The extractive industry – oil, gas and mining – has left its mark on almost every part of the world by providing materials that can be found in nearly every product we use in our daily lives. Despite its claims of being sustainability-focused, the industry is strongly driven by economic rather than environmental or social concerns. To make matters worse, extractive companies operate on a ‘take, make and waste’ model, built on the assumption that resources are infinite. These businesses may be far from perfect, but is there hope for them to take a big leap towards sustainability? Megha Sureshkar of ESSEC Business School Asia-Pacific explores.
Development has been synonymous with the notion of ‘having more’. Consumers want faster, newer and better products, and extractive companies work to keep supplying them with what they want, creating devastating effects – air and water pollution, habitat disruption, for instance – in the process. But wait, there is more to the tale. Equally affected are the indigenous communities whose land and human rights are completely dismissed by the companies who work to get luxury for the rest of the world – the part of the story that often lies hidden or is ignored. Unless the demand that drives this exploitation diminishes, the extractive industry would keep treading along its ruthless unsustainable path.
Again, on the consumer side, people downplay seemingly distant problems such as climate change or those that haven’t affected their immediate circle. Many consumers, especially Millennials, say that they want products that are sustainable. Despite growing awareness, ethical consumerism is still a niche market and a frustrating paradox remains. Consumers who advocate the use of eco-friendly products do not follow through with their wallets or more modest demands. As such, narrowing the intention-action gap is crucial to decelerate demand for extractive product categories.
For almost all extractive companies, their only effort at sustainability is the occasional philanthropy, which plays a marginal role in the strategy of the companies. Consumers should see right through this facade. But catching the attention is not enough – consumers should act. There should be a global abandonment of consumer selfishness – the feeling of “I am what I have”. By initiating change, developing compassion and shifting their thinking to “I am what the planet has”, consumers can fulfil their own share of responsibilities of shaping a sustainable demand.
Regulations can also make a difference in the industry. Governments, by donning the role of change agents, can enforce the circular economy concept to companies, as well as offer grants and governmental aid according to the degree and pace of implementation of circularity. Additionally, extractive companies, especially those in the mining sector, can play a critical role in circular efforts by influencing downstream production processes to ensure that products are designed and produced in such a way that makes it easy to separate the minerals upon disposal, thus making their recycling and reuse a simple process.
Sustainability will never come naturally to extraction. Getting from today’s grim reality to tomorrow’s sustainable industry is a mammoth task, but with time, effort and heart, what may seem unachievable can become possible. But, given the long lead time for projects in the industry, consumers need to drive the change TODAY. As such, through their demand, companies would get started to set a vision and actively follow the path to sustainability. Nothing is impossible if the industry lets go of its conventional way of thinking and sets the pace for change with consumers leading the way.