Mine your business sustainably

Extracting natural resources from the earth is not a sustainable activity but some mining companies are now seeing the business case for ensuring their operations are efficient, finds Leigh Stringer

There is no escaping the fact that mining by its nature consumes, causes mass waste and can significantly pollute water resources. On the other hand mining is second only to agriculture as the world’s oldest and most important industry.

The mineral and mineral-based products extracted through mining are a fundamental part of the economic and social fabric of modern society, as many are used to produce metals, ceramics, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals and chemicals, to name but a few.

Coal, oil and gas are other minerals extracted that are currently crucial for sustaining life but are also a substantial threat to the environment. It could be argued that the resulting deterioration of the environment and fast depletion of natural resources through mining threatens the sustainability of economic development and that one of the most intricate challenges the global community faces is finding and developing a feasible solution to grow the economy without harming the environment.

However, according to one of the world’s largest mining company’s, Anglo-American, work is being carried out to take on this challenge. Speaking to Anglo American’s head of sustainable development and energy, Samantha Hoe-Richardson says that many in the mining industry are tarnishing the industry’s reputation through their inability to drive sustainable operations, while others are making significant efforts.

She stresses that mining is increasing its positive contribution, in terms of a sustainable future for the planet. “Mining as an activity is not sustainable because you are digging great big holes in the ground. But sustainable development, as it relates to mining, I think mining can make a significant contribution,” she says.

Although not immediately obvious, Hoe-Richardson makes some interesting points around the mining industry’s role in producing commodities that help create renewable technologies. “Obviously on the front end of our industry we are producing commodities that have the potential to really put the world on a different track in terms of climate change and use of resources, like copper for example. An electric vehicle has three times the amount of copper than a normal vehicle,” says Hoe-Richardson.

Another example is the use of platinum in fuel cells, which are also being heavily used and tested in the motor industry to reduce the use of fossil fuels in vehicles. Mining’s contribution to the planet is quite apparent. Without mining we would not have the materials needed to create lifesaving pharmaceutical’s or metals for technologies that can improve society. Therefore, it is the operational side of the business that is causing the most significant impact and Hoe-Richardson says this is where the most work is being carried out.

Anglo American has made it clear over the last few years that its sustainability drive will focus on its footprint and has committed to operating within the International Council of Mining Metals framework for sustainable development. The company is also reporting its performance using the Global Reporting Initiative’s G3 guidelines.

“The challenge for us is within our operations, which is where most of our footprint is, particularly from a water and carbon perspective. We don’t have a long-tail supply chain, it’s not like we’re a brewer or a Unilever, who has long-tail supply chains involving agriculture, which has impacts.

“Obviously there is the potential negative impact on the coal side, in terms of coal emissions. But, equally, you have to balance that with the economics which is that large parts of the world are energy poor and access to energy is a fundamental driver for lifting people out of poverty,” she adds.

The impact mining has on local communities has meant that stricter protection and more dialogue with communities has been essential in receiving environmental permits and approval from local people.

“That’s where our core focus has to be and that’s where we have the potential to make the most difference. Because very often, particularly in our company, our geographical overlays are really biased much more towards developing countries, so that’s where we have a much greater opportunity as well.

“Those communities around us often lack basic services, reliable supply of water, energy, education and health. So those are all the areas where we can make a meaningful contribution so that essentially that community wants us to be around them”.

This is also where the company see’s a competitive advantage “if you work on the presumption that what people term the social license to operate,” says Hoe-Richardson. The company is also looking closely at its water consumption and has made significant reductions since targets were implemented. Aiming to re-use and recycle as much water as possible, the group met nearly 70% of its operational water requirements by recycling or re-using water during 2011.

“We set ourselves a 2020 water target and one year in we’re half way to achieving that target and it’s because our business units have seen the commercial aspect of resource efficiency. Political gains are to be had from this and people have woken up to the opportunities. The first half of this year our water costs doubled, not because we were using more water, or the price was going up, it is because we are getting better at monitoring consumption”.

Hoe-Richardson also highlighted the impact energy efficiency figures are having on driving sustainability as a business case. “Similarly the energy efficiency projects in [2012], which is the first year we have been able to calculate this figure, have yielded savings of $75m (£48m). So that is something I can use to show people around the business to say that the environment can be a cost lever.

“It’s not only minimising our impact we’re reducing our costs. And making that part of the core business helps you establish a track record and a belief that ‘actually this is good’ – it’s good for business and it’s good for the planet”.

Leigh Stringer is the energy and sustainability editor for edie

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie