Prepare for a ‘supercycle’ in anti-mining activism

New waves of social opposition set to hit the industry may change it for the better

Daniel Litvin

Cobalt metal nuggets from a copper mine in Zambia. Climate activists, who have tended to target the energy industry, are now turning their attention to mining © Bloomberg

For decades miners have been a favoured target of anti-corporate activists. 

The environmental and social impacts of mineral extraction have created rich pickings for campaigners, while the industry’s claims to bring big benefits to host countries have often met with scepticism, whatever their merits.

Now, as the sector is being revived by soaring commodity prices, if faces a set of societal forces that promise an even stronger onslaught — albeit one which may shift the industry to a better standing in terms of environmental, social and governance credentials.

The first is a mounting backlash against the industry’s narrative of climate-friendly materials. 

With the energy transition expected to provide a boost for demand of key materials for a cleaner energy infrastructure like copper, cobalt and lithium, many miners have trumpeted their green credentials.

But this has prompted the industry’s longstanding critics to hit back. 

In March, for example, War on Want published an analysis highlighting what it saw as the “potential widespread destruction and human rights abuses” unleashed by the extraction of such minerals. 

In April, a study supported by Earthworks called for recycling to reduce the need to mine those materials.

Climate activists, who have tended to target the energy industry, are now turning their attention to big energy-consuming industries, especially mining, which is responsible for some 4 to 7 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according one estimate.

Second, activists are increasingly turning the spotlight on various industries’ consumption of minerals. 

The environmental impacts of mining the metals used in digital and other devices have become a hot campaign topic targeting technology groups. 

More broadly, amid rising concerns that the world is locked into a treadmill of capitalist “overconsumption”, the miners, with their apparent focus on never-ending resource extraction, are seen to be feeding the beast.

The third challenge facing the mining sector is broader societal anxieties where concerns about the state of society, fuelled by the pandemic, have rarely been as intense.

Whether it be inequality, damaging the environment, violating minority or labour rights, powerful companies are now called out when they are seen to do wrong, none more than big mining groups. 

Their operations are often vast, located in remote, deprived and environmentally sensitive regions, and often populated by minority groups.

The chief executive of Rio Tinto left his job late last year after the company destroyed a 46,000-year-old sacred Aboriginal shelter in Western Australia to make way for the expansion of a mine. 

Now mining executives around the world are treading ever more carefully, knowing that the potential of any transgression to explode in their faces is all the greater given the sensitive underlying social context. 

None of this is necessarily to support the substance behind all this anti-mining activism. Some campaigns are based on clear evidence. 

Others are loose with the truth and ideologically driven.

But even more than previous waves of social activism, the trend has the potential to reshape miners’ business models, posing opportunities as well as risks. 

In the past, the impact of activism was fairly limited: campaigns might create some bad headlines for companies and stir up local opposition, but little more.

Now, activists have greater power to affect commercial outcomes for miners because of two recent shifts: the proliferating commitments of big investors, themselves often sensitive to campaigns by activists, only to back companies with good ESG performance; and the growing sensitivities of industrial buyers of metals, such as technology and car companies, to reputational damage caused by their suppliers coming under fire.

Already, some miners are beginning to tweak their business models. 

Some, for example, are looking at ways to reshape their portfolios, seeking to buy assets with lower direct greenhouse gas emissions or water use. 

Others are beginning to work with their customers to create joint schemes to certify their minerals as “responsibly mined”, or to help them recycle the metals they use.

The common thread is ESG as a route to building stronger relationships with customers and investors rather than just a way to reduce criticism. 

It is an evolution in thinking for the industry that still has a long way to go — but is likely to continue to build for as long as those activists keep hurling the abuse.

Daniel Litvin is the founder and managing partner of Critical Resource, which advises companies on sustainability and geopolitical risk, and author of ‘Empires of Profit: Commerce, Conquest, and Corporate Responsibility.’

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