A Riddle, Wrapped in History, Inside a Hole in the Ground

Sustainability. Everyone Is Talking About It. But What Exactly Does It Mean For The Mining Industry? NAMP Explores This Oft-Mentioned But Vaguest Of Modern Buzzwords.

By Jonathan Rowland

Brumadhino tailings dam collapse in Brazil.
Source: Ibama via Flikr under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Alongside digitalization, sustainability is one of the major themes within industry at the moment. But, similarly to digitalization, it can also be difficult to pin down exactly what it means. This is especially so when it comes to mining.

So, What Is Sustainability Exactly?

In one long-term sense, of course, mining is not sustainable: it is using up a finite resource that is not replenishable in any particularly useful timeframe. This is, however, more pedantry than any particularly useful basis for discussion of mining practices today and into the future. Although the Earth’s resources are being depleted at hitherto unheard-of speeds, it is fair to say that mining will be around for a good deal of time yet.

In another sense – the one that, historically, was all that mattered – sustainability is synonymous with profitability. After all, it is only mines that were (and are) profitable that will continue to operate: a loss-making mine is not a sustainable one.

History is littered with the bodies of miners that fell victim to this approach: from the slaves worked to death in the mines of ancient Rome to the 204 men that died in the 1862 Hartley Colliery Disaster in Northumberland, UK. This latter disaster resulted in a change of British law to require mines to provide two independent shafts to preserve a means of escape should one become unusable – an early instance of health and safety winning out over pure economics.

As the understanding of sustainability has become more sophisticated, profitability has become just one pillar in defining the sustainability of a mining operation, alongside people and the planet. That does not mean, however, that each pillar is now equally valued, as more recent disasters show.

Brazilian prosecutors investigating the collapse of the Brumadhino tailings dam, which killed 270 people in January 2019, allege that mining company, Vale, hid information about the dam’s instability to “avoid any negative reputational impacts […] that could affect its market value.”¹

Similarly, prosecutors investigating the earlier Fundao tailing dam breach in 2015, allege the company responsible – a joint venture between BHP Billiton and Vale – “prioritized profits and left safety in second place.”² Legal proceedings continue in both cases.

What is however clear is that the framing of the debate in terms of profit versus people or the planet is outdated and unhelpful: sustainability has moved beyond such narrow and simplistic arguments. A sustainable mining industry is one that is profitable, safe and environmentally-aware. It is all three or it is nothing.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals: achievement of the goals is targeted by 2030.

Defining Sustainability for the 21st Century

Nowhere is this seen more than in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These cover a broad spectrum of issues that interrelate to form a vision of a sustainable future for humanity. Some – at least at first glance – have little to do with mining. But take a few moments to think about them, and it becomes clear that “most – if not all – of the SDGs are relevant,” as Aaron Cosbey, senior associate at the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF), explained.

Cosbey breaks down the sustainability impact of mining in four ways:

  • Limiting the impact of mining on the climate and local ecosystems through good practice.
  • Mining employment and its potential impact on poverty, economic growth, and gender equality.
  • Mining products (e.g. copper, lithium, vanadium etc.) as ingredients for a low-carbon economy.
  • Social license to operate as a driver of investment in sustainable infrastructure, affordable energy, and clean water.

“You can’t escape the difficulty of pinning down what sustainability means for mining, because it encompasses so many aspects of mining operations and of the relationship between mining companies and their host communities,” Cosbey concluded. “And it’s all important, because if you fail badly at any one thing, it erodes your social license to operate, no matter how well you’re doing on the others.”

Taking this latter point, perhaps social license is now a good framework for defining sustainable mining in the 21st century. Although corporations (and governments) may be getting bigger, the last two decades have seen a fundamental change in the way the voices of the ordinary people are heard. In a way that was unheard of, even at the turn of the Millennium, the people have a voice – and are not afraid to raise it in anger. It is also a voice that is likely only to increase in volume, as the digital revolution spreads to ever further reaches of the planet.

