Advancing Together With Barrick Gold

Mining In Conversation with Elizabeth Dowdeswell

In a wide-ranging interview, Elizabeth Dowdeswell speaks with Beyond Borders about the role of industry in sustainable development, the changing face of CSR and what led her to serve on Barrick’s CSR Advisory Board.

Elizabeth Dowdeswell is President and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies and a member of Barrick’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Advisory Board. She has held numerous leadership roles in the public and private sectors during her distinguished career, including Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), President and CEO of Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization and Assistant Deputy Minister of Environment Canada.


Q: When you became Executive Director of UNEP in 1993, you said that one of the things you wanted to do was “cause constructive damage to the status quo.” What did you mean by that?

A: I think that comment was triggered by an evolving understanding about just how much our world was changing. Don’t forget that was around the time of the Rio Earth Summit, and evidence was piling up about the unprecedented pace and breadth of environmental degradation occurring around the world. It was becoming apparent that there really wasn’t any room for complacency.

There was also a growing understanding that the world was changing in a number of other ways. As a society, we were realizing more and more how interconnected we all were. Sovereignty was being blurred, we were facing incredible technological change, and there was a growing alienation and disconnect between political and institutional processes, on the one hand, and what seemed to matter to individuals on the other. We can learn and benefit from changes in science and technology, but it’s really attitudes and behavior, both of institutions and people, that are the harder things to change. I think that’s what I meant by causing constructive damage.


Q: Does the phrase still apply today?

A: Absolutely. You know, we haven’t yet been able to deal adequately with continuing environmental damage, problems with economic complexity and stability, and the whole issue of social conflict. All of those things are still with us — the ecological pressures, the uncertain economic conditions and strains on social cohesion. Although many countries and companies have embraced the concept of sustainability and try to look at social, environmental and economic challenges in an integrated way, very few can claim to have actually met those challenges. We use the politically correct vocabulary and say the right things but, ultimately, the change is not very deep at all. Obviously that observation doesn’t apply to every country and every company, but I think we’ve only taken baby steps. We’ve got a long way to go before we really have made a significant difference in achieving sustainable development. It is still a work in progress.


Q: You’re currently the CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies, whose research helps inform public policy development in Canada. One area of focus for the Council and for you personally is the potential environmental impact of the Canadian oil sands industry. Are there any lessons you can share for the mining industry?

A: I think there are lots of lessons learned. Currently the Council is undertaking two assessments. One is on shale gas and the other is on evolving technologies to green the oil sands. These were prefaced by a very short 60-day exercise that I was asked to do personally, addressing the question of whether Canada had a world-class monitoring system in the oil sands.

I’ll share a couple of points from the study on monitoring. One is that we don’t always do very well thinking holistically or systemically. For example, we may look at the potential impact of a project on water quality, but not air quality, or we don’t always think about cumulative impacts, or impacts from a particular project on another geographic region. That would be one of the big lessons that came out of this research. Of course, the responses are not simple — that kind of environmental monitoring is costly, and there are always questions about who has jurisdiction and authority. One would hope that all these related jurisdictions could decide on a common goal and then leave it to the appropriate level to implement that goal, but it doesn’t quite happen that way.


Q: You used the word “we” several times in the previous response in reference to the study on monitoring, to whom were you referring?

A: By “we” I mean industry, I mean government, I mean civil society; it’s all of those. Anybody who has been involved in trying to bring about positive change in sustainability comes very quickly to the conclusion that everyone has a role to play. Consequently, it’s really important to find ways of bringing everybody to the table for genuine dialogue and engagement.


Q: What can the mining industry do better to mitigate its environmental impacts and address stakeholder concerns?

A: I think there is a two-part answer to that question. Already industry is acting on the ground in areas like health and safety, environmental stewardship, conserving biodiversity, human rights and community development. That momentum must be maintained and industry will undoubtedly be in a mode of continuous learning.

But the second, more difficult, challenge is to actually build trust and confidence and demonstrate accountability. That happens through engaging with people in a collaborative way, in a way that is real engagement, not just consultation. It’s putting yourself in their shoes and asking, what kind of community do you want in the future and how can we contribute to helping you get there? In many ways that is also the kind of shift that is occurring in the evolution of CSR. When CSR first came to prominence, many people thought of it as dealing with philanthropy and some degree of environmental clean-up, but not much more. Now industry has moved beyond the superficial and the relatively easy things to do. From human rights to community well-being, proactive stewardship of the environment and always safety, CSR has become a much more fundamental element of the strategic thinking of the corporation.


Q: The volume of sustainability data published by companies has exploded in recent years. How do stakeholders make sense of all this data, and is there a need for a standardized framework of sustainability reporting?

A: Monitoring and reporting is always a topic of conversation. We need to use robust indicators, consistent methodologies and standardized reporting, including peer-review. What we should be aiming for is a scientifically rigorous approach that will result in independent, objective, complete, reliable data.

When it comes to the volume of data available, I think there are two objectives. One comes from citizens and reflects the desire of the people in the community who want some very simple answers to what this industrial activity in their community actually means. So understanding what the needs are at the grass-roots level and being able to interpret the data and the science in a transparent and honest way is important. But in addition, there will also be demands from scientists and environmentalists who want to see the raw data because they want to use it for research purposes, or because they haven’t yet developed trust and confidence in those who are providing it.

I think both of those things are important, and trying to find a balance between the amount of effort and energy companies put into providing that information is a significant challenge.


Q: More women are entering the mining industry, but they are still underrepresented. What message would you share with women working in mining today?

A: Good question. I would say, have persistence. If you can, work for a company whose goals are aligned with your own personal goals, because it’s easier to have an impact and contribute to an organization when you’re doing something that’s meaningful to you. Fortunately, in my career I’ve always been able to work with institutions and in jobs where what happened on a daily basis really mattered to me.

There’s no question in my mind that women are as well-equipped as men are to be engaged in this field. Both men and women need to enter the field with a clear-headed idea of what they want to achieve and how they can find a way to make a contribution. We spend so much of our lives in the work environment that we better be pretty satisfied about our ability to make that the best experience we can.


Q: Why did you agree to serve on Barrick’s CSR Advisory Board, and how has the experience been so far?

A: I accepted because I believe that industry can make a significant contribution to realizing the quality of life objectives that I care about. I know that we need industry at the table if we’re going to make social, economic and environmental progress. They’re one of the key players and they can’t just be engaged around the edges. They need to really think through how they are going to operate in a way that tries to meet multiple objectives, so if anything that I have experienced in other sectors can help shed light on that, then I’m delighted to be involved. And I must say I have really appreciated the fact that Barrick is inquiring. The company is really seeking knowledge to solve particular problems or issues. I appreciate the transparency and the thoughtfulness of the dialogue with my colleagues. We have an opportunity to challenge assumptions and perceptions, and I think we’re treated, or at least I feel as if I’m treated, as a trusted advisor and encouraged to hold the company to account. So that willingness to listen and learn and to engage actually inspires a good deal of confidence.