On the copper industry’s commitment to social responsibility

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Credit: © Teck Resources

Laurent Chokoualé Datou is the Vice President Public Affairs at International Copper Association.

With the EU laying the foundation for mandatory rules on corporate sustainability due diligence, it has become clear that lawmakers consider it is necessary to move from voluntary schemes to regulations to ensure certain global value chains operate in a sustainable and socially responsible manner. While regulations are a key component to ensure companies protect human rights and address any adverse environmental impacts, many companies in the copper industry have been early movers in prioritising these concerns in their operations.

Members of the International Copper Association (ICA) are aware of the potential impacts of their operations on workers, communities and society. Consequently, many members have committed to performing thorough site-level assessments of their production to assert its sustainability before it enters the supply chain. ICA members have been prioritising social responsibility at every level, from worker safety to local community development to environmental protection.

The copper industry takes social responsibility and the safety and wellbeing of employees very seriously, going beyond mere compliance with labour regulations. ICA members are fully aware that industrial operations do not occur in a vacuum, and community engagement, cooperation with the local communities and safeguarding the rights of indigenous populations are critical for socially responsible operations.

Teck Resources has made substantial efforts to support those living in their communities, not only by investing $2 million in northern Chile to set up a learning centre with classes on entrepreneurship, business skills and other economic advancement for indigenous women, but also by entering into four agreements with local organizations representing 16 communities near its Highland Valley Copper (HVC) site to undertake joint decisions on regulatory matters based on consensus. This led to the creation of communications protocols and a community working group to guide consultations about land use and operations by the mine. Community stakeholders are an indispensable resource for ensuring operations take local concerns into account.

Steady technological advances have revolutionised safety in the mining industry, and further investments in innovative technologies play a fundamental role in driving continuous progress. These technology and equipment advances play a key role in improving safety, ensuring employee wellbeing, reducing emissions and minimizing impact on communities.

For example, worker fatigue is one of the most pervasive safety concerns in mining, and the long-term effort to combat it is emblematic of ICA members’ commitment to continuous improvement. By employing cutting-edge technologies like a neuro-connected strip fitted into the headgear of truck drivers, employers such as BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Anglo American are using brain wave technology to detect fatigue. This system alerts drivers, supervisors and back-office personnel about potential hazards, which provides improved monitoring, increased worker safety and less downtime.

Protection of workers and engagement of communities are important elements, but the environmental component of social responsibility was sometimes overlooked by industry in the past. The preservation of the local environment is not only important to nearby communities, but it also ties closely to global efforts to mitigate climate change. The copper industry has acknowledged that mining has lasting impacts, as mining projects are complex enterprises that can extend for generations and require vast amounts of equipment and hundreds—sometimes thousands—of personnel. This is precisely why the copper industry considers collaboration with local communities to be key to achieving responsible mining across all phases, from exploration to development and production.

For example, Anglo American has committed to conserving water in its mining operations and collaborating with local communities to develop efficient water-management methods in Chile. Conscious of the challenges rural communities face in Chile due to severe droughts, Anglo American created the Programa Agua Rural, or Rural Water Program, to apply its water-management research and technology to finding a solution for more than 100,000 people living in these regions.

The copper industry has not shied away from recognizing the improvements needed to make mining safer and more sustainable across the entire supply chain. While there is still a long way to go, ICA members are demonstrating a strong commitment to building a responsible industry at a local and global scale.

To embody this commitment, in 2020 ICA members launched the Copper Mark, an assurance framework independent from the industry it assesses, to distinguish responsibly produced copper. The framework was developed in line with United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12 (“ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”), to guarantee fair treatment of workers, local community development and respect for the environment between upstream and downstream partners.

While regulation is necessary to ensure corporate due diligence across the larger economy, voluntary corporate schemes remain relevant, as they can exert pressure on the entire industry to act jointly to go beyond simple due diligence and maintain a high level of ambition.

The International Copper Association and its members are fully committed to working with communities, governments and the broader supply chain to build a truly sustainable industry.

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