Requirements and Barriers to Strengthening Sustainability Reporting Among Mining Corporations
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Mining depletes, processes, and relocates mineral resources while profoundly changing landscapes and socio-economic patterns of affected regions and communities. For millennia these impacts have been “accepted” by society because of minerals’ many benefits, but the growing environmental crisis is pushing up demand for socially responsible and ecologically viable mining practices. In reaction to these pressures, large mining corporations have been increasingly trying to make the business case for a sustainable mining industry. To demonstrate progress towards this “case”, companies have started to publish sustainability reports based on a sustainability assessment and reporting tool called the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Framework. Many scholars have contested the effectiveness of that framework and argued that GRI-based reports can mislead decision-makers concerned with sustainability, or even camouflage unsustainable practices, particularly at the site level. Few scholars, however, have gone far beyond the realm of criticism to understand how to enhance that framework. This thesis addresses this gap. More specifically it sets out to answer the following questions: 1) what needs to be changed in mining corporations’ approaches to assessing and reporting sustainability for the purpose of promoting more meaningful and reliable disclosures? And 2) what are the key practical and conceptual barriers to implementing those changes? This research adopted a qualitative grounded theory approach underpinned by systems theories to answer the questions. Data were collected through extensive literature reviews, 41 semi-structured interviews and content analyses. The evaluation of data included software-aided techniques such as iterative coding, memo-writing, and diagramming. The four main contributions are as follows. First, the thesis presents an evaluation of the extent to which mining corporations’ approaches to sustainability reporting meet eight principles (the BellagioSTAMP) of sustainability assessment and communication. In light of the identified gaps, the thesis outlines a number of specific changes that should be promoted in mining corporations’ sustainability frameworks. Second, a critical evaluation is provided of the limitations of an industry initiative that is pushing for stronger GRI reporting. Proponents of that initiative are trying to standardize and enforce external verification of sustainability reports among large mining corporations, but, in doing so, they may reinforce a limited approach to sustainability reporting. Third, the thesis identifies and discusses the barriers that may emerge in the implementation of six additional guidance elements in the GRI framework that could promote sounder sustainability assessment and reporting processes. The many barriers are broadly categorized as motivational, structural and specific. Finally, the thesis specifies research implications for key stakeholder groups involved in sustainability reporting: standard-setters, industry associations, mining companies, external verifiers, investors, local communities, and scholars. Overall, this thesis corroborates the view that meaningful and reliable standardized disclosures of contributions to sustainability are unlikely to emerge any time soon. The geographical dispersion of mining corporations’ facilities imposes substantial barriers to the contextualization and systematization of sustainability evaluations and communications. These barriers can be overcome with additional indicator systems and partnerships, but standard-setters, industry associations, and governments do not seem motivated to take up this challenge soon. This situation opens opportunities for individual mining corporations to enhance their particular approaches. This thesis provides important information that should be considered in the development of a much needed long-term strategy for stronger sustainability reporting in the sector.
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