Should "Net Positive" be Put in a Box?

Environmental Compliance.  Beyond Compliance.  Leading Performer.  Responsible Operations.  Responsible Procurement.  Cradle-to-Grave Material Management.  All markers on the path of continual improvement and environmental sustainability.

On the social side – Informing.  Engagement.  Consultation.  Consent.  Shared Value.  Shared Benefits.  Partnerships.

What will be next? 

Are there limitations?

So many stages on the continual path of improvements - sometimes it is difficult to tell which are the higher standards.  And each and every step has required drastic shifts in business practices, some adding tremendous amounts of resources to manage, some creating optimizations.  All have had impacts on businesses around the globe.

Improvements and Choices

Have we always made the right decisions?  Are we being innovative enough?  And are those innovations and shifts responsible, sustainable? 

Do we know the impacts of some of the changes we have made? 

Have they all been positive?

What about the push for organic and non-GMO farming practices? Sometimes I wonder whether we are getting this wrong.  Not that I believe we should be ingesting chemicals – I like organic, but doesn’t it have lower yields?  Isn’t GMO supposed to be a way to ensure higher yields, so that we’ll have food for everyone on this planet?

Photo credit: Activ Solar via Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Photo credit: Activ Solar via Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

What about the push for renewable energy and electric cars?  So many rare earth minerals that need to be mined and processed to support those idealistic energy systems.  The processing and extraction of said minerals are some of the toughest challenges around, so I hear.  

What is the acceptable balance?

I think about how we should be choosing our suppliers – maybe one company can produce something with less of a direct impact, one that brings greater benefits to its local communities – but how far away are these manufacturers? 

What impact does the movement of all these things around the globe cause?  Isn’t this a trade-off of benefits and impacts?

And what impacts do the travels of all of us headed out to learn more about sustainable practices and methods at such and such conferences have?  Surely it is not to the benefit of our planet.

Conference Takeaways

I recently listened to a webcast from the Sustainable Brands conference, where one of the speakers, Sally Uren of Forum for the Future, was talking about a global Net Positive movement.  This project has a goal “to encourage more companies to make ambitious Net Positive commitments, then equip them with the tools to turn those goals into reality.”

This newest initiative, combining both environment and social, "opens its arms to all organisations committed to becoming Net Positive"…and this one seems to be setting the bar the highest.  It sounds inspirational, something we should all strive for.  And who wouldn't want to "put back more into society, the environment and the global economy than it takes out."

But what does it mean? 

Let me Explain

As I was listening to this proposal with ambitious new targets, the first thoughts that came to my mind, as they always do when I’m reading up on sustainability and the various ranking standards, is this:

Would a mining company, or even a particular site, ever qualify under a net positive standard?

Are mining companies also welcome to join the movement?

What are the requirements, and how many categories do you need to meet to qualify as net positive?

I scanned their website to see whether any of their past initiatives had ever included mining organisations, or the industry in general, and saw none.  Maybe there were and I missed it, but I wasn't surprised.

As is the case for most sustainability ranking systems, companies are ranked better if they have utilised fewer natural resources, if they have optimised their systems to recycle and reuse what they can, and that they have reduced and managed their wastes well.  As they should be.  

Typically in a more 'optional' set of reporting criteria, companies can additionally report on, and show if they have implemented strategies to source 'greener' or more sustainable supplies and materials within their supply chain.  But there have been minimal efforts to extend those ties back to responsible mining.  Only some of the largest energy providers have started to make ties to the performance of their resource suppliers.

But what if manufacturers have optimised their systems, and ALSO chosen the most responsible resource providers for the materials they do consume?  Shouldn't that count for something too?

My thoughts shifted to all of the benefits the products of mining developments are bringing to the world.  Where the extracted raw resources are used in a multitude of consumer products, and where they are used to create the equipment used for the manufacturing of almost everything around the world. 

The existence of the mining industry is solely the cause of the demand for products around the world, and nothing less – if we didn’t need the raw materials produced, the industry would not exist – period. 

In addition, mining companies tend to bring benefits to local communities around mining operations – particularly where those communities are remote such that they typically do not enjoy, or even have access to, the things that many of us take for granted. 

