MAC: Mines and Communities

Are miners certifiable?

Published by MAC on 2006-06-22

Are miners certifiable?

22nd June 2006

Cement and construction companies are signing up to yet another initiative to "green" one of the dirtiest industries on our planet. Lafarge, the world's biggest cement producer (which has a "sustainability" alliance with WWF) is among the first to back the new proposals. What will the new code mean in practice? Will companies be able to determine whether sand comes from a particular Indonesian beach and rock from a specific Indian hillside? Or that they haven't been dug out by bonded, forced, or badly-paid. contract labour?

Perhaps another Kimberley-type process is required for builders and their suppliers. But then, how do you enforce a global system to check the origins and movement of the billions of tonnes of aggregates, sand and cement, which shift around this planet every day?

At last week's African Initiative on Mining, Environment and Society (AIMES) conference, held in South Africa, delegates determined that improving the Kimberley Process was a key objective for the coming year, since many "conflict" diamonds are slipping through the net.

The Council for Responsible Jewellery Practices, under former a WWF staffer responsible for "improved mining practices", now wants to vet artisanal diamond operations and traders to bring them under the Process.

And, in early June, several big mining companies and three major NGOs (including, inevitably, WWF) met in Vancouver to discuss an "ethical labelling" system for a wide range of other mineral products.

"Certification" has now entered the debate between the minerals industry and some of its erstwhile detractors. On the other hand, defects are increasingly being noted in the long-standing system to certify "sustainable timber". Why should a similar process with metals be any more effective?

"Voluntarism" is still at the core of these proposals, while mining-affected communities are largely left out of the loop. On these grounds alone, we should be highly sceptical of the schemes currently on offer and the motives of mining companies in apparently backing them.

Sustainable construction: Building momentum, brick by brick

Oliver Balch, Latin America Editor, Ethical Corporation (UK)

20th June 2006

There is growing enthusiasm for sustainable construction. Several decades of huffing and puffing by environmentalists is now forcing builders to think green.

The aggregates trade is swapping rock for "recycled demolition waste". Companies want to know that the sand-based concrete for their new headquarters has not come from a pristine beach in South-east Asia.

The uptake is well founded. Keeping buildings warm and well lit is reckoned to consume between 25% and 40% of total world energy use.

The built environment is responsible for as much as 40% of all solid waste and global greenhouse gas emissions.

On the flip side, studies show that environmentally friendly construction leads not only to cheaper utility bills, but to happier, healthier occupants.

"Building isn't a far-out concept any more," enthuses Taryn Holowka of the Washington-based US Green Building Council. "The more buildings that become certified and serve as showcases, the more people realise that green building is something everyone can do."

Barriers to progress

But for green construction to expand, it has a number of hurdles to cross. First is the problem of standardisation. What exactly constitutes a "green" building?

Construction projects in the US, the UK and France operate under separate, albeit not so different, assessment standards (known as Leed, Breeam and HQE respectively). Whereas countries on the cusp of sustainable building booms, such as China, India and Australia, operate without any generally recognised standard at all.

The second brick missing from the wall is incentives. Increased market demand has certainly helped reduce the cost of sustainable building materials in recent years. But the price differential between the latest in solar panel roof shingles and traditional clay tiling is still substantial, at least in the immediate term. Other financial carrots, such as tax breaks or reduced insurance premiums, are also in short supply.

"The only way you are going to get the majority of stakeholders in the building sector to think more actively on green building is to adjust the financial signals," says Niclas Svenningsen, industry programme officer for the United National Environment Programme.

Experts in sustainable building also fret about "life cycle". Few buildings, even those constructed under the most stringent environmental controls, finish up with a positive green balance sheet. Why? Because they tend to overlook the longer-term environmental costs. Given that 80% of a building energy use occurs after the initial construction phase, it is an important oversight.

The decision by the United Nations Environmental Programme to step into the fray is therefore a timely one.

The multilateral group has used its convening power to launch a worldwide scheme aimed at plugging the gaps in the sustainable building edifice.

Lafarge, Skanska and Arcelor are among the dozen construction giants that have put their names to the Sustainable Building and Construction Initiative.

