In December 2019, The Copper Mark was created in response to a growing collective awareness of the need for the copper industry to improve its ESG credentials. Initially developed and funded by the International Copper Association (ICA), The Copper Mark was founded on the understanding that a credible assurance framework must be separate from the industry it assesses. Its stated vision is to have all participants in the copper supply chain recognised by their employees, neighbours, customers, investors and civil society as having internationally-accepted responsible operating practices, while making significant contributions to the UN’s sustainable development goals. It seeks to achieve this through partnering with copper producers, refiners, fabricators and even copper recycling outfits. For an organisation within the global copper supply chain to gain affiliation with The Copper Mark, they must commit to meet the requirements of its Assurance Process. Assurance is the process by which The Copper Mark ensures that the claims made by participants are credible and trustworthy, with each site independently verified to meet the standard criteria through rigorous site-level assessment process. In June 2021, RGN’s editor Jacob Ambrose Willson spoke to The Copper Mark’s executive director Michèle Brülhart, as part of RGN’s deep-dive focus on ESG in the mining sector.
Jacob Ambrose Willson: Michèle, what role does the copper industry have to play in the global decarbonisation agenda and why is it vital for copper to be produced in a sustainable manner?
Michèle Brülhart: The use of copper is central to countless renewable energy technologies. It really is one of those raw materials – or ‘transition minerals’ as they are sometimes referred to as – that is fundamental to allow us to move to clean energy. It’s used in batteries for electric vehicles (EVs), solar panels, wind turbines and the electricity grids that are going to recharge those EV batteries. So, we really can’t have a clean energy transition without copper. What that means is its vital to ensure that the growing demand for copper does not create negative impacts for people and the environment where its produced and processed.
That is where systems like The Copper Mark come in. Our goal is to ensure that copper is responsibly produced so that consumers and customers can be confident that the copper used in their product was created responsibly and also to make sure that investors are able to continue investing in copper as a sustainable investment opportunity.
One thing to add here, if we’re looking at mine to end user, is the importance of a value chain approach. The Copper Mark’s current scope identifies responsible production as mining, smelting and refining of copper. However, we’re also working to add fabrication into scope to cover any entity that provides a copper product. In addition, with decarbonisation comes an increasing demand for recycled material. So, what’s the impact of using more recycled material on the decarbonisation of the industry itself? And then also what does it mean to produce recycled copper responsibly? There’s a whole range of issues not just linked to the extraction of copper, but also further down the value chain that we need to keep in mind if we want to make sure we have a responsible raw material to enable us to move to clean energies.
JAW: Looking broadly across the global copper value chain, what do you think are the key environmental, social and governance challenges facing the copper industry in 2021?
MB: What you’re seeing are often quite content-specific operations in different countries. There may be specific issues around water management, community engagement and pollution. But what we observe overall is a rapidly evolving demand when it comes to performance around decarbonisation of copper itself; ie the carbon footprint and use of renewable energies, as well as responsible sourcing. Responsible sourcing means there is an expectation to know where copper is sourced from, understanding whether its sourced from areas that are considered conflict-affected or with weak governance structures, and then looking at what this means in terms of risks related to human rights abuse or support to armed groups, bribery, corruption and other types of risks that may occur.
I think we’ve seen a bit of shift today compared to three to five years ago, when there was a lot more focus on just responsible sourcing and human rights. We’ve seen other stories in the news about the tailings dam failure in Brumadinho, Brazil and the destruction of cultural heritage sites in Australia. So, it’s really important to look at all ESG issues in copper today, because if we have too narrow a focus on a specific topic, we risk losing sight of other issues that may be just as important.
JAW: How exactly does The Copper Mark seek to help players across the copper value chain tighten up their ESG credentials?
MB: We work through our Assurance Framework predominantly as the core element of The Copper Mark. We define what it means to be a responsible copper producer in concrete terms across all ESG issues. We set expectations for responsible production: these are the criteria of the Risk Readiness Assessment created by the Responsible Minerals Initiative. We then offer guidelines on how to meet those requirements, whether that concerns engaging with communities, working to reduce the carbon footprint or social and labour conditions at the operations.
