Back in the 1990s, the global mining industry seemed to be sleepwalking into its own funeral. The accumulation of several disastrous incidents, including tailings collapses, contaminations of rivers and a general lack of stewardship within communities living in the shadow of mining projects resulted in the mobilisation of large swathes of civil society against the sector. In light of this growing opprobrium during the turn of the century, the then CEO of Rio Tinto managed to convince a group of fellow majors that the reputation of the mining industry was under threat and that leaders of the industry needed to band together and take action.
The result of these meetings was the formation of the International Council on Mining & Metals (ICMM) in 2001, after a two-year consultation process concluded that a new and authoritative industry body was required for the industry to improve itself across all five continents.
“What underpinned this [need for improvement] was the necessity of preserving access to capital, markets and resources and that is still the underlying purpose today of ICMM,” says CEO Tom Butler.
“The purpose of ICMM is to help by preserving the reputation of the industry which helps maintain access to those three things.”
A new face for responsible mining
When ICMM was put together its founding members signed up to a set of 10 principles which form the basis of the organisation’s sustainable development framework. Over the years this framework has been tightened through the addition of position statements, which are essentially extra policy commitments.
ICMM’s rigorous 10 principles serve as a best practise framework for sustainable development in the mining industry and as a result, the organisation has played a key role in preserving and enhancing the reputation of the sector in recent years.
This notion rings even more true for ICMM’s members, who are expected to implement the principles in full and to transparently report on performance.
“What really put our members on the map was our first position statement, which was around protected areas and in particular a commitment not to explore or mine in World Heritage sites.
“I think at the time, this was a very strong signal as it meant that some members had to pull out of some exploration work and it showed that the members were serious about these commitments.”
The organisation’s key aim has remained clear and consistent since the early days and that is to promote safe, fair and responsible mining practises. ICMM has four chief methods of achieving this aim, with the first strand focusing on leadership through performance.
“This means setting the pace in terms of commitments that the members make and laying out what we consider to be good practise, or additional policy commitments that are raising the game across the industry.”
ICMM’s second method involves listening and engaging with external stakeholders, civil societies, NGOs and representatives from other industries. Thirdly, the organisation tries to open up strong lines of communication from the mining industry itself, to better articulate the positive impact it has, particularly in developing countries.
“The fourth method is focused on engaging with international organisations that are involved in the industry. We have a close relationship with the World Bank, OECD, International Maritime Organisation and other similar organisations.
“This is to make sure that we are involved in any policy or approach that they are developing, and we’ve had a chance to have our say in it.”
An esteemed membership
ICMM’s membership is comprised of some of the world’s largest and most influential mining companies in the world, from founding members such as Rio Tinto, BHP, Anglo American and Newmont to more recent additions like Glencore, Newcrest Mining and South32.
However, Butler stresses that size is not a formal criterion and that all companies must follow the same admission process.
“If a company wants to apply for membership, they have to go through a fairly rigorous admissions process which looks at how closely aligned their existing policies are to our sustainable development framework requirements.”
An independent panel of three experts will assess the credentials of an applicant and identify any gaps between the company’s current policies and the requirements of the ICMM. If the gaps are too wide, they would advise the applicant to work on closing the gaps before re-applying.
In other applications, the admissions panel will identify any gaps and produce a negotiated action plan, which admits the company on the basis that it agrees to close those gaps within two years.
ICMM is structured to maximise collaboration between industry leaders in the mining and metals space, but as well to encourage communication with all types of stakeholders in the industry.
Arguably, its most important feature is the fact that it is CEO-led. The council of CEO’s from all member companies meet twice a year and act like a board for ICMM.
“The CEOs have agreed not to delegate attendance at those meetings and as a result it gives off a very strong signal to their own employees but also externally that they are personally engaged on the topic of sustainability.
“That kind of commitment is essentially demonstrating to the rest of the industry that they are serious from the very top down about the commitments they have made to ICMM. It also gives us the ability to convene other stakeholders to grapple with specific topics.”
Contemporary industry concerns
For example, late last year ICMM convened a group of mobile equipment suppliers to talk about the topic of diesel particulate matter. This is a big contemporary issue especially underground in terms of pollution.
The convening was to see if ICMM could collaborate within the industry and help suppliers try and mitigate this pressing issue. Another ongoing concern facing the global mining sector is that of environmental impact, particularly worries about water usage.
Some of the world’s major mining hotspots, from South America to Southern Africa and many parts of Australia, are currently faced with water scarcity and ICMM is leading the discussion on efficient water usage at mine sites in these areas.
Ensuring that supply chains are fully transparent is another key goal for the industry, after major concerns have been raised regarding human rights abuses in mining projects within certain areas, particularly cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“People are putting a lot of pressure on end users like Apple to demonstrate that their supply chain is clean, and the end result is quite a lot of focus on our side in terms of looking at what we can do,” says Butler.
“Our members do not use child labour or artisanal labour to produce their products, but we are looking at how you can address traceability concerns and make people understand that what they are using is coming from responsible suppliers like our members.”
A catalyst for change
From the outset, ICMM has aimed to serve as a catalyst for change after the reputation of the global mining industry was left in tatters by a series of environmental incidents and continued neglect of local communities during the 1990s.
However, during its years of operation the mining sector has gone a long way to addressing these issues and although it is by no means perfect today, Butler believes the linear narrative of progress will continue in the coming years.
“I think there are lots of converging pressures which are all pushing in the same direction. The UN has announced its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), and there is a lot of pressure from society. As a result, financiers, banks and investors and pension funds are all paying close attention to sustainability issues.
“In terms of the outlook, those converging pressures will result in not just ICMM members, but general stakeholders in the industry having to respond to those pressures and mine in a more sustainable way.”