As part of the #sustainabilityletstalk15 initiative, I recently sat down with Robert Sills, a global Strategic Materials Marketer and Procurement expert. We discussed specifically rare earth minerals and the overarching industry perspective on sustainability and what it means.
My biggest takeaway, is that rare earth minerals are a significant influencer in the application of sustainability, particularly when it comes to risk management, supply chain and the products and industries it supports. It is a given there are more extreme risks associated with the mining methods, though the mineral product tends to be cleaner on the environment, and the end product has great application in its uses of energy efficiency, technology and product stewardship.
Though there is a long way to go in terms of engagement and education across investors, stakeholders, supply chain and end users.
RARE EARTH MINERALS: INDUSTRY SNAPSHOT
- Until recently, China has retained the largest market as a rare earth minerals provider and exporter.
- Rare earth mineral exporters in near to medium term development include Australia, Canada, Chile, China, Tanzania, United States of America, to name the majors.
- Given the significance of the products that consume rare earth minerals, mining development companies are increasingly recognising the opportunities of supplying this niche market.
- The industries rare earth minerals support includes, but are not limited to: technology, clean energy applications, lighting, water purification, electric motor and leisure vehicles, glass (think UV protectant).
- Across the world, at a national level, government agencies have been formed for the mandate of: 1) The export of rare earth minerals to markets; and 2) The procurement of minerals for production.
- This also means that it has a significant influence on manufacturing and supply chain decision-making, where rare earth minerals are increasingly playing a role in a sustainable future.
Q: WHAT DOES SUSTAINABILITY MEAN TO THE INDUSTRY?
A: Sustainability is about having access to consistent supply of rare earth minerals that is, ‘ethical, safe and secure’. As an industry, it is a significant actor of sustainability within manufacturing and production, being a key mineral for many clean energy efficiency and technology related products.
Because of this, rare earth minerals often play a role in ‘product stewardship’, and given the nature of the minerals, has an influence on ‘duty of care’ and / or ‘product lifecycle’ design. (Think cradle-to-grave design).
It is for all these reasons that sustainability in supply is essential, as it has significant applications to our every day technologies, clean energy efficiency and supply chain decision-making, where manufacturers and producers can be vulnerable to supply shocks.
Q: HOW INTEGRAL IS BUSINESS SUSTAINABILITY TO INDUSTRY STRATEGY?
A: It is absolutely integral. In the past, it was just window dressing to be honest. Whereas now, given what we understand about sustainability, ethical mining, and the applications of rare earth minerals; there is a genuine approach to acting in a sustainable manner. We are also seeing this supported by global companies (such as GE, Apple to name a few) who are driving sustainable sourcing.
We are also seeing investors who are more inclined to invest in clean energy and efficiency applications, also driving emerging mines adoption of sustainable methods in mining practice.
On the whole, it is a great start, but we can always do better in sustainable practice.
Q: WHAT KIND OF CHALLENGES DOES THE INDUSTRY FACE?
Risk management: Where there are rare earth minerals, there is also ‘uranium’ and ‘thorium’, both are controversial minerals, from many fronts: safe mining practice; activism agendas; safe handling, storage and disposal.
Ethical mining practices and exporting: The emphasis on this is better, safer, and cleaner application of practices. It is always a challenge to ensure this, but an important one.
Access to capital and investors: The key challenge with this is that it is hard to deliver the mineral product and solve problems without either.
Producer and supply chain decision-making risks: Many factors come into this including manufacturing methods, duty of care, and product stewardship. Whilst it is a supplier/manufacturing decision, it has an impact on the industry itself.
Market transparency: Production, demand and predictability of source from a customer perspective, but also transparency in business sustainability from a stakeholder perspective. There is a long way to go.
Stakeholder agenda: Always a challenge as it’s a balance between respecting stakeholders whilst mining ethically. There is huge push and pull between negative reactions to certain minerals, but yet many are easier on the environment and safe when handled well. There is long way to go in engagement and education.
Q: WHAT ARE FIVE WORDS THAT MAKE YOU THINK OF SUSTAINABILITY?
- Economically viable
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