The second way we help producers is by providing our Assurance Process to help them review their performance. It starts with self-assessments, then goes into independent reviews and requires on-site audits from independent third parties for every participating site. Overall, this is a way for companies to look at the criteria and see if they can match that with their operations. How do they perform against those criteria, where are potential gaps? Getting independent third party opinion through the audit itself then allows them to identify areas of improvement.
Our participants have to be fully conformant with all requirements within two years of signing up to join The Copper Mark. We regularly check in with them and make sure there is progress in areas where they need to improve on. Again, the improvements they have made need to be independently audited and validated at the end of the day. All of that is the core system we operate to try and make sure companies move along. But a lot of the work we do is one-on-one assistance with participants. We’ve spent considerable amounts of time on the phone and in virtual meetings, going through the expectations, looking at their specific circumstances and looking to provide assistance where we can.
Systems like ours also have a benefit in terms of peer learning. We often see participants connecting amongst each other to the extent that they are able to do so in respect of competition and anti-trust laws. This kind of cooperation helps companies understand how others have dealt with issues while sharing best practices. Lastly, we invest significantly in training and capacity building. All our training modules are made publicly available and are typically translated into English, Spanish and Chinese, so that we provide an entry point for as many people as possible.
JAW: What kind of reputation has The Copper Mark built in the industry over the last 18 months since it was formed?
MB: We are still a young organisation, so we need to spread the word a bit more widely about who we are and what we do. The positive news is the fact that we’ve had encouraging levels of early adoption and uptake. We now have 23 sites from eight different companies and that includes some of the largest copper mines in the world and some of the largest copper producers. We also have 10 partner organisations from the fabricator and end-user sectors of the value chain. Having these partners on board has already sent strong signals in terms of raising the profile of the organisation itself, as has the first addition of an Asian-based site earlier this year with LS-Nikko Copper joining us with their smelting site in South Korea. We’re a very small team and organisation so the extent to which we can leverage a broader network within the industry and through our partners to support us in raising awareness is particularly helpful.
JAW: Should the copper industry expect new regulations and more challenging customer and investor expectations on responsible sourcing in the coming years? How should it respond to these demands?
MB: The short answer is absolutely yes. I don’t think there’s much doubt about that today. We have seen over the past decade a very rapidly evolving trend on responsible raw material production, not just limited to specific materials, but an expectation that what goes into a product is responsibly produced. In terms of customer expectations, we’re observing an expansion from regulated materials to increasingly battery materials as well as these transition minerals that are critical to the clean energy transition, which includes copper.
We’re already seeing, in the EU in particular, legislation efforts that impact mineral supply chains. This includes for example discussions around horizontal due diligence laws for human rights, battery regulations or the EU taxonomy. Whether they explicitly mention copper today or not, these regulatory efforts can be expected to have a broad impact and reach into supply chains. We are trying to do our best to raise awareness in the industry about that and to also make sure there is a comprehensive approach to responsible practises.
We often see that companies who focus on a single issue will then constantly have to adjust them and struggle to keep up with evolving expectations. That is why we recommend and encourage companies to set up robust management systems across all ESG areas so that they are ready for whatever new regulations and trends or demands that will come their way, because we do believe it will intensify and intensify rapidly.
JAW: Finally, how significant are the latest addition of eight sites and three new partners (in June and July 2021) to The Copper Mark, in terms of demonstrating how the organisation is quickly becoming the new standard for responsible copper mining?
MB: Every addition is important. In the last batch of sites to have joined us, it’s great to see further support from one of our biggest participants Freeport McMoRan with five additional sites, but also from smaller producers like Southern Peaks Mining, who have signed up one of their sites. That gives a testament to our mission of moving the whole industry forward. We’re not just about trying to capture the best performers, we’re trying to capture the bulk of the market and really promote responsible practises across the industry. These latest additions are an important signal to show that there is increasing awareness across all types of actors in the copper industry.
Equally, the fact that three of the last four partner additions were from the fabricator sector again shows there’s an increased awareness. These are direct customers of copper products and are the companies that have a very direct ability to decide whether they want to ensure their suppliers are responsible and whether that is a consideration in their purchasing practices. That to us is very encouraging and shows that the conversation is moving beyond a handful of companies and reaching a much broader segment of the market.