Shaping the agenda for a sustainable mining industry

According to the UN Global Compact-Accenture CEO Study on Sustainability, 63 per cent of chief executives expect sustainability to transform their industry within the next five years. Mining and metals companies, in particular, have an important role to play in the evolution to a more sustainable world. 

With operations on almost every continent, and materials integrated into most products and services, the sector is uniquely positioned to contribute to and influence this transition. 

To successfully navigate this shift though, bold thinking is required, and those that look to shape the outcome rather than react to it will be best positioned for success.

But what defines "sustainability"? According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Scoping Paper: Mining and Metals in a Sustainable World, developed in partnership with Accenture, a sustainable world will require the mining and metals sector to reliably and responsibly provide materials and products to global economies and communities.

By 2050, alternative measures of success will exist beyond profit and loss, where environmental and social costs, as well as their impacts, are considered and accounted for.

The mining and metals sector has an opportunity now to strategically consider how these trends could affect both the demand for products and the means of providing sufficient supply. 

The project planning cycles for mining and metals companies are sufficiently long that they can plan today for how they'll operate in a sustainable world. Critically, communities, civil society, investors and governments will not tolerate unsustainable mining and metals companies, so a proactive response is imperative.

The manner in which mining and metals companies respond to this change will affect their market position, reputation and value. 

The Mining and Metals in a Sustainable World Scoping Paper outlines five actions companies must take now to proactively prepare to contribute positively to a sustainable future. Below, we focus on three of these steps to assist companies in directing their current focus.

1. Invest in research and development (R&D)

Mining operations that make the most successful transition to a sustainable world will begin investing in and maximising automation technologies across the mining life cycle to improve safety, increase productivity and reduce costs. Key usage cases and opportunities identified by the WEF and Accenture report that support a transition to more sustainable operations include:

  • sensing and fusion technologies enabling comprehensive geometric and geophysical data profiles of a region during exploration;
  • automated robotics to design the safest, most cost-effective processes for extracting ore;
  • automated drilling systems to reduce variation, improve quality and reduce maintenance costs; and
  • driverless fleets or railway operations that utilise object-avoidance sensors, GPS and wireless technology to create a safer environment.

Data capture and analytics also present an enormous opportunity for companies to improve decision-making and proactively manage site operations, leading to increased minerals yields, optimised energy use and reduced wear and tear.

A more nascent technology worth considering to significantly impact the sustainability of operations is 3D printing. Successful application of this technology will reduce maintenance downtime because spare parts can be made on-site, having a particular impact in remote regions. The use of 3D printing also provides an opportunity to produce lighter, smaller and more efficient designs that may last longer and work more efficiently, reducing the environmental impact of operations. As a result of this new technology, broken down or redundant equipment can be easily recycled for new parts. These are just some of the potential sustainability benefits of incorporating 3D printing into mining production.

Continued pursuit of research and development and new technologies will ensure that mining and metals companies are optimising energy use and contributing to a safer, cleaner and more cost effective operating environment – an important step in the evolution towards a sustainable world.

2. Rethink multistakeholder models

To be in the best position to take advantage of a move towards a sustainable world, mining and metals companies will need to strengthen their partnerships. Being open to multiple, rather than exclusive, partnership models will be vital. Partnerships will allow governments, companies, investors and civil society to focus on their specialities, and reply on improved collaboration networks and knowledge-sharing facilities to fill any gaps. In addition, successful partnerships will facilitate a greater understanding across governments and civil society about the opportunities and challenges of the mining and metals sector, helping governments and companies to agree on appropriate roles and responsibilities for sustainable business models.

The WEF and Accenture report identifies a collaboration and engagement platform with four key attributes that can be used to identify, maintain and improve partnerships:

  • Partner definition: Document the stakeholder landscape to identify potential partnerships, list existing partnerships and highlight potential roles and responsibilities in partnership arrangements, and thereby build a foundation for the sector to engage in a strategic dialogue with relevant organisations;
  • Shared value: Define shared value to ensure partnerships are mutually beneficial and engaging;
  • Performance catalogue: Compile a repository of historical and existing engagement processes and alliances and identify and document the key success factors of each initiative to guide future programs and partnerships; and
  • Digital interaction: Use digital technology and networking platforms to enable low-cost, flexible and highly responsive interactive and informed partnership models.

Successful partnerships will enable mining and metals companies to develop stable relationships with investors, suppliers, customers, governments and civil society, and to thus transcend the role of commodity provider and instead position themselves as stakeholders committed to shared value. The companies that maximise shared value will secure the strongest market position in a sustainable world.

3. Cultivate the workforce

The skills and capabilities required to operate mining and metals companies in a sustainable world will be different; this needs to be considered, planned for and developed in advance.

In an ongoing effort to find ways to reduce the impact of their operations, mining and metals companies will become heavily dependent on R&D skills. These skills should be sought after and integrated now, before greater demand results in scarcity.

It will also be important to develop in-house life cycle assessment capabilities for collecting, managing and applying robust datasets to measure product performance against industry standards. These assessments and data will help create trust and confidence in the quality of materials that design teams use in working with customers to effectively reduce, reuse and recycle materials.

Perhaps the most important skill to cultivate, however, is the ability to build and manage effective relationships with suppliers, customers and consumers across the product value chain. Customers and consumers in a sustainable world will have higher expectations from mining and metals companies. They won't be as removed from companies and their relationships will be critical to building value. Through strong relationships, mining and metals companies will be able to adapt their production processes to more closely meet customer demands and deploy the higher environmental and social standards that consumers expect.

Companies that look to integrate these skillsets now will be better prepared to survive and thrive in a sustainable world.

All companies will need to build stronger capabilities on multiple fronts in order to successfully transition to a sustainable world. By refocusing on research and development, rethinking multi stakeholder models and cultivating a future-focused workforce, mining and metals companies can maximise the unique opportunities present today to ensure that they both promote a sustainable world and are positioned to operate successfully within it. 

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