Close-up of chain links

How can mining companies contribute to sustainable supply chains?

Partnering with customers and suppliers to tackle industry challenges

Last updated: 23 May 2023
Alf Barrios, executive team
Alf Barrios, RioTinto Chief Commercial Officer

Alf Barrios, Rio Tinto Chief Commercial Officer

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing our customers and our supply chains, and it will take a coordinated effort to make meaningful progress.

We have an important role to play on this journey. We are part of a huge ecosystem that spans 20,000 suppliers and 2,000 customers across many industries and countries.

We spend around $20 billion annually on goods and services and have over 230 marine vessels transporting our products at any given time.

The insights and relationships we are afforded by the scale of this network present a significant opportunity for us to contribute to tackling climate change and building more sustainable supply chains. It is fundamental to our values, it is critical to meeting customer needs, and it makes good business sense.

We have an important role to play on this journey. We are part of a huge ecosystem that spans 20,000 suppliers and 2,000 customers across many industries and countries.

Responding to changing market needs

Consumers want products that are sustainably sourced, and companies want products that help them meet their emissions and sustainability targets.

Many of the materials used in products today may not be the preferred choices in the future unless they can establish their environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials or develop strong circular solutions.

Governments are also ramping up mandatory requirements and incentives to motivate companies to accelerate their ESG progress and meet their emissions commitments. As an example, the European Parliament backed a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism which would place a charge on the carbon content of emissions-intensive goods imported into the European Union from 2023.

Many countries have green building rating systems in place such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) by the US Green Building Council. And sustainability reporting is now mandatory for large companies in many countries.

Investors too are seeking ESG-based opportunities to deliver sustainable, long-term returns, further driving demand for responsibly produced materials. Sustainable investing that incorporates ESG criteria is gaining traction among individual investors and asset managers, while ESG funds captured approximately $51 billion of net new money from investors in 2020 – more than double 2019.

Many banks are now offering green loans, aimed at advancing environmental sustainability, and financing facilities for low-carbon aluminium are already available.

Businesses committed to ESG goals will certainly benefit from this new paradigm and our sector has a crucial role to play. For us this means producing the materials the world needs for a low-carbon future in the most sustainable way possible. This ranges from R&D partnerships on decarbonisation solutions to supporting industry certification schemes. We know we need to continue to build the sustainability of our own mining and processing practices, while also supporting those we work with to do the same.

No one company will solve the decarbonisation challenge. We need to collaborate across our supply chain, including partnerships with customers, technology providers, research institutes, government, and other stakeholders.

The role of R&D partnerships

No one company will solve the decarbonisation challenge. We need to collaborate across our supply chain, including partnerships with customers, technology providers, research institutes, government, and other stakeholders.

In our own business, we have a range of R&D and supply chain partnerships underway to both reduce our footprint and meet customer needs – not just on carbon, but across ESG more broadly.

START is one example of this. We call it a “nutrition label” for our aluminium products: Using blockchain technology, START captures 10 key ESG metrics – like waste and water management and safety – delivering transparency and traceability.

Through START, customers can measure and track the carbon footprint they have generated throughout their supply chain all the way to the end products. Information like this helps businesses make decisions about the materials they use.

The use of digital solutions like blockchain helps with provenance tracking – helping demonstrate to authorities that regulatory requirements have been met across the supply chain or have satisfied conditions needed to attain incentives or industrial certification. This is especially critical in the world of United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, rules of origin or carbon border adjustment mechanisms (CBAM).

In copper, our Kennecott mine in the US and the Oyu Tolgoi  mine in Mongolia became the first in the world to be awarded the Copper Mark – the industry’s independent assurance programme – verifying the copper is responsibly produced.

In 2018 we launched the ELYSIS partnership with Alcoa to develop carbon-free aluminium smelting technology. We have made good progress and are now focused on accelerating the scale-up  of the ELYSIS technology towards larger, commercial-sized cells in 2023. If successful, this technology could revolutionise the industry and in Canada alone could potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 7 million tons – the equivalent of removing 1.8 million cars from the roads.

In the automotive industry, we worked with industry partners to enable large-scale giga casting for electric vehicles (EVs). Through this work, a section of the car which had previously required 70 different parts built separately can now be made as one single part. This means the next generation of EVs can be built more efficiently and with a reduced carbon footprint.

We are also focused on finding ways to create value from waste. In the US, we’re working with the Critical Minerals Institute to find ways to extract critical minerals from our waste streams – including scandium, tellurium, selenium and rhenium – and develop pathways to market these materials which are essential in solar panels, electric vehicles and wind turbines. In Australia, for example, we worked with a customer to develop a new high-strength, lightweight aluminium-scandium alloy for use in their breakthrough 3D printing for aerospace. The alloy is made with our low-carbon aluminium and a high-purity scandium oxide extracted from waste from our Iron & Titanium business in Canada.

Ship, RTM Wakmatha

Working with suppliers to decarbonise our business

We recognise that we have a major carbon footprint, and we need to take urgent action to decarbonise our business.


We are working with suppliers to fast-track the development of zero-emission haulage – hosting a Komatsu pre-production trial and targeting the world’s first deployment of 35 Caterpillar zero-emissions autonomous haul trucks at our Gudai-Darri site in the Pilbara. By 2025, we will be piloting zero-emissions haul trucks and locomotives with the goal to stop buying new diesel haul trucks and locomotives before 2030.

We have embedded greenhouse gas emissions in our sourcing criteria, and are expanding it to include other environmental, social and governance factors too.

We are accelerating delivery of our climate commitments on shipping. We have already delivered 30% intensity reduction on our owned and time-chartered fleet and will exceed IMO’s 2030 targets by 2025. We have done this with the use of more efficient vessels supported by tools such as weather routing and optimising schedules. And we expect further gains in the short-term as we explore broader efficiency solutions and the integration of alternative fuels, such as the use of biofuels and our investment in nine LNG dual-fuel vessels this year. We will also introduce net-zero emissions vessels into our portfolio by 2030 and support development of enabling technologies using net-zero carbon fuels.

Contributing to the circular economy

We believe we have a role to play in the circular economy too. Indeed, customers have asked us to find ways to reuse their scrap metal.

We have recently announced investments in two Canadian aluminium recycling facilities, in our own cast house and in partnership with Shawinigan Aluminium, where