Mining’s best future lies in tackling the challenges of the age head on
Far from being a time of contraction and slowing, this past year has been a relative boom time for mining. Companies in the sector are showing renewed confidence, fueled by rising commodity prices, lessened concerns around overcapacity, stable capital investment, and the positive implications of supplying the resources to drive the global trend towards electrification and digitalization.
But things have not been altogether rosy for the sector. The last decade has been tough for mining and lingering complacencies could lead to more struggles in the future.
Despite the unabated (and even growing) need for the raw materials that the industry feeds, mining faces serious challenges along multiple fronts, from dwindling resources (both human and raw) to market volatility, government regulation to political activism, sustainability questions to inclusion and diversity issues.
None of these factors are likely to ease in the coming decades. Proactive leaders could set their organizations up to thrive in this new environment. Those who don’t are likely to see their companies fall behind — or even fall away entirely.
LOOMING THREATS, FEROCIOUS DEMAND AND OTHER CONTRADICTIONS
With COP26 just recently in the can, it’s hard to pretend that climate change isn’t the biggest boogieman for the mining sector — both as an operational impediment and as a public relations minefield.
Certainly, resource extraction is seen as a big villain in the climate wars, for the direct violations of land and for ancillary waste products resulting from the processes. And let’s not mince words … resource extraction is not good for the environment. But that fact doesn’t alter the reality that mining will be with us for a long time to come. The trend towards electrification and clean energy sources may signal an eventual winding down of oil, gas, and coal operations but it also heralds an increased demand for the minerals needed to support that aspirational transition.
There’s no denying that the mining sector has a difficult past to reconcile. The fact that society unapologetically demands the resources we provide and simultaneously disdains the methods used, somehow makes the whole situation worse, more unseemly — the guilty secret fueling progress.
That, in turn, has made mining a less appealing vocation for the next generation of leaders and skilled workers. Competition is high for the best people, across the spectrum. With the rewards of sparkly careers in tech (be they computing, bio, or clean) matching the once unparalleled heights of mining (with less stigma, less dirt under the nails), talent no longer flows so easily to the sector. Generational sensibilities have shifted as well. The workforce is less populated with the no-nonsense, boots-on-the-ground type of talent that once aspired to leadership roles in mining. While much of current leadership still hails from this grittier stock, that version of “grit” has a very difficult time connecting with the less stoic take of coming generations. And being able to bridge that generational divide is now practically a life-or-death skill in business.
So what are we to do with this tenuous position?
More than ever, mining needs to take the long view and begin cutting the precarious trail towards a new type of resource sector. The way is not easy but it will be beneficial — and ultimately profitable.
TAKING STOCK AND SPEAKING BLUNTLY
Increased demand for primary metals, extracted at our current levels, is predicted to see global supplies exhausted within 50 years. Recycling of these metals will necessarily become an increasingly important part of the future supply chain. This paired with advancements in the efficiency of material use could satisfy the needs of the market.
For mining, electrification is a bit like a snake eating its own tail. Mining becomes more sustainable with the implementation of electrical equipment and other efficiencies. But those improvements must be fed by ramping up rare mineral extraction to feed an electrified mining fleet, all the while competing with every other sector for those same resources.
Metal mining is essential to modern life and provides the raw materials that underpin modern society, as well as being crucial in efforts towards meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals. But climate concerns will fuel increased governmental scrutiny and social pressure. The sector will need to reconcile those limitations. Better still, it should tackle them head on and have a hand in defining a pragmatic approach to how limits are applied.
While it is still possible to bypass social license in many regions, doing so is a short-sighted approach that perpetuates negative impressions of the industry as a “get in, get out, and let someone else clean up the mess” business. Organizations that throw efforts (and surpluses) behind developing genuine social license and a battery of environmental mitigation efforts will be the ones poised to lead the industry in the coming decades. Those who do not will likely find themselves shut out.
ESG is a trap and an opportunity. The problem with reducing big tent issues like the environment, social equity and responsible governance to an initialism is that it reduces their significance to a line item on an annual report. And it’s all too easy to give hot air to a line item. But mining won’t stay afloat on hot air. The efforts made in these areas will be more scrutinized and measured than in any other sector. So they need to be substantial, tangible and made in earnest.
GOOD NEWS AND FAVORABLE FORECASTS
Research shows that after successful implementation of ESG and sustainability initiatives, mining companies become more attractive to investors and financiers alike. No one is expecting an overnight transition to Net-Zero or diversification into renewables, but genuine efforts in that direction will pay dividends — both financially and in environmental credibility.
A recent White & Case analysis found a substantially lower credit risk among mining companies that performed well against ESG criteria. Particularly noteworthy was the conclusion that borrowers with low-ESG performance were twice as likely to be in arrears as the high-ESG performers. White & Case attributed this to management decisions that emphasize long-term financial stability and sustainability when allocating resources.
If mining can wrest control of the narrative — own its reality and map out mitigation — the rest of the world might be willing to regard that candor in a favourable light. Social license is granted when those stakeholders trust in the mission they are being asked to support. By tackling its own legacy, embracing the past and the ongoing shortfalls, mining can shift the story from one of redemption to one of aspiration.
A straightforward expression of that aspirational mission — despite the hard and costly path towards sustainability — will also have the knock-on effect of attracting that increasingly elusive next generation of talent — by tapping into a sense of mission and challenge that has become so important to them. Moral injury will persist as a factor for as long as we fail to inspire people about the future good of mining.
There are opportunities and exciting paths forward for the mining sector, but only with leaders willing to do the organizational gut-checking needed to meet the demands of the times.
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“Declaration on Mining and the Energy Transition for COP26,” Human Rights Watch, 2021,
Gerry Hansell et al., “The 2021 Value Creators Rankings,” BCG, 2021.
Simon M. Jowitt, Gavin M. Mudd, and John F. H. Thompson, “Future Availability of Non-Renewable Metal Resources and the Influence of Environmental, Social, and Governance Conflicts on Metal Production,” Nature, 2020,
“Introduction to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) considerations for the mining sector: reporting obligations and investor expectations,” Baker Mackenzie, 2021,
“Mining Emerald Green: How ESG Analysis of Borrowers Creates an Advantage in Bank Lending.” Bain, 2021,
“Taking ESG Seriously: The Crucial Role of Mining Investors in the Energy Transition,” Whitecase.com, 2021,