Alcan: Clean solutions for today and tomorrow

(DISCLAIMER: The work portrayed in this document was undertaken with the former Alcan, prior to its acquisition by Rio Tinto in 2007.  Rio Tinto Alcan remains committed to sustainable development. As such, the work begun with The Natural Step as described below was folded into larger efforts centrally directed by Rio Tinto in London, UK. The specific partnership between The Natural Step and the former Alcan’s Bauxite & Alumina division was halted in 2007 within the above-mentioned context.)

The Opportunity

Committed to sustainability and increasingly reliant on projects based in lesser-industrialized countries, Alcan’s Bauxite & Alumina (B&A) division saw an opportunity to develop a sustainability vision that brought social and environmental concerns even more into focus for the business.

The Response

In 2007, The Natural Step principles and process were put into action at Alcan’s B&A sites in the Pacific Region to help reduce risks and increase the company’s competitive advantage in alignment with their sustainability vision.

The Process

In 2007, The Natural Step Canada advisors Chad Park and Joe Herbertson held a workshop with the Alcan management team in Montreal, Canada. The workshop had two main goals:

  • To develop a sustainability vision that would guide Alcan’s B&A sustainability strategy moving forward.
  • To align the management team with a shared definition and understanding of sustainability, and to build buy-in for the sustainability vision.

Early in the workshop, participants identified Alcan’s top sustainability challenges, two of which were viewed as critical: meeting company growth expectations and addressing the issue of emissions associated with bauxite mining and alumina production. To address these challenges, the participants proceeded to develop a sustainability vision facilitated by The Natural Step’s science-based approach to sustainability and developed through backcasting from sustainability principles.

After the success of the Montreal workshop, a second session was held in Brisbane, Australia, not only to create the space for a cross-functional sustainability conversation, but more pragmatically to operationalize the vision in Alcan’s largest bauxite mining and alumina refining operation in Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula in the Northern Territory of Australia.

With Gove in mind, workshop participants were asked to brainstorm potential social, environmental, and management innovations that might lead them toward their envisioned future. Ideas were then discussed and divided into prospective long-term and short-term measures, some of which led to outcomes. These included: the use of sustainability metrics in monthly and quarterly reporting, research and development explicitly using sustainability to guide innovation, the integration of sustainability objectives and approaches within greenfield projects, and a cross-functional working group quantifying the business value of Alcan’s sustainability investments.

Although the specific work described in this case was halted, sustainability principles remain embedded in Rio Tinto Alcan’s current business systems and processes, ensuring that economic, social, and environmental considerations are considered in its day-to-day operations as it drives toward its vision of a sustainable future.

The Feedback

“The Natural Step Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development is useful because it provides a shared mental model and vocabulary. Sustainability doesn’t seem overwhelming and incomprehensible any more—everybody gets it!”

-Kariann Aarup, Alcan B&A Social Sustainability Team

Written by Talithea McInnis