What is the full sustainability story?

Last week the business pages of the newspapers were full of reporting on the mine nationalisation debate in South Africa as Cape Town hosted the 2011 Mining Indaba. To coincide with this media focus on the mining sector, Anglo American – one of the world’s largest mining companies – put out print and billboard ads publicising its Corporate Social Investment (CSI) achievements with the strapline: ‘Real Mining. Real People. Real Difference.’

Anglo’s claims contain a range of superlatives, including:

First to offer HIV/AIDS treatment to our people
R60 billion invested in BEE transactions
Voted best corporate grant maker for eight years running
Producing close to 2.5% of South Africa’s GDP
Largest private sector employer in South Africa

The smaller print gives a link to getthefullstory.com to find out more. The site opens with an animated sequence of the turning pages of a book giving a sense of storytelling. Head shots, like those in the print ads, accompany the headlines on each double-page spread. It nicely pulls together a number of Anglo’s stories of how the company has delivered vital services in places where governments have not.

Given the size and scale of Anglo American, these initiatives are undoubtedly positive for countries like South Africa and Anglo’s 83,000 permanent employees here. At the same time there are numerous challenges to mining in environmentally and socially responsible ways, and creating value. The news this week that Chevron is being fined $8bn for contamination of the Ecuadorian Amazon is a case in point. As my colleague Jonathon writes in a recent addition of The A Magazine, a quarterly publication of Anglo American South Africa, “Although it is right to have a healthy scepticism of the sustainability pronouncements proffered by leading mining companies, it would be wrong to dismiss the important positive contribution that many of these companies are making to society and it would be mistaken to underestimate their potential in effecting a broader transition to sustainability.”

This broader transition to sustainability is what Incite strives for; our mission is to shift how business sees and applies itself to the creation of value. For mining companies “playing this transformative role will require… mining executives to appreciate the complexity and systemic nature of the sustainability challenge, and to recognise that current incremental changes towards sustainability [such as CSI are laudable but] are not sufficient” (from Jonathon’s article).

As a sustainability communications specialist I am interested in the language companies use to promote their initiatives, how truly these messages reflect what they are actually doing and how communications can encourage a shift in attitudes and behaviours. This is where communications savvy and knowing how to frame a message come in. There is a knack to telling a balanced story while not making any misleading or over exaggerated claims that will confuse people. What Anglo is presenting through its recent ad campaign is how it contributes to society and the economy which, from a sustainability point of view, is not the full story. CSI can play a role in broader sustainability strategies if done probably, but it should not be confused with sustainability.

I can see what Anglo is trying to do with the strapline ‘Real Mining. Real People. Real Difference.’ However, I think the way the message has been framed is confusing. It implies that CSI gets to the core of their business’ impact on society and makes the “real difference”. While it may certainly make a difference in some peoples’ lives, CSI will always be an add-on the business strategy and typically does little to interrogate it. To me, a real difference means a company making a fundamental change to its business models that restores or enhances nature, develops society and/ or empowers people. Anglo needs to be clear what difference it is making, accurately communicate this story and demonstrate how it fits into the bigger picture of the company’s core business and current transitions in the global economy.

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