Changing perceptions of mining

Open pit mine industry, big yellow mining truck for coal, top view aerial drone.

Mining has a PR problem. 

Perceived by many as a polluting, destructive industry, the sector has long suffered from a tarnished reputation which has impacted talent attraction and retention, investment and innovation. 

Those of us in the industry may complain about the injustice of these labels, but that ignores the significant responsibility we carry for creating them.  

I spoke with Mark Cutifani, CEO of Anglo American and Tom Butler, CEO of the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) to get their thoughts on how the industry should be working to address these negative perceptions of mining.

And it starts with the words we use. 

Mind your language

The words we use to describe mining activities often do the industry few favours. Many are dated – Mark Cutifani noted that there are aspects of the mining industry that haven’t changed for 100 years. Others reinforce damaging stereotypes or summon up other unhelpful analogies. 

As an illustration, Mark highlighted that for many people, talking about ‘extractives’ conjures up mental images of anxiously sitting open-mouthed in the dentist’s chair. Rather, he suggests, we need to emphasise through our language that mining provides the materials that solve many problems and make the world work.  

He suggests a repositioning of the mining industry as the ‘source of materials that make life possible’.

The positive description not only suggests the centrality of the mining industry to the products we use every day, but also starts to indicate how mining can improve efficiency, help to create new products, find alternative materials solutions and contribute to technologies that improve environmental performance. 

It’s a worthwhile objective. But the language and stories around mining have become embedded over many years and changing them will require a significant cultural shift. 

It will need the collective participation of mining leaders, educators, governments, and those in associated professions, such as executive search. Undoubtedly the expertise of public relations specialists and marketers would play a role too. 

It won’t be quick, and it won’t be easy. But, in the eyes of Cutifani and Butler, it is essential. 

Walk the talk

Changing the language of mining, however, is pointless if behaviours remain unchanged.

As Tom Butler rightly told me, young people and communities soon see through cosmetic change if the actions and outcomes of mining firms don’t align with the rhetoric. 

For Tom, part of the solution lies in developing the next generation of leaders and diversifying Boards to address challenges differently.

But the current generation has a role to play too. Programmes and actions developed by the mining industry need to align with and reinforce the industry’s revised narrative and language. 

And part of the solution comes from looking at how mining works with external stakeholder groups. 

Mark Cutifani told me about the work that Anglo American does with a range of institutions, including:

  • Inter-faith groups
  • Labour organisations
  • Educational institutions
  • Governments
  • Government organisations (e.g. the UN)

While collaboration in each of these areas is important, Cutifani emphasised the importance of understanding people’s relationship with mining and establishing what they want and need. 

For example, Mark contributes to the Kellogg Innovation Network at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. In this capacity, he is able to work with other companies and leaders to improve mining’s approaches to sustainability. 

By collaborating with innovators in business, academia, government, non-profits and other areas, Mark aims to improve collaboration, introduce new technologies and raise awareness of the mining industry and the reach of its influence.

Cutifani also discussed Anglo American’s work with interfaith groups, noting that they provide insight into what people in communities around operations need.

By working closely with different groups, ranging from local South African churches to the upper echelons of the Vatican, Anglo American has been able to build positive relationships, generate initiatives and support local communities, helping them to see the positive aspects of the mining industry.

Of course, there are downsides too, and environmental issues, in particular, need to be addressed. Tom Butler emphasised that the industry needs to appropriately address environmental, social and governance issues with words and deeds. 

For example, ICMM has been driving improvements by reviewing the management of events like the Brumadinho and Samarco tailings dam disasters. Implementing new governance frameworks to eliminate failures is an important step in changing outcomes as well as eventually changing how communities and populations consider and speak about the industry. 

Tom suggested that the industry needs to be more vocal about its positive social impact. For example, the industry could do more to raise awareness of its intrinsic importance in the development of electric cars, batteries and green technologies. 

With a greater understanding of mining’s contribution to green technologies, talent from different areas may be more likely to consider pursuing a career in the industry. New recruits could bring with them technologies and ideas not previously considered within natural resources or provide suggestions to improve processes that have long held the industry back.

Likewise, investors might be keener to support new and innovative projects and communities might start to consider how they can develop new business models and opportunities for themselves. 

There is a long way to go before radical changes are made, but adapting the internal and external messaging, in tandem with matching action, is key to overcoming some of the industry’s future challenges.

Image (c) Shutterstock | Parilov