Nick Copeland, managing partner with Above Ground Risk Solutions, struck a chord when he described social licence as the "privilege to operate", a theme multiple speakers picked up and ran with in subsequent presentations.
"We're looking to get all the different departments on the team from operations and procurement, social responsibility, security and risk, working together to maintain the social licence to operate," he said.
"This social licence to operate is actually the privilege to operate and it is reissued every single day and so needs constant monitoring."
Copeland said the information was there to predict and mitigate social risks if monitored diligently but most companies to this point had taken a simplistic approach to managing stakeholder expectations.
"Crucial information is perhaps not being taken seriously enough," he said.
"An individual that makes a complaint today could be a group in a week, a townhall meeting in a month and a blockade immediately after.
"You can track how government interference may be increasing; an unexpected HSE audit, fines shortly after, or maybe a change in union leadership - all this is great information. And there's a wealth of great information in the projects themselves, particularly around community and social responsibility with grievance systems.
"There's also big data analytics and social media monitoring so I think we need to get a little bit further along the road with using these."
Copeland said even when risks were identified and monitored correctly, it was not always properly communicated within internal departments.
Green means attracting talent and retention
Director of programs with stakeholder engagement consultant Ulula, Vera Belazelkoska, said technology had opened the door to more sustainable practices in mining.
"Responsible business practices are good for relationships and good for the reputation of the company and can keep the company in good standing with all its stakeholders," she said. "And I like the word ‘privilege' - it is a privilege for a company to work within a community and that relationship needs to be managed and grown."
Belazelkoska's stated aim had been to better use technology to engage stakeholders to bring down the cost of compliance. Digital tools, she said, facilitated engagement of communities and internal workforces, encouraged two-way dialogue, and improved the efficiency of monitoring.
Key tools at the fingertips of company risk and sustainability officers included automated surveys, which monitored working conditions and community perception in real time. Mass broadcasting tools were also handy to increase the knowledge, capacity and awareness of workers and community around the company operations and objectives. Meanwhile, an anonymous and continuous ‘chat' portal was also an avenue to increased feedback from communities.
"These are, of course, only as effective as the operation and business executing but they provide the opportunity for companies to engage with stakeholders, who might not normally engage in person with a community relations office and would rather remain anonymous," Belazelkoska said.
Technology also helps to expand the sample.
"Many of you would have been to consultations where the usual people show up, often few people, and there is an under representation of women, young people, the elderly, or indigenous populations," she said. There was also a large piece around using technology to improve trust through communication and transparency.
One company fully engaged with the concepts being preached was Goldcorp, owner of the Borden all-electric mine in Ontario and advocate for complete stakeholder engagement.
Goldcorp vice president in charge of corporate affairs and energy regulation, John Mullally, said the miner looked to its stakeholders to partner on innovation because they would ultimately have shared goals. And, while an operation with lower emissions and noise pollution was clearly more appealing to communities and regulators, it was the benefit for internal stakeholders that had been most telling.
"Green means attracting talent and retention," he said.
"We did a survey of 55 underground workers and found most, if not all, showed significant improvement in working condition satisfaction. In some cases, [workers] came back to work at Borden for less pay. That was extremely telling about the workplace environment."
Mullally said the all-electric vision was just one initiative Goldcorp was working on to improve the "social acceptability" of its operations, with others including a waterless tailings solution.
Companies were slowly waking up to the necessity of employing a more sophisticated social engagement process as the consequences for failure become stark, according to Belazelkoska.
"Businesses are being requested to take responsibility for their actions and to monitor, understand and actively manage some of the social risks linked to the impact of their operations on local communities," she said.
"There is an important human rights and environmental cost we have to take into consideration when these risks are not mitigated but there is also a financial cost. We are seeing more and more investors requesting companies focus on the ‘S' of ESG, rather than the environment and governance. They want them to better quantify the social impact, not only on a one-time basis but as an ongoing initiative.
"With the increase in information available and access to social media channels, there are more eyes on company behaviour. So, the scrutiny on companies is increased not just from the perspective of local stakeholders but from the international community.
"This is leading to trends in increased regulation and law suits in jurisdictions where headquarters are based, rather than only where the operations are based through subsidiaries, while governments have warned the regulatory situation is going to tighten."
Mullally said all Goldcorp's ESG initiatives had tangible cost benefits. When fully ramped up, Borden is expecting a US$9 million saving per annum.