Equivalency Matters

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Mining supports the promotion of sustainable economic and social progress in developing and emerging resource rich countries and produces the minerals required for the innovations and technologies needed to make meaningful progress on climate change and other UN SDGs, writes ICMM COO Aidan Davy.

They are also a primary part of numerous material supply chains for a multitude of products, from cars, to mobile phones and bridges to healthcare. But, no matter how essential metals and minerals may be, customers and other stakeholders are justifiably demanding that they be produced responsibly.

As customer and stakeholder concerns over provenance and production methods have increased, so too has the proliferation of initiatives that establish standards for the responsible production of metals and minerals. ICMM’s Mining Principles is one of several, which include commodity-specific, cross-commodity and membership-based initiatives, and multi-stakeholder, customer-driven certification. Consumer pressure has been a modest driver for change, notably in the jewellery sector, but supply chain integrity concerns from consumer-facing companies have been far more significant, especially in the automotive and electronic sectors.

There are points of difference between almost all mining-related standards, but the focus on improved environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices at the operational level is universal. These differences can make it difficult for those consumer-facing companies who are looking to responsibly purchase minerals and metals to understand how the various standards compare and what it means to choose one versus another? To what extent are they equivalent to, or differ from, one another?

The example of ecolabelling schemes for both food and consumer products provide important lessons on pitfalls to avoid. Many of these schemes are voluntary, but some, such as the European Union Ecolabel or Energy Star service mark in the USA for home appliances are regulated. Ecolabels offer a ‘sustainability seal of approval’ directed at consumers, with the intention of making it easier to take environmental, ethical or other concerns into account when choosing what to buy. Typically, they take the form of logo or ‘sticker’ that appears on products. The challenge for consumers is that for any given product type, multiple competing ecolabelling schemes exist – and it is common for the logos of several to appear on a single packaged item. The result is a form of overwhelming ‘ecolabel babel’ where the aspiring ethical consumer must do a great deal of independent research to understand the similarities and differences between various systems. For some, the profusion of labels is just too confusing, so consumers tune out, defeating the purpose.

This is where understanding equivalency between the various mining standards becomes so important. Having arguably added to the complexity by developing our Mining Principles, ICMM is committed to support companies (and other stakeholders) looking to responsibly source metals and minerals by helping them to simply identify key points of equivalency and differences. The eminent Harvard Professor Evelynn Hammonds once observed: “The thing about looking for differences is that once you look, you find them.” But the reverse also holds true that when you look for similarities, you also find them. The equivalency benchmarks that ICMM published in December 2020 represent a collaborative effort with the owners of other standards to cut through potential complexity. The benchmarks enable all stakeholders to recognise the coverage of different schemes in terms of the issues of concern to them, understand where they are equivalent and any important points of difference or divergence. They aim to:

  1. Simplify – for consumers, investors, and other stakeholders to understand how these standards address a range of sustainability concerns, and the extent to which there are similarities and differences between them.
  2. Increase efficiency - to make self-assessment and/or 3rd party validation processes more efficient for mining companies, including situations where validation is conducted for two or more standards at the same time.
  3. Promote transparency - around mining and metals sector standards and validation processes.

One great advantage of mining companies’ position in the supply chain is that for the most part they are not supplying directly to consumers. So, while some of the mining standards may offer certification others such as ICMM’s Mining Principles are a condition of membership, which avoids the problematic prospect of ‘ecolabel babel’. In practice, sophisticated ethical consumer-facing companies get to choose which materials they purchase. Armed with the equivalency benchmarks that we have just published and coupled with future planned benchmarks this provides them with the ability to make responsible, informed choices.

Given the wide range and points of origin of the various mining standards and stakeholders engaged in their development, it is understandable why there are differences between them. Already, there are calls for a single industry standard. Ultimately, the drive for convergence of responsible mining standards will come if the consumer-facing companies who rely on them to procure responsibly produced materials see value in it, alongside the companies and stakeholders involved in the various initiatives that developed the standards. In the meantime, the equivalency benchmarks provide a solid basis for understanding those differences, as well as similarities.