal trade, are being raised anew by, of all things, a movie. It’s called Blood Diamond, stars Leonard DiCaprio, and is set against the backdrop of the diamond-fueled civil war in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s. The movie will be released on December 8.
The movie is, potentially, a public-relations black-eye for the diamond industry during its holiday selling season. An industry group called the World Diamond Council has launched a $15 million campaign, including newspaper ads and a website, intended to polish the image of diamonds.
The issue’s very complicated, but here’s the interesting thing. Both the industry and its NGO critics, notably Amnesty International (disclosure: my wife Karen Schneider works there) and a group called Global Witness, agree that progress has been made since the NGOS brought pressure on the industry in the late 1990s. In 2002, countries that produce and import diamonds, including the U.S., agreed to a set of procedures called the Kimberly Process, which are designed to certify that shipments of diamonds crossing national boundaries are conflict-free.
How is the Kimberly Process working? I’m not an expert. If you’re interested, I’d refer you to both an industry website and to an independent website operated by Amnesty and Global Witness. The GAO put out a report this fall saying that the process needs to be improved. And a writer named Tom Zoellner, who has written a book about the industry called The Heartless Stone, wrote a thoughtful essay for Time on this issue. We talked briefly by phone, and he suggested to me that even under the best of circumstances, diamonds are less than ideal as a development strategy for African nations because their future value is unpredictable; they are no longer scarce, and their desirability depends entirely on their image, which movies like Blood Diamond are not going to help.
Here’s the point, though: Consumers can make a difference by asking intelligent questions about where the things they are buying come from, and how they are made.
That’s a big change from years ago. When I was a teenager, it would never have entered my mind to me to ask where a soccer ball came from or who made it. Then again, it never would have entered my mind to buy a soccer ball.