Is sustainability just a passing fancy?
Late April and early May is the time of year when most companies publicly prove their accountability to their shareholders. Annual reports are distributed and shareholders (as well as media) are invited to annual meetings.
As I look over annual reports and attend annual meetings and news conferences, more than ever before the word on the lips of almost every mining executive is “sustainability” or “sustainable development”.
Executives from most major companies, not just miners, are making strong statements of commitment to the ‘soft’ issues that comprise sustainable development: the safe disposal of industrial wastes, environmental performance, the fair distribution of economic benefits, human rights and community consultation, and product stewardship. The preceding list is not of my making, but is from a brochure of the Global Mining Initiative (GMI), a program launched two years ago by 10 of the world’s largest mining companies as an agent of change.
These are not new ideas; some companies have been trying their best for decades to be responsible to the communities in which they work, to comply with regulations, and to plan for a better future. What seems to be different now is that the soft issues are no longer regarded as expensive options; they are necessary to continuing to work.
This theme was expressed by John Carrington, Barrick Gold Corp.’s chief operating officer, in a speech to the Australian Gold Conference last year. (Barrick is one of 30 mining companies co-sponsoring an independent GMI research project, and is the subject of this special issue of Canadian Mining Journal.)
He was predicting where mining companies would be 20 years from now: “We will have finally accepted that the hierarchy of success in our business (from the least to the most important) is Technical onomic Po ical Socia not the reverse. We will have learned to earn society’s respect by our actions, not our words, thereby gaining the social licence to grow, not just operate.”
Responsible corporate behaviour comes at a cost. It can’t be an “extraordinary item” on the balance sheet; it has to involve ongoing, incremental steps toward well-defined goals. I was therefore dismayed to hear recently from a consultant with many years of experience in mining environmental work, that there is substantially less work in her field than there was two years ago. She said that most companies are no longer hiring consultants but are doing their own work in-house by just reassigning more tasks to their employees. “In down times, exploration is the first thing to be cut, and then environmental work,” she said.
Is the same amount of environmental work being done by fewer people, now? Do the in-house crews have all the expertise required?
The culmination of the GMI program will be a global sustainability conference to be held May 12-15, 2002 in Toronto. The local conference organizer is Noranda Inc.’s senior vice-president of environment, safety and health, Dave Rodier. It is being billed as a watershed conference, bringing together all stakeholders in the sustainability issues. The conference will provide a platform for the mining, minerals and metals industries to tell the stakeholders how they will address the challenges in these areas.
This conference is where we will see if the global mining industry is prepared to back up its words with funding, personnel, and expertise. At the end of the day, it will be the results that count.