Does mining need a rebrand?
Mining needs a rebrand. That was the statement that Pierre Julien, past President of the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM) said to the attendees at the final day of this year’s CIM convention in Vancouver in May. Julien even went a step further by saying the mining brand, as we know it, is dead. He said that the word mining has such a negative connotation with so many Canadians, that for the industry to continue to thrive well into the 21st century, it would need to be called something else.
As we listened to his remarks from the audience, we were struck by his words and began to think, how could we rebrand mining? Would it even be possible?
It would be an ambitious undertaking. As far as we know, an entire industry has never been rebranded before. Sure, certain mainstay products have undergone revitalization campaigns over the years to reposition its value and importance in the market, but a sector has never been renamed.
For as long as mining has been around, it has been defined by the legacy it leaves behind. For many, mining represents pollution and degradation of the environment. If you were to ask someone what they first think of when they hear the word mining, they might say belching smokestacks from smelter facilities or tailings ponds where mine waste is stored.
Although we know the economic importance of mining and how the industry will remain critical as part of the energy transition to combat climate change, we cannot escape the longstanding narrative that mining is dirty and bad for the environment.
But mining is not what it used to be. Take Sudbury, Ontario, for example, a place that has become synonymous with mining. In the early 20th century, nickel was smelted out in the open in football field-sized roast heaps. These massive piles would burn for months at a time. By the time the heap roasting process was phased out, Sudbury, for the most part, was barren and devoid of vegetation. It remained that way for decades until a concerted effort was made to regreen the area and salvage it from the moonscape that it had become. Today, Sudbury is heralded as a success story and held up as the model for how a vibrant community can coexist with the mining industry.
So, if Sudbury can re-green and shake off its reputation as a mining wasteland, perhaps the industry can rebrand. But how?
In recent years, the Dairy Farmers of Ontario have had a series of successful advertising campaigns that have focused on reorienting the public’s perception of dairy products by zeroing in on notions of social and environmental responsibility in local-sourced dairy products, as well as support for the hard-working families of dairy farmers in Ontario. The key was to highlight the experience of local family-owned farms and deemphasize any notions of potentially cruel factory farming to change public perception of the dairy industry and to stem the tide of consumers leaving dairy products behind in favor of the rapidly growing list of alternatives. The slogan “Dairy Done Right,” while pleasing to the ear, is also meant to reflect how the demand for transparent food sourcing has become intermingled with the importance of community. In conjunction with that slogan, the group also launched the blue badges certifying a dairy product is made with Ontario milk so that they can easily be identified in supermarkets. Perhaps it is an ad campaign with evocative storytelling and meaningful slogans like this that can effectively reset perceptions of the mining sector as well.
The global clean energy transition required to combat the climate crisis is expected to significantly increase the demand for metals. Upwards of three billion tons of metal could be needed in the clean energy transition. These materials are needed to create technology such as electric vehicle battery packs, solar panels, and wind turbines. Suppliers of critical minerals have a responsibility to minimize its environmental impacts through decarbonizing initiatives. While the speed and scale of these initiatives are being unevenly applied across the industry, many end-users are taking immediate steps in operations and governance to align with global climate risk mitigation strategies. Mining is essential to solving climate crisis and this fact may be at the heart of how mining can be rebranded. For centuries, mining has been part of the problem when it comes to environmental degradation. Now, there is an opportunity for mining to be part of the solution.
Mining critical minerals will enable us to transition to energy alternatives to become more carbon neutral, but for many, this process is tied to the longstanding narrative of pulling rocks out of the ground, which we have been trying to shake for decades. Although there is little that can be done to change the fundamental outcome of extracting minerals from the earth, mining has done an excellent job of integrating and adopting new technologies to make this process safer, more efficient, and environmentally friendly. This is an industry that currently works with advanced technologies such as telemetry, robotics, and autonomy. To the outside observer, these processes may seem futuristic, but they are becoming more common at mine sites across Canada and have been around for years.
When minerals are pulled from the ground they are simply rocks. They need to be crushed, smelted, refined, and turned into the materials that we find in everyday products such as the components in our smartphone or kitchen sinks. These raw minerals are future materials but, especially when it comes to fighting climate change, they are also critical to our future.
With so much emphasis on the importance of mining to the future, would it be too simplistic to rebrand the industry as future materials? The marketing that would accompany the rebrand could focus on the advanced technologies utilized in the process and key into their importance to our dire fight to save the planet. We do not know if you could ever get a veteran of the industry to say that they “work in future materials” rather than mining, but we are not trying to change the perceptions of those already working in mining; it is those who are outside the industry that we need to reach.
We need mining for our future, so perhaps it is time we focus on that to not only change the misconceptions about the industry but also inspire the next generation of workers to enter the sector and perform this critical work.
If you have your own idea about what mining could be rebranded as, submit your thoughts to CMJ at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Commito is the Director of Applied Research & Innovation at Cambrian College and Steve Gravel is the Manager of the Centre for Smart Mining at Cambrian College.