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Understanding Perceptions: What will it take to truly change hearts and minds towards mining?

26 June 2024

This talk is going to get very weird, very quickly...

Keynote speech at The London Indaba
Rohitesh Dhawan, President and CEO, ICMM (as written rather than as delivered)

Please raise your hand if you went to the toilet this morning. Relax, I’m not going to ask what you did in there. Now raise your hand if you consciously thought about where the toilet paper came from and who produced it? 

Indulge me a bit longer please. Raise your hand if you ate something today – coffee or a croissant perhaps. Finally, raise your hand if you consciously thought about the fertilizer that the farmer used to make that food.

Besides knowing that this group has regular toilet habits and a solid appetite, the point of this exercise is as follows. Next time we feel the urge to complain that people don’t understand the importance of mining by saying, “where do you think your cell phone comes from”, remember that most of us are too busy living our lives to think about where stuff comes from and not thinking about such things is part of being a human so your brain can focus on other things.

And this might explain why the understanding and perception of mining has not changed much in decades. We’ve been telling people to think about where their stuff comes from, when none of us really care about that. Worse, we’ve been at times a bit smug about it, saying we need to “educate” people about mining assuming they’re ignorant, when really they – like us all - are just disinterested. The oil industry has its own version of this approach when they say, “and did those protestors come here on their magic carpet?”

Now, there’s a time and place for helping particular groups such as policymakers understand the importance of minerals in daily life and for the energy transition but first, a few other observations about the perception of mining today and how we got here.

Side note - the reason I chose toilet paper and food as the examples upfront is because I’ve spent time with both those sectors on this question of image and understanding of the sector. The fertilizer industry lays claim to feeding the world, while the forestry industry is the reason we have toilet paper – yet understanding of them is still poor, as is their reputation.

Back to the point – our conventional approach to changing hearts and minds about mining has been to emphasise the need for mined products, and that’s at best incomplete, and at worst, counter-productive. Here are some reasons why:

  1. It is a logical answer to an emotional question. People’s feelings about mining -particularly if those are negative - are formed in their gut and possibly personal experience, and we’ve been trying to appeal to their heads. Gut always wins and for every one piece of educational content that reaches people, they can find a thousand pieces that reinforces what their gut says.
  2. It is true but irrelevant that mining is essential. Every product fulfils a need, otherwise it wouldn’t exist. Demand and supply solve the problem of what and who is essential and those that are not.
  3. It can actually increase negative feelings. If I am negatively predisposed to something and you tell me I have no choice but to consume it, I’ll feel worse about it, not better. Just ask the plastic industry.

And what is the state of perception of mining? It is hard to say, but here are a few data points:

  • GlobeScan, an independent public analysis firm, has been asking people annually for 20 years to rate different sectors on the extent to which they fulfil their responsibilities to society. In 2023, mining ranked last, below oil & gas. It has always been at or near the bottom pretty much since the data was first collected in 2002. This is the only global dataset for mining we have, and it is asking a very specific question about extent of fulfilling responsibilities to society.
  • However, some country-level polling suggests that mining is regarded as good or even better than other sectors in some countries, such as in Canada or Chile. This is backed up by anecdotal evidence such as the most desirable company for graduates in Chile being the state-owned mining company, Codelco.
  • However, graduates seem to be “voting with their feet” in the other direction in many parts of the world. Graduate enrolments in mining degrees have drastically reduced in Australia, Canada and the US, and the UK now has no undergraduate mining course, having once been a global leader.
  • The market capitalisation of the 2,000 listed mining companies globally is estimated to be less than the market cap of Apple, give or take. There are many reasons for this, and the poor perception of the industry is often cited as one of those by keeping generalist investors away from the sector.
  • Popular culture is often a good barometer of the general sentiment, and by this measure, brand mining is not good. From Avatar to an upcoming movie starring Cilian Murphy, from Oppenheimer, an irresponsible miner is a popular choice for the villain. Meanwhile, many students in France grow up reading a book set in the 19th century about the dangers and ills of mining, and that becomes their reference point for the industry. 

On this basis, I think there is a serious issue about the perception of – and trust in – mining. And that’s a problem not just for us as an industry, but for the world at large because we won’t grow mining at the pace and scale needed without earning and sustaining society’s trust. Here are 4 ideas of what we can collectively do about it:

  1. Consolidate standards, and drive their uptake. Standards matter to perception because they give people confidence that companies follow responsible practices. We have too many standards of responsible mining including some that claim to be the best but which only a tiny proportion of the industry has adopted. We don’t need a single standard, but we do need a small number that most operators adopt and report against.

We have made significant progress in this regard, as ICMM is consolidating our Mining Principles with three other Standards; Copper Mark, Towards Sustainable Mining, and the Responsible Gold Mining Principles into a consolidated system with multi-stakeholder governance. Between us, we cover over a third of the industry and aim for the Standard to be available to all mining companies, producing any commodity, anywhere in the world next year. This will also provide a blueprint for junior and mid-sized companies to embrace responsible mining practices, as many current standards are too complex for those companies to adopt.

  1. Create “I didn’t expect that from mining” moments. Let’s use the negative perception that some may have of mining to show how wrong people’s perceptions can be by demonstrating true leadership on the issues that matter to society. We have examples of this already, such as ICMM members being the first or only group of companies of their size in any sector to commit to:

A prime candidate for other opportunities to create “I didn’t expect that from mining” moments is if we championed the conditions for a circular economy to reduce the need for primary production (which will still need to grow significantly).

“It’s all well and good to make commitments” I hear you mutter. And I totally agree. Commitments are only as good as the transparent delivery against them, and this will be an even bigger thrust of ICMM’s work going forward.

  1. Spark curiosity in people about how the world works. Note, this is different from telling people the number of minerals in their toothpaste – that’s shoving information down their throat which people didn’t ask for. Instead, working with artists, museums and educational institutions, we can draw people into a conversation about how our world works, and emotionally move people to a space where they want to ask questions and know more.

Let me give you an example. One of the world’s best-known photographers is Edward Burtynsky. His exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery here in London called “Extraction: Abstraction” showed the impact of mining on landscapes around the world, and prompted a number of people to become curious about how and why we mine. Art and photography moves you differently than hearing a mining executive tell you that minerals are important, and we are currently exploring what we could do with different mediums like art.

  1. Finally, and perhaps the most difficult of all, as a sector we need to acknowledge our legacy and work towards remedying past harm. From Acid Rock Drainage from unrehabilitated mines to long-term health impacts from unsafe practices, as a sector we have a lot to answer for. I know some of you are going to disagree with this on the basis that today’s companies are too busy dealing with their own impacts to take on the responsibility of others’ past practices, and that it should be governments who do this since they are partially responsible for letting previous miners get away with destructive practices.

I understand those considerations, but trust is built precisely by doing what you don’t technically need to. I don’t need to tell the South Africans in this room the importance of dealing with the past to jointly create a different future, and there are huge lessons to be learnt from both the successes and failures of the country’s Truth & Reconciliation process post-apartheid. The simple fact is that asking people to trust in a better future while they live with the impacts of the past seems both unfair and ineffective. And as humans, it is much easier to base our understanding on what has already happened than what could happen in the future, so people will lean into what’s concrete.

In conclusion, I know some of this is provocative and challenges the conventional view, but spending time with our stakeholders and behavioural scientists alike has convinced me that a different approach is needed. I hope you’ll agree and embrace some of these principles. And if not, at least you’ll think of me next time you see toilet paper! Thank you.