Time and again, I’m asked if Canadian mining companies are “good players” in corporate social responsibility (CSR), and the answer to that question is much more complex than a simple “yes” or “no.” It begins with the difficulty of even answering “What is CSR?”
The Government of Canada defines CSR as the voluntary activities undertaken by organizations to operate in an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable manner.
And that’s an excellent start, but to be operationalized, we need to go deeper. Some would say CSR is about codes of ethics or “doing the right thing;” others argue it’s about development projects, and spreading the economic benefits of mining to local economies. And we know many companies are already engaging in such activities. However, evidence suggests that many Canadian mining companies are missing a critical element of any CSR strategy – trust building through robust stakeholder dialogue and engagement.
Here is my assessment: Today, if your business has envirionmental impacts, you are in the business of stakeholder engagement.
What we see from the vantage point of the Office of the CSR Counsellor is rising community resistance and conflict around mining projects. Even at the exploration stage, companies are experiencing difficulties securing community support, and when signs of trouble arise, they are all too often ignored.
Companies may not perceive the long-term damage that can be done from a failure to have meaningful engagement with all stakeholders – even the critical voices – from the outset. Or they simply attribute complaints to misinformation or illegitimate stakeholders.
So who are these “stakeholders” that should be thought about? Stakeholders of course are your shareholders, but today, the circle of those to include in discussions should be much wider. For example, the International Finance Corporation defines stakeholders as people who “may be affected by the project or have interest in it” or, who can affect its outcomes. So this clearly includes those who are now or may become critical voices. Even if the company feels they are not legitimate, they can affect critical corporate objectives.
And what about the fear of validating unreasonable demands or activists? Won’t sitting down with them open the door to unreasonable expectations? While I’m certainly not advocating for companies to sit down with all players – and even less to give into demands that seem unreasonable, or unfair. I’ve also seen no evidence that ignoring projects affected people will make the issues go away. Indeed, often the opposite is true. Increasingly people have concerns about the impacts of mining and opening a conversation with project-affected communities is a good way to provide balancing information and show openness to hearing concerns. It builds trust. In the absence of an open dialogue, misinformation, rumour and fear are much more likely to spread.
In 2002, Meridian Gold commissioned an external report about “what went wrong” in the Esquel project in Argentina. The findings were important: the number one reason the project did not move forward was the failure of the company to “engage effectively with the community” and communicate through a “meaningful dialogue” with the community. The report remains required reading for anyone in the industry interested in securing social license to operate. It is available on the PDAC website at http://www.pdac.ca/pdac/advocacy/csr/bsr-esquel-report.pdf
Has there been learning? In late 2012, a quarry planned for Southern Ontario was stopped due to community mobilization. In the aftermath, the company’s president conceded: “In hindsight, we did not do a real good job of engaging the local community and the public at large about our project and about the benefits and how we would move the project forward. As a result, there is a lot of misinformation out there.”
So. If you are in mining, you are in the business of stakeholder engagement. And that too is CSR.