The Canadian Construction Association (CCA) held a panel discussion on corporate social responsibility (CSR) at its annual convention in San Antonio, Texas in order to gather information for a guide.
The CCA created a task force on the subject last year, which organized the session.
The task force intends to use the discussion to assist its experts in its next steps in drafting a guide for members. One of the main topics the panel discussed was how CSR relates to engaging with stakeholders on projects to move development forward.
Serge Massicotte, outgoing CCA chair, said in some cases projects are engaged in good consultation with stakeholders and obtaining necessary permits, only to be derailed by special interest groups.
"CCA is looking at what our role will be in that regard," he said.
On the panel was David Parker, who recently joined the Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering at the University of British Columbia.
Before that, Parker spent 21 years with Teck Resources Limited launching various CSR-related initiatives.
Also on the panel was Signi Schneider who works for Export Development Canada.
She previously spent a decade doing emerging market risk assessment.
Parker started by explaining that CSR is about what they did beyond compliance with the law.
It’s about codes of ethics and expanding them to create benefits for stakeholders and affected parties.
Schneider said CSR is very broad, involving many things, including community investment, reviewing projects and reputation risk.
"(CSR is) everything that’s non-financial and non-legal that affects how you are perceived by the public," Schneider.
Much of the discussion centered around how CSR relates to the idea of obtaining social license for projects beyond the legal requirements.
"You really need to earn consent to operate in most settings now," Parker said.
"Social license is really about the relationship you form with the stakeholders, who can shut you down."
At the most basic level, this means connecting with those nearby your project, informing them of any disruption activity may cause and giving them information so they can contact you with concerns.
"One of the biggest things people complain about is they don’t know what a project is," he said, adding that people thought workers obtaining core samples at a mineral exploration site in Mexico were hauling out gold.
When done right, the results can be good for business.
"It is difficult sometimes to get management to think about what we’re talking about in terms of an investment instead of a cost," he said, adding that at Teck they realized the value of relationships.
He cited several examples where projects were able to go from exploration to production in less than five years, with much of the credit given to community engagement.
In one case, the project’s neighbours took notice and gave Teck exclusive rights to mineral projects on their land.
The goal he explained is always broad community support and addressing legitimate concerns.
There will sometimes be those who simply oppose the project and will not be swayed.
If broad support can be obtained, things get easier.
"I always find it useful to think through the eyes of a bureaucrat, who in charge of issuing the license. There is no incentive for them to take any risk whatsoever, so you better be trying to de-risk it as much for them as for yourself," he said.
An important strategy is to start early.
Schneider agreed, explaining that companies need to begin to budget the process of community engagement into their project time lines by as much as 6-18 months – and if there are rumblings of opposition, much, much later.
"From a banker perspective, the delay of projects doesn’t really make that big of a difference because it just pushes initial disbursement of the loan before construction can start," she said.
"We aren’t going to disperse until we are sure there aren’t going to be any major consultation issues."
Parker and Schneider also stressed that companies need to be creative in not just educating a community, but thinking of ways the project can give them value.
Banking being done through mobile phones is an example, said Schneider.
Sub Saharan residents in Africa are under banked because banks are far away or lacked legal papers.
Phone companies looking to get into the region recognized this and set up a mobile banking system.
"They have a niche that nobody else has," Schneider said.