Community and interest group involvement in environmental decision-making is currently a major issue – both internationally as Canadian companies seek to access resources in other countries, and domestically as proposed changes to environmental assessment law raise questions about the adequacy of legislated public consultation for major industrial developments in the future.

The unsettled domestic legislative regime means that the public consultation requirements in industry standards for environmental and social performance could be under heightened scrutiny in the near future. Serious, persistent stakeholder concerns need to be addressed comprehensively and respectfully, because responsible behaviour on industry’s part can result in better relations with government and communities and fewer delays. A number of industry sectors, including forestry, agriculture, and mining, are beginning to use the tools that are available to help them do this. Standards can provide guiding principles for a company engaging with a community and with local and transnational civil society. Some standards also require independent verification of conformity.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards iinclude a number of areas where community and environmental concerns can be incorporated. FSC’s logo allows certified companies to earn reputational benefits from taking steps to improve their products’ sustainability. FSC includes ENGOs like Greenpeace in its review processes, providing industry with an opportunity to receive constructive critique of standards development and application. The Forest Products Association of Canada’s Biopathways project, while not civil society-oriented, is another example of how reaching outside the industry can be beneficial: forest producers have used it to research potential new products with . While the forestry sector is generally acknowledged to have made strides forward in the past 20 years, its work is not finished. The Canadian Boreal Initiative, which brings together conservation organizations, First Nations, industry, and other interested parties, is continuing to work on conservation in the boreal forest. Initiative members are expecting to see progress on protecting key wildlife habitat from logging, but change has been too slow so far, according to some participants.

Community consultation in mining is a work in progress. The fact that mined resources are non-renewable may mean that the normal life cycle of a mining operation does not provide the same long-term incentive for the maintenance of good relationships with local stakeholders. The life of a mine can vary anywhere between 8 and 100 years currently. New technology like biomining, which uses bacteria or plants to extract metals from raw ore, could eventually lengthen mine life. This could change the relationships between communities and mining operators: verified standards for social and environmental parameters emerged earlier in agriculture, where the operator expects to be able to work in the same location for many years, than in mining.

In the meantime, however, some changes may be beginning in the mining industry’s awareness. One mining industry panellist at Sustainable Prosperity’s Building on Rio+20 conference in May said that a colleague in the industry had advised him not to “fight” against social demand for enhanced environmental performance. In keeping with this, there are several initiatives underway to improve the sector’s performance. The International Council for Mining and Metals has an assurance guide(external link) to its sustainable development principles for firms’ use. Within Canada, the Mining Association of Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining protocols are used by all MAC members. This standard does not currently offer certification or disclose individual companies’ performance. Some firms are going further in following the lead of the forestry industry, hoping to replicate their successes in the use of independently-verified standards developed with stakeholder groups. Two mining firms have engaged with labour, indigenous and community groups, environmentalists, and retailers through the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, which is expected to launch in 2014 as the mining sector’s answer to the product stewardship model developed in FSC’s standards.

Bare compliance with the law is just the beginning of a business’ engagement with the communities it employs and operates in, and standards are no substitute for a robust legal regime of consultation and assessment. That said, following standards and participating in their development alongside civil society can be useful for a firm seeking to protect its reputation and social license to operate, and to lighten its impact on people and the planet.