Ambitious goals

The initiative's founding goals are appropriately big for an industry that represents an estimated 110 million direct jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars in annual turnover.

First off, it aims to help resolve the multiple standards problem by establishing "globally recognised baselines" for green building.

Next, it aims to develop tools and strategies to help companies meet those conditions.

Finally, it is planning a number of pilot projects to promote sustainable construction to government agencies, property developers and other key stakeholders.

The first two objectives are ambitious, but achievable. Unep is looking for a common denominator among existing standards, not the more difficult aim of a universal accreditation scheme. That, it says, can be left to the International Organisation for Standardisation.

As for tools and strategies, the field of sustainable construction is not devoid of management experience. Companies such as Skanska have been working for a number of years to eliminate environmentally hazardous materials from the construction process. Unep's initiative offers the opportunity to pull such learning together.

The harder task will be promoting sustainable construction further afield. Economic short-termism still remains the defining motif of the global construction industry. Other parallel initiatives will no doubt help.

The influential Swiss-based World Business Council for Sustainable Development, for example, has just launched its own three-year project on sustainability in the building sector.

Governments are also responding. Finland, for example, is leading a new taskforce into sustainable construction under the banner of the United Nations. Meanwhile, several US states are following California's lead in requiring all state building to be environmentally certified.

Momentum is certainly growing. Two high-profile constructions in New York - the new "7 World Trade Center" building and the "Reflecting Absence" memorial - are designed to meet top environmental specifications.

UK Government review of sustainable construction

The UK Department of Trade and Industry's Construction Sector Unit (CSU) is currently carrying out a review of the Government's Strategy for Sustainable Construction. The unit aims to report sometime this summer on industry progress since 2000 and current practice and priorities for the future.

The DTI has outlined ten themes for action in the UK:
Re-use existing built assets
Design for minimum waste
Aim for lean construction
Minimise energy in construction
Minimise energy in building use
Avoid polluting the environment
Preserve and enhance bio-diversity
Conserve water resources
Respect people and their local environment
Set targets (benchmarks & performance indicators)

Useful link:

Africa's conflict diamonds: Fair trade stones on the horizon?

by Zara Maung, Ethical Corporation, London

21st June 2006

A new leader in the fight against conflict diamonds has some big plans.

Tales of brutal civil wars funded by illegal or "conflict" diamonds have become increasingly common in the western media in recent years.

Large jewellery retailers and big mining firms are concerned about their reputations and public confidence in jewellery as a whole.

In Africa the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme was established in 2003 to eradicate the trade in conflict diamonds.

The Kimberly Process requires diamonds to be traceable back to their place of origin, in an attempt to bring transparency to what some NGOs have painted as a brutal business.

NGO reports, including an independent commissioned review published in April 2006, have criticized the lack of third party monitoring and transparency of the process.

New leadership

Now Michael Rae, the new CEO of the Council for Responsible Jewellery Practices (CRJP), set up in 2005, intends to change things. Members include mining giant DeBeers, traders Rosy Blue NV and retailers Tiffany & Co.

Rae has spent the past ten years working for WWF on improving performance standards in mining.

"This is a hugely ambitious project," Rae says. "We are aiming to set up a standard that denotes ethical behaviour at every level of the supply chain."

In terms of the Kimberley Process now, he says: "Independent third party monitors will be employed to ensure our members are applying the process."

Artisan diggers mine 90% of Sierra Leone's diamonds, as is the case in the Republic of Congo. Smaller firms are largely missing from the initiative, and these, say campaigners, are often the problem.

Global Witness says that big firms have little to do with conflict diamonds, which are often untraceable and from artisan diggers.

These are more likely to be handled by smaller dealers, traders and exporters, Global Witness says, concluding that: "It is imperative that the smaller companies are brought into the fold." Already though, there is opposition from trade bodies representing these smaller firms.

Global Witness's Harrison Mitchell suggests that one step further should be made, with "fair trade" diamonds being established for artisan diggers.

Rae suggests group certification in the style of the Forest Stewardship Council whereby the auditing cost in receiving an ethical stamp of approval could be shared between local companies.

CRJP members are currently in talks with stakeholders and NGOs and hope to finalise the ethical standard by early 2008. Then comes the hard bit - implementing it.

