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Seeking sustainable development in Minnesota's north country

John Harrington

Long, long ago (2010), in a country far, far away, it came about that:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines sustainability as the satisfaction of basic economic, social, and security needs now and in the future without undermining the natural resource base and environmental quality on which life depends. From a business perspective, the goal of sustainability is to increase long-term shareholder and social value, while decreasing industry’s use of materials and reducing negative impacts on the environment.

I learned this from a paper by Jane Kloeckner titled "Developing a Sustainable Hardrock Mining and Mineral Processing Industry: Environmental and Natural Resource Law for Twenty-First Century People, Prosperity, and the Planet." I’m strongly in favor of people, prosperity and the planet, but without the latter, the first two don't do very well. In fact, although I reserve the right to revise my opinion at some future time, I prefer the cited EPA definition to that of the oft-quoted Brundtland Commission [p. 41]:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

•  the concept of 'needs', in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and

•  the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.

All of the preceding has been triggered by my continuing and growing interest in the possibility of Minnesota becoming a world leader in sustainable mining. [We'll pause here so you can either recover and catch your breath or finish laughing uproariously.]

Canada, our friend and competitor to the North, has been working for some time on an approach called Toward Sustainable Mining.

We like to believe that the "Toward" may be in recognition that an extractive industry may not ever get to be truly sustainable. Perhaps not, but we can certainly do better in Minnesota to increase long-term shareholder and social value while we further reduce negative impacts on the environment. (See why we like the EPA definition?)

Even the steel industry itself is getting into the "sustainability business." Unfortunately, they seem to have missed the significance of the early parts of their supply chain, the entire mining sector. Fortunately, others are busy helping the industry focus on such concerns and offering strategic guidance. For example, from "Steel Available ... a data-driven supplier relationship management and sourcing platform that connects buyers and suppliers while ensuring compliance and visibility in the heavy industry," we learn:

Often required by different sustainability advocates nowadays, companies need to adopt ‘ethical sourcing practice’. Therefore, they have to select suppliers with high economic, social, and environmental value and work with them. Recall a principle from operations management: a stable partnership with only a few suppliers is usually more favourable. Along the process of selection, suppliers with similar values and operation systems can be relied on and even grow together in the long term. This pushes for mutual reliance of supplier and buyer, achieving a better power balance in the buying process as well.

While the world keeps changing around us, some folks pursue what seems to be a least cost commodity tactic for Minnesota's mining industry, reducing or eliminating, or not enforcing, environmental requirements. It doesn't have to be like that.

For example, did you know that "Today, DNR is the largest single FSC-certified land manager in the U.S." (Forest certification is a voluntary third-party process that identifies and recognizes well-managed forestland. It takes into consideration the ecological, economic, and social components of forests and surrounding communities.)

We now live in a world where engagement rings need to hold blood-free diamonds in fair-trade gold settings. Next thing we know, companies like Ford (you can buy any color you want as long as it's black) will have lots that look like rainbows and will be advertising fair-trade steel in its EVs. Take a look at their sustainable materials strategy.

Wouldn't you think Minnesota would want a piece of that kind of action?

To get it, we'll need healthy communities in a healthy environment with mines that meet stringent requirements, won't we? Or else Chinese steel from Canadian ore might be a more sustainable source, because Minnesota failed to value and use its assets to increase shareholder and social value. We have most of the necessary tools; we need the will to use them collaboratively.

John Harrington is certified as both a Housing Development and Economic Development Finance Professional from the National Development Council, and is a past member and past chair of the Green Residential Advocacy Committee of the Minnesota Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. 

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