For the first time, an American mining firm has supported a "social responsibility" resolution put forward by shareholder activists.
Shareholders of Newmont Mining Co., the world's largest gold mining firm, approved this week an independent review of the environmental and social impacts of the company's global operations. And before the vote Tuesday, the Denver-based company took what activists say is the unprecedented step of endorsing the measure.
The milestone shows the ability of the "ethical investing" movement to gain the ear of major corporations, especially for environmental concerns as companies come under increased pressure to go green, say specialists in the field.
"Social investors are small in number, but their ability to attract the attention of substantial numbers of traditional investors on particular issues or particular companies is becoming increasingly easy," says Steven Lydenberg, chief investment officer for Domini Social Investments, a New York-based firm that specializes in socially responsible investing (SRI).
Shareholder activists filed 75 environmental proposals in the first half of 2006, including proposals asking companies to report on energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse emissions, and limit use of toxic chemicals, according to Institutional Shareholder Services.
In 21 cases, the motions resulted in deals with companies, including Home Depot, Lowe's, and General Motors, all of which agreed to provide significant information on aspects of their environmental impact.
Newmont says it urged shareholders to support the review of locally controversial company practices because the company wanted to demonstrate to the outside world that it operates properly.
The company has suffered from recent publicity debacles, including large street protests in South America and a high-profile court battle in Indonesia.
An Indonesian court this week acquitted the company of charges that its operations poisoned Buyat Bay and local residents with mercury and arsenic. Indonesian prosecutors reportedly will appeal the decision.
The shareholder resolution recommends that independent members of the company's board of directors – not management – conduct the global review and produce a report.
"It will contain the good, bad, and the ugly, but we're not necessarily afraid of that," says Newmont spokesman Omar Jabara. "We do need to know where we can improve. There's nothing worse than having an issue out there and not knowing about it until it's too late or festered into a big problem."
Whether the report becomes a "greenwash" or truly credible depends on its implementation, says Julie Tanner, corporate advocacy coordinator with Christian Brothers Investment Services, a Catholic SRI firm based in New York, which led the successful shareholder effort.
"The implementation is really the key," says Ms. Tanner. "There needs to be recommendations on how the company is going to address community opposition and reduce risk to operations, and at the same time protect the human rights of people in the communities impacted by their operations."
During the review, Tanner will push for Newmont to draw on internationally recognized experts ranging from academics to nongovernmental (NGO) groups.
Tapping NGOs and community activists for input may help defray problems on the ground, but it could also backfire on Newmont.
"Time and again there are examples of blowups where NGOs are involved. They are invited in with the expectation that they will be a constructive partner in this, but in fact they're secretly trying to undermine operations," says Jon Entine, editor of the book "Pension Fund Politics: The Dangers of Socially Responsible Investing."
"A lot of the NGOs," he says, "would just as soon see many of these companies actually pull out of these operations."
EARTHWORKS, a mining watchdog NGO, however, argues that talking with groups active in the impacted communities would help the company head off messy confrontations.
In 2004, massive street protests erupted when Newmont proposed to mine Peru's Cerro Quilish deposit, a watershed and sacred site for locals.
"There's numerous cases like that where it would benefit both the company and the affected communities if there was a dialogue and process to determine where mining is appropriate," says Radhika Sarin, international campaign coordinator for EARTHWORKS based in Washington.
Indeed, the independent voices brought in during a review process can provide "an early warning system for the company," says Tim Smith, director of socially responsive investing with Walden Asset Management in Boston. Such outside expertise can become a "broader think tank" for the company to resolve problems, he adds.
In the end, shareholder resolutions are only recommendations, and companies maintain a good deal of control over how – and even whether – to implement them. And Christian Brothers admits its stake in Newmont represent only a small fraction of shares.
Mr. Entine questions the whole premise of socially responsible investing given such systemic lack of power.
"It's a waste of time and money except for the part that can generate some publicity," he says. "But that's a pretty high price to pay with all the costs involved with social investing to get that goal."