In 2006, Nick Fleming and Susanne Cooper, chief sustainability officer and sustainability practice leader, respectively, with engineering and consulting firm Sinclair Knight Merz, joined a team of miners developing a major new copper asset in Southeast Asia.
On evaluating the project, however, Fleming and Cooper noticed a potentially serious complication: the planning of a road alongside a slurry pipeline—one that could facilitate haphazard development, rainforest clearing and a mass influx of job-seeking migrants.
“The potential for unrest, disease and impacts on nearby villages was high; in short, a technology that worked well in other situations was inappropriate,” they write in “Insight Trading: Collaborating to Transform the Infrastructure that Shapes Society,” (Sinclair Knight Merz Pty. Ltd. 2013). “So the team went back to basics—using river barges. This solution eliminated social and environmental risks, created community benefits and enhanced the mine’s social license to operate.”
Through these and other examples, Fleming and Cooper have compiled a compelling road map for miners, engineers, and others seeking to understand the core nuances of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in natural resource and infrastructure projects in a world where the only constant is change.
CSR and sustainable development are, to many, elusive by definition—not least in mineral extraction—something the book acknowledges throughout. But as one of the great commodities booms from Chinese and Indian growth has prompted companies to crisscross the globe for new resources at a pace unprecedented in world history—alongside a burgeoning social media spotlight and increasingly demanding stakeholders—CSR change can no longer be ignored.
At times, this 198-page book appears overly simplistic, but that’s the point—it’s more a blueprint than a cautionary tale. Of course, “profitability and legal license to operate are no longer sufficient measures of a company’s success.” But, the authors quickly add, “a social license is easily lost and hard to regain”—one of many well-put points easily lost on miners, geologists and engineers hard-pressed for returns under tight budgets in far-off places.
More importantly, this work effectively highlights four pillars toward “sustainable design”—for “viable and resilient systems.” These encompass the “capacity to recover from dramatic shocks;” “adaptability,” or evolution “with longer-term change;” “health and function,” or the maintenance of systems integrity “to function well;” and “efficiency,” so resources are used “sparingly and waste is avoided.”
To some, this may seem obvious even in the context of Fleming’s and Cooper’s textbook-style illustration. Indeed, even though some 20 million entries are associated with “sustainability definition” or “sustainability results,” in a Google search, they note, this is logical as cross-industry CSR itself remains a relatively new phenomenon.
Sustainability leadership, they note, has only existed since 2000, and even more recently emerged as a viable career path. As of Q3 2011, for instance, merely 29 companies among the 7,000 publicly listed on the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq employed senior-level sustainability managers. Outside the U.S., just about 30% of companies had such officers reporting to their CEOs.
Within these sparing statistics, though, the authors manage to be at once scientific and diagnostic. “By definition,” for example, “experts have deep expertise in a topic or field endeavor; they are not generalists—this carries an important neurological connection.”
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