Leading Environmental Change: The Case of the Global Mining Industry

By Young, Scott T. | Review of Business, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Leading Environmental Change: The Case of the Global Mining Industry


Young, Scott T., Review of Business


Abstract

This article reviews the efforts of the global mining industry to establish a framework for sustainable development (SD). The framework, established in a project conducted by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED): the Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development (MMSD) Project, presents a model SD approach for environmentally-sensitive industries.

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Introduction

The mining industry faces extreme environmental pressures across the globe. Gone are the days when a mining company could find a site, excavate minerals and walk away, leaving the local community to not only clean up the mess, but often to suffer health consequences far into the future. Environmental pressures have increased in all corners of the world. It is no longer possible to expect that looser environmental restrictions in a third world country are the answer to avoid special interest groups. "Watchdog" groups pay attention to mining activities in all countries of the world.

The term Sustainable Development first gained attention in 1987, with a report from the World Commission for the Environment and Development that defined it as development "that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet the needs of others [10]." Stuart L. Hart, in an influential article published in the Harvard Business Review, prescribed a three-stage approach to sustainable development [3]:

* Stage one: pollution prevention, the movement from pollution control to prevention

* Stage two: product stewardship, minimizing all environmental impacts over the life of a product

* Stage three: clean technology, updating production techniques to move into clean technology

Hart pointed out that challenges differed according to the stage of national industrial development. For example, developed economies have pollution issues like controlling greenhouse gases and dealing with contamination, while survival economies are plagued with basic sanitation issues and ecosystem destruction. A developed nation may see the destruction of the rainforest as a tragedy. A survival economy may view the forest as a way to sell trees and feed their families.

The 1992 United Nations conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, established that sustainable development should be based upon three major areas: economic, environmental and social [9]. The conference emphasized the environmental base of sustainable development, including the importance of preserving ecosystems.

In 2002, a 10-year revisiting of the UN's Rio Summit was held in Johannesburg, South Africa. Representatives at this summit drafted a report with agreements on mining. The report recommended actions addressing the environmental, economic and social impacts of mining, including the health and safety of workers [9]. It recommended the participation of stakeholders and the fostering of sustainable mining practices in developing countries.

The global mining industry finds survival economies less restrictive. The local populations view a mine as an economic boost. It means potential jobs, and avoidance of poverty. The populace is less concerned with potentially polluting activities, so long as they have a way to earn a living.

The SD movement makes it imperative that mining companies view the communities as places for long-term investment, beyond the eventual closing of the mine. When the mine exhausts the resources and is sealed, what happens to the people? In days past, the mining company simply moved to the next community. In the SD approach, the company makes certain there is a health care and educational system and the local population has a means for survival.

This holds true for all industries that involve natural resources: oil, chemical, etc. In 1998, nine of the world's largest mining companies initiated the Global Mining Initiative.

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