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Last week Standards Australia convened the second of three workshops of the 45th International Workshop Agreement (IWA 45) for sustainable critical minerals supply chains. Going into this workshop, a key concern I had as a civil society (CSO) representative was that, yet again, industry was at the table to write its own rules.

The disproportionate influence of industry and lack of non-industry voices has characterized the IWA process to date. In fact, the absence of civil society was so notable that improving CSO participation for workshop two was recommended in the workshop summary from Standards Australia. 

Public Citizen and Earthworks participated to advocate for our Civil Society Guiding Principles and Priorities for a Credible, Rights-Respecting ISO Critical Minerals Supply Chain Standard. 

What is the IWA 45 and why does it matter?

The IWA 45 is a process in which members of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and other invited groups convene to develop recommendations to inform an ISO standard–in this instance, ISO members were scoping existing sustainability frameworks related to mineral supply chains. 

ISO is an international body that establishes technology, management, and manufacturing standards. With some exceptions, like ISO 26000 on social responsibility, standards are often highly technical and industry-specific, covering topics such as water quality and mineral purity requirements.

Governments and regulators around the world rely upon ISO standards to inform policy and regulation, resulting in standards that have tangible impacts on people and the planet. For instance, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) uses ISO 13485 to assess medical device manufacturers’ compliance with safety and effectiveness requirements under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.  

The IWA 45 process will result in a brief report and set of non-binding recommendations to inform a standard on sustainable raw material management in minerals and metals supply chains, currently being developed by Germany’s national standard body, ISO/PC 348.

Who attended IWA 45? 

Public Citizen was one of two civil society organizations (CSOs) that participated in the workshop, although other groups attended virtually. Other attendees included representatives from the mining industry, national standards-setting bodies, US government agencies, and auditors. Notably absent from the table was a critical stakeholder group: impacted communities.

While decisions are made by consensus, the ISO system is not designed to be easily accessible or automatically inclusive of civil society organizations, human rights advocates, and rights-holders. National standards bodies, which represent the majority of ISO members, have the responsibility to recruit and engage stakeholders. However, participation in the process is not free, and cost can be a major barrier for entry. Unless ISO, the national government, or standards-setting bodies can cover these costs, it excludes critical stakeholder groups like civil society and impacted communities.

The majority of energy transition mineral deposits used in batteries are on Indigenous lands throughout the world. When the ISO fails to actively include Indigenous Peoples and their advocates in these discussions, their sovereignty, rights, and the biodiversity they steward are exposed to serious health and environmental risks. 

Further limiting participation, the final standards are posted behind a paywalll. This underscores exclusivity and a lack of transparency behind the standards-setting process and will disproportionately affect Indigenous Peoples and other mining-affected communities around the globe who are often neglected by their governments and excluded from the decision-making process.

Rights holders and CSOs play a crucial role in holding companies and governments accountable to strong standards enforcement. How can these stakeholders play this important role if it costs money just to read the standard in the first place? ISO’s failure to effectively convey the relevance of its standards-setting process to civil society groups and affected communities, coupled with financial barriers, thwarts meaningful participation.

ISO is increasingly proposing and developing international standards, and inclusive engagement with diverse stakeholders must be prioritized. Conversations with EU and US regulators and legislators have made clear that the finalized ISO/PC 348 will be considered a new baseline for regulating raw materials supply chains and the industries that drive them. This will have profound implications for human rights, communities, and the environment as we continue in the energy transition. To ensure the standards foster sustainable development and broader social improvements, adequate stakeholder engagement is imperative. 

What was Industry saying?

Some of the most vocal industry participants were representatives from the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) and CopperMark, two of the weakest industry auditing and certification schemes. They are also two of the four groups leading a new global consolidated standard for the mining industry that has already drawn criticism from civil society groups

Unsurprisingly, industry emphasized that the IWA 45 and Germany’s proposed standard are unnecessary. Company representatives argued that there is increasing alignment between different mining standards and that ISO should instead focus on gaps in supply chain standards. In their view, standard consolidation, like their initiative, is the better path forward.

This argument entirely misses the very real problems with the vast majority of these voluntary schemes, including an absence of multistakeholder shared governance, the divergence in assessment quality, and the dearth of transparency. These issues have persisted for decades and industry-led schemes have been criticized as being tools for greenwashing. Consolidation, then, isn’t real progress if it is consolidating low standards that will continue rubber-stamping business as usual, rather than improving outcomes for rights holders.

These industry arguments were intended to distract from real issues and stall conversations at IWA 45 that should have instead centered on defining effective criteria for an initiative to be legitimate, credible, and rights-respecting, and therefore recommended for consideration to ISO/PC 348. Fortunately, the few NGOs that were able to overcome the financial, transparency, and technical barriers raised these issues to challenge industry’s misleading arguments.  

The path forward

Despite a lack of diversity in stakeholder participation and industry’s overrepresentation, several positive outcomes emerged from the session.

For example, CSOs shifted the conversation on multi-stakeholder representation from a focus on the importance of engagement to the need for equal, shared governance, a principle backed by the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA).

Civil society groups also brought to the forefront the limitations of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) frameworks to protect human rights and the need for due diligence to be centered in the recommendations, aligned with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) due diligence guidelines and the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).

And finally, CSOs elevated discussions surrounding the importance of materials circularity, not just recyclability, and the rights of Indigenous Peoples, particularly to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC), not mere consultation.

The IWA 45 process will continue for about another month. Between now and April 30, Public Citizen will lead CSO input and recommendations on the current draft report and will attend the final session that will be held virtually in May.

Public Citizen is working with colleagues at Earthworks, Transport & Environment (T&E), and the Environmental Coalition on Standards (ECOs) to build a joint US-EU coalition with shared demands which we plan to put forward in the ISO PC/348 working group process that will begin this summer. This is a key space for CSO engagement because governments will use this space to consider a new baseline for related supply chain issues.

If you are interested in being a part of the developing coalition and our advocacy, please fill out this form and we will get back to you.