Solving the mining industry's PR problem
Sustainability and workforce culture shifts on the horizon Metal Tech News - September 5, 2023
Last updated 9/19/2023 at 4:44pm
A mining company can never fully integrate a culture of sustainability motivated by compliance alone –satisfying laws, norms, and investors rather than taking risks and creating lasting, generational value.
This message, delivered by Professor David Wheeler during the 2018 Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada Convention, continues to resonate with an industry that is now being championed as a key enabler of a clean energy future.
To be seen in a better light, the mining industry has sought to address questions of sustainability, worker safety, biodiversity preservation, carbon neutrality, and even cultural heritages. However, these advancements must contend with a potent history of decades-old environmental destruction.
Mining, however, is not alone in its scrutiny and could take pointers from the ever-booming tech industry, a highly visible business sector that has successfully weathered numerous blows to its popularity.
In January 2018, Amnesty International released a report that claimed Apple, among other major electronics manufacturers, was using raw materials that had been produced by child labor.
Apple quickly issued a statement that denounced human rights violations as being contrary to Apple's own corporate policies – largely to avoid lasting scrutiny – and within a year and a half, was being lauded for its supply chain transparency and continued efforts to use more recycled materials today.
According to resources veteran Jim Pollock, Australia's mining industry is considered "dirtier" than its contemporaries.
"The mining industry is seen as bad, the miners destroy the countryside, pollute the water, get huge tax benefits from the diesel fuel rebate and it has an image problem," he said. "That is not good. We've got to do better. The whole industry has to do better."
The agricultural industry has long been seen as inherently green, its technologies regularly advancing.
Mining, on the other hand, has largely kept out of the spotlight until making news headlines for recurring social conflicts and environmental disasters.
In short, mining needs a public relations overhaul.
Changing the perception
The industry has needed to move beyond avoidance of negative press and do more to attract a younger and more diverse audience.
"A lot of young people would not consider going into the mining industry because of all the bad things they've heard about it," said Pollock.
"The image mining has of being dirty and not being contemporary, that image is in the control of the mining industry," said Nicky Ivory, Deloitte mining and metals lead. "If the mining industry doesn't step up and control that narrative and that image, others will fill in the gaps for them."
Jake Klein, head of Evolution Mining, has spent 25 years in the industry, working across copper, silver, rare earths and now gold. "We need to get better at gender diversity, diversity in general," he said.
While diversity may be lagging, Evolution Mining says they are ahead of the curve in sustainability, holding an AA rating, a rarity in the industry being driven by investors who demand green credentials.
Researcher Darren Saunders, who conducted a 2021 review of workplace culture at Rio Tinto, said change would take time and "authentic leadership."
"There's been a reckoning of sorts," Saunders said, describing both resistance and a growing acceptance that change was needed. "This problem has been around for quite some time and I think it came to the fore, the Band-Aid got ripped off and it came out into the open."
"Significant change can't come fast enough," said Gold Industry Group chairwoman Kelly Carter. "But I think if we can start to change the perception of the industry from the outside looking in, I think that will be a really big win."
Into the spotlight
Rachel Blower, Director of mining at Hayes, has started to see a difference in how mining companies approach candidates.
"Being a female in the mining industry, to see that females are being encouraged to apply for jobs, encouraged with apprenticeship opportunities, that's really great," she said.
Over the next 20 years, the mining industry expects to add a steady number of jobs in the range of 11,000 to 13,000 per year due to retirement and the energy transition's growing need for mineral production. Despite the increased demand, mining training programs, interest, and recruitment haven't kept up.
"There are a lot of great women in the mining industry, but we need more. With the demand for minerals, workforce development is going to be a big thing for the mining industry. So, we are trying to show young people all of the opportunities that are available," said Andrea Brickey, professor of Mining Engineering and Management at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.
The spotlight is no longer something to avoid. By sharing stories of modernization and sustainability successes with those outside the industry, goodwill and an updated vision of what miners can be – the stewards of resources essential to human progress – are vital to facilitating the sustainable future we all strive for.