Useful links:

CANADA: Miners, retailers to certify ethical production of metal

Labels on cutlery, cars, jewelry would show environmental, rights standards upheld

by Kelly Patterson, The Ottawa Citizen

14th June 2006

You've heard of fair-trade coffee, sweatshop-free clothing and sustainable lumber.

How about socially responsible cars, bracelets, toasters, televisions and cutlery?

Metals may be next on the list of consumer products guaranteed to conform to high environmental and human rights standards.

Some of the biggest mining companies in the world, including Newmont Mining Corp., BHP Billiton and Canada's Falconbridge Inc., as well as retail giants ranging from Wal-Mart to Tiffany & Co., met in Vancouver recently to consider creating a seal of approval for sustainably produced metals.

They met last week with leading environmental and human rights groups such as Oxfam America, the World Wildlife Fund and U.S. mining watchdog EarthWorks.

News of the initiative emerges as Canada's federal government opens landmark talks today in Vancouver on whether to impose an ethics code on Canadian mining and oil companies operating overseas.

The first set of federal round-tables, which bring together government, industry and civil-society groups, was announced after a 2005 multiparty parliamentary report urged the government to set "clear legal norms" for Canadian mining companies. It runs today through Friday in Vancouver.

Charges of human rights violations and environmental disasters have dogged some in the Canadian industry in recent years, sparking multimillion-dollar lawsuits over a series of environmental disasters, and, in once case, charges of complicity in genocide. Last year, Amnesty International raised the alarm over alleged rights violations at three different Canadian operations overseas.

The government has already said the voluntary codes that most major Canadian companies now observe, through self-monitoring, are sufficient, despite the recommendations of the 2005 report.

But last week's meetings show that some of the biggest players in the business are boldly going where the Canadian government doesn't dare to venture, says Catherine Coumans of the Ottawa-based watchdog group MiningWatch Canada.

"Business has taken this up and is running with it. Meanwhile, the government is limping along," content to rely on voluntary codes where industry is left to monitor itself, Ms. Coumans says.

Some of the metal industry's biggest trade associations turned out to last week's metal-labelling talks, including the International Council for Mining and Metals, which represents more than 30 of the world's largest mining companies and trade associations, and the U.S.-based Jewellers of America, which has about 11,000 members.

"Many companies already follow high standards and are not getting credit for it at the moment," notes Stephen D'Esposito of EarthWorks, which spearheaded the metal-certification effort along with the World Wildlife Fund and Tiffany.

A sustainability label would "lower the playing field" for these firms, he says.

Wal-Mart, for example, is "quite committed" to the fair-trade metal idea, says Keith Slack of Oxfam America, pointing out that the retail giant is "now looking at environmental and sustainability issues in all their products." Wal-Mart is the world's largest jewelry retailer.

One obstacle the federal government cited in its response to the 2005 report was that there is already a bewildering hodge-podge of international codes, from human rights rules, such as the UN Norms for multinational companies, to environmental rules, such as the International Cyanide Management Code.

That's the first issue the metal-certification effort would address, says Mr. D'Esposito.

"The first step is to review the codes that are out there, and bring them all together into a comprehensive tool,"says Mr. D'Esposito, explaining that most codes address some but not all of the impacts of mining.

"We would cherry-pick the best practices," he says, adding that "we can both raise the bar and make the process more efficient for the companies."

Certification would still be a voluntary process, he points out; however, it would almost certainly be contingent upon monitoring by an independent third party, in the same way organic food is inspected or fair-trade products certified.

Controversy over gold mining, in which cyanide is widely used, has already sparked a gold certification process among jewellers: Last May, Jewellers of America and about 12 other industry players founded the British-based Council for Responsible Jewelry Practices, which is working on an ethics code that would apply to every link in the gold chain, from miners to refiners and retailers.

The council already has more than 30 members, including such famous jewelry chains as Piaget and Cartier, and mining heavyweights such as Rio Tinto, Newmont and BHP Billiton.

Similarly, diamonds are now vetted in order to prevent the international diamond trade from fuelling civil wars, as it did in Sierra Leone and Angola in the 1990s.

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