In such an environment, discussions of profitability are becoming broader than simply a mining company’s bottom line to focus on the concept of shared benefit. This is the idea that firms can “bring value to both themselves and their host communities, regions and countries [emphasis added]” in three ways:³

  1. Innovation to ensure products meet market needs, while at the same time doing as little harm as possible.
  2. Redefining productivity in the value chain to target improvements in logistics and the use of energy and other resources.
  3. Establishing industrial hubs around company locations to share infrastructure, supplier capacity and human resources.
The products of mining are key tocreating a low-carbon future.

Cui Bono?

However useful the concept of shared value may be to discussions about the impact of modern mining, it also a concept that is under threat – from that second megatrend mentioned at the very start of this article: digitalization.

As Cosbey explained, “mining is in the midst of massive transformation wrought by a suite of complementary technologies from other sectors: cheap sectors, Big Data, artificial intelligence, drones, GIS, machine learning and robotics.” This change is a huge boon for mining productivity and will make it possible to “profitably exploit reserves that were previously unviable and win important battles in the war against declining ore grades and climbing costs.”

This technological revolution will also bring important environmental benefits, including lower greenhouse gas emissions through improved efficiency; better ability to monitor and communicate conditions and threats in real time; the ability to mine very deep ore bodies with a smaller terrestrial footprint; the supply of low-carbon power from renewable energy plus storage; and the use of green hydrogen in heavy equipment.

This is obviously good news for mining companies and the planet. But what about the people? With greater levels of automation and the use of unmanned machinery, e.g. drones, mining operations are set on a path that will give much less to the communities around them through employment and the acquisition of goods and services. According to one study, these accounted for a far higher proportion of a mining company’s total expenditure than royalties and taxes – up to 80% in one case.³

“From a broader sustainability perspective, automation will punch a big hole in the GDP contributions that traditional operations made to host countries,” as Cosbey put it, placing the employment losses that will result from the use of new technologies as the most difficult facing the mining industry. “It’s not clear to me how you deal with this challenge. There are technological fixes (albeit costly) for environmental challenges, and examples of good practice in addressing social issues. But there is no easy answer to how you deal with employing many fewer people in operations, given that employment is mining’s main contribution to wellbeing in host communities and countries.”

Most of the industry’s response to this has been on retraining and upskilling to allow local workers to qualify for the new jobs created by these new technologies. But although these are better jobs, “there will not be as many of them as there are jobs lost,” Cosbey pointed out.

“Some players will also focus on bringing benefits to communities in ways that are not directly related to the mining sector, acting in effect like development agencies, to enhance economic development prospects in the affected regions. This is an admirable strategy, but very challenging; even development agencies have a spotty record of success with development projects.”

As part of a planning application for a new surface mine at Shotton in Northumberland, the Banks Group and landowner, Blagdon Estate, created Northhumberlandia, a new landscape for the community to enjoy, while the mine is still operational, to enhance the positive social and economic impact of the project on the surrounding area.


The sustainability challenge is not really a single challenge – but many that overlap and interlink. Although it is global in extent, its solutions are driven by the regional context within with a mining operation sits. Just as the industry may get a grip on any one aspect of it – like the provision of a second shaft to guarantee a safe exit route to underground mines – the challenge refocuses and zooms out to reveal more. And all while solutions in one area can bring problems in others.

That said, the mining industry has come a long way from a blinkered profit-based approach to sustainability to recognize the broad and multifaceted ways in which mining must be sustainable to thrive into the 21st century. And although not all mining company have removed the blinkers entirely, as an industry with a long history of tackling sustainability – before sustainability was even a thing – the sector may be better placed than most to deal with the issues that lie ahead.


1. PHILLIPS, D., “Brazil prosecutors charge 16 people with murder in dam collapse that killed 270”, The Guardian (21 January 2020). Accessed (3 August 2020): https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/21/brazil-dam-collapse-mining-disaster-charges
2. PHILLIPS, D. and BRASILIERO, D., “Brazil dam disaster: firm knew of potential impact months in advance”, The Guardian” (1 March 2018). Accessed (3 August 2020): https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/28/brazil-dam-collapse-samarco-fundao-mining
3. COSBEY, A., et al., Mining a Mirage? Reassessing the shared-value paradigm in light of the technological advances in the mining sector (International Institute for Sustainable Development; September 2016).


In addition to those quoted in the article, the author wishes to thank Norman Jackson of the IOM3 Mining Technology Board for sharing his experience and expertise during the development of this article.

Related posts