New industry certification seeks to emulate standards schemes in agriculture and forestry, in response to soaring demand for ethical goods
Organic and Fairtrade food, FSC-approved paper, sustainable fish - despite some well-documented challenges global supply chains around the world have been rendered more transparent and accountable through certification schemes.
But until yesterday the mining industry remained something of a blind spot for industry-wide green supply chain efforts, with limited traceability from the metals that end up consumers' jewellery, smartphones and laptops, to the ore cut from underground mines, often in remote parts of the world.
But demand for the mining sector to bring things out into the open is growing. Electronics companies, including huge brands such as Apple, are responding to increased consumer pressure for ethical products with new targets to deliver sustainable supply chains; new technologies to track ethical gems from mine to store are attracting investor interest; and demand for responsibly sourced minerals is growing thanks to the boom in electric car production.
The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) was launched to try and help the mining sector respond to this shift in demand, and earlier this week it debuted a new global certification programme for large mines. Backed by leading mining companies and their customers, including Anglo American, ArcelorMittal, Microsoft and Tiffany, the Standard for Responsible Mining (SRM) has taken a decade to develop into its current "v.1.0" stage as it aims to provide a quality stamp for the most responsible mines.
However, it is not the finished article just yet. Eventually, IRMA says mines undergoing the SRM certification process will have to submit to auditors visiting to gather first-hand observations, employee interviews, and company documentation to prove they meet the Standard's requirements. But in its first-year beta phase the standard will be self-assessment, with independent remote verification launching later this year. After 2019, IRMA auditors will visit the mining sites to complete first-hand independent certification.
Covering all mined materials except energy fuels, the programme is voluntary, and affiliated mines will be able to add their facilities to a Responsible Mining Map and publicise their certification to suppliers and stakeholders, IRMA says.
"Consumers are aware of some of the bad actors/practices in this industry and are asking for ways to differentiate and purchase from those who will commit to positive performance," IRMA explains on its website. "Whether the consumer is purchasing a wedding ring, a computer, a new car or in the midst of a green-building project, they want to know that the mined materials that go into their products are responsibly sourced. IRMA seeks to provide a globally recognised label at the mine site level acknowledging best practice achievement, and to pass this value down through the supply chain where mined materials are made into the products we each use every day."
Jon Samuel, group head of social performance and engagement at Anglo American, confirms the mining giant would trial the new self-assessment tool and feedback into the revised Standard over the coming year. "As interest in the responsible sourcing of metals and minerals grows it is important to have standards that meet the needs of the wide variety of customers that mining serves, and address the expectations of society as a whole," he says.
Microsoft is also promising to play an "active role" in the Standard's ongoing development. "Microsoft believes that fairly-applied global mining standards such as those outlined in the SRM are essential to helping solve labour, human rights, and environmental issues at the far reaches of industry's supply chains," says Joan Krajewski, general manager of compliance and safety at Microsoft. "Making progress on these important and challenging issues will require the efforts and engagements of many, which is why we play an active role in collaborative initiatives like the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance."
But given the SRM won't be backed by independent audits until summer 2019 at the earliest, there are reasons to doubt it will immediately prove an effective tool for ensuring responsible sourcing. According to the 2018 Responsible Mining Index, which was also released earlier this week, mining companies regularly do not adhere to their own policy commitments, let alone those decreed by an external third party.
Although the 30 companies spotlighted in the Index demonstrate best practice in various areas, according to the RMI "it is still hard to find evidence at any one company on the range of topics that society can reasonably expect companies to address".
Together the 30 companies named in the RMI collectively operate more than 700 mines in more than 40 companies - accounting for 25 per cent of all mined commodities worldwide. But performance against best practice standards, even for the biggest companies, varies widely. On environmental performance for example, which covers air quality, water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and noise disturbance, just three companies - Newmont Mining, Teck Resources and Anglo America - scored above three out of six on environmental responsibility. Current best practice should see firms delivering scores of 4.8, according to RMI.
However, Isabelle van Notten, co-founder of the Responsible Mining Index, argues it is more helpful to publicise the best practice from well performing mines rather than shine a spotlight on the worst performing industries. "We do not believe in 'naming and shaming'," she says. "We find it more effective to show companies how they are performing. We are already seeing that the Index is having an influence in practice. Companies are asking us what they need to do to improve. And other stakeholders are taking note of the results. For example, after publication of the Index, some mining companies were called by investment analysts from the US with questions about their scores. This is clear evidence that the Index works as an incentive towards continuous improvement."
The trend towards greater transparency and recognition of sustainability efforts in mining is an echo of similar movements happening right across global supply chains. Once the preserve of consumer-facing companies, more and more downstream firms - most notably in the steel sector - are finding ways to give their goods a 'green stamp' to attract more conscious business customers. As this shift intensifies, expect mining companies to emerge from the shadows and start wearing their corporate responsibility credentials on their sleeve.
Yet these credentials will certainly require the approval of external independent auditors, if the industry is to shake off its reputation for making promises it doesn't always keep.
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