Mines can and do assist with raising the standard of living of many communities, bringing access to clean water, providing educational resources, training, jobs and an improved economical foundation, sometimes also additional utilities and transportation corridors that may have not been present, infrastructure they may require, and other benefits too. 

Sure, this has been a gradually improving trend - it did not always exist - but it is on an upward trend towards becoming the norm for the sector.  And the status of performance in this area is really not all that different to other sectors, including manufacturers.

In listening further to the discussion of the net-positive ranking system, there was an indication that in order to qualify, there shouldn’t be an allowance for trade-offs between a negative impact in one place that is offset by a positive impact elsewhere.  When you look at the details, there is a bit of language around trade-offs, so it isn't all that clear what is acceptable or not.  Hence my examples at the start – doesn’t everything have a trade-off somewhere along the line?

So under that lens, it is my view that a mining organization would NEVER be considered as a contender for net-positive recognition, or if it were, it might be viewed as ‘green-washing’ by the general public.  Even if the sector is truly bringing many benefits to the world and its local neighbours.

Could I be wrong?  Please Tell me I Am.

My reasoning goes along these lines: no matter what type of mine it is,

  • some level of temporary disturbance,
  • some level of landscape alteration will have occurred,
  • some water will have been consumed or borrowed (drawn, used, cleaned and discharged), and
  • raw non-renewable resources will have been taken from the earth. 

Of course, there will also be a duration of time through which the development, operations, and closure activities will occur, when people may view these activities as unpleasant, risky, and impactful just due to their existence. 

Even when all of the appropriate stakeholder engagement has been done, agreements have been made with local communities, approvals have been granted.  Even when impact-avoidance design measures, the appropriate controls have been put in place, and the plans and funds set aside for closure. 

Society will still only continue to see what they perceive to be negative impacts.

Wouldn’t you agree?

Let’s explore this notion a little bit more.  Because, if this is all that will continue to be seen, in my opinion, what it points out is the significant disconnect of ours as a society from the things that we consume.

If we carry forward with the notion that mining is a bad thing, that it can never be ruled as ‘net-positive’, then we should also be saying that NO organization around the world could be viewed as net positive - if you take in the full value-chain of an organizations’ products. 

I say this because, even if:

  • a consumer product can be fully generated from renewable resources,
  • the wastes from the manufacturing are eliminated,
  • the energy consumed is green and renewable, and
  • the products are reclaimed at the end of their lives?

All of the equipment used:

  • to manufacture,
  • to transport parts and supplies from their sources to the plants,
  • to transport products to the distributors & then to the end-consumers,
  • to distribute the energy being used,
  • to collect, recycle, treat or manage, and discharge waste materials within the manufacturing cycle, and
  • to enable the electronic distribution of data collection, information and promotional materials, etc.

ALL of these things rely on the existence of mining products.  Love it or hate it, mining IS a part of absolutely every product around the world.  And so if we cannot take a view of a mining organization as a potential contender for net-positive recognition? 

But my suggestion is that we shouldn't put net positive in a box.

Please take it out of the Box

The reality is, if we contain it, we aren’t really considering the full lifecycle of the products we produce and consume.  In essence, we are turning a blind eye to that part of our business – and we use the excuse that we have no control over it.  It’s a bit hypocritical, even if we don’t want to admit it. 

And it really goes against the grain of sustainable thinking, doesn’t it?

Instead, if we open the box and start to look at where our supplies are coming from - right back to their origins, we might just start to recognize which mining organizations are doing the right things.  We might start to choose the suppliers that are taking the time, making the effort to perform better, to bring more benefits to local neighbours. 

As in all businesses, these things cost money, they involve integration of change into business strategy.  And if we want the entire industry to swing in the direction we'd like, then we need to "vote with our pocket-books."  

And if we want it to happen fast, and to keep our costs of supplies low, maybe we can help the industry out a little with our expertise too - reduce the costs of trial and error, and guesswork on what might be the best methods.

What are your thoughts?

 

In my next article, I'll dive a bit more into the Net Positive initiative, and review a few of the sustainability ranking mediums out there.  To show how mining stacks up amongst other industries.

#netpositive #sb16sd #sustainability #beout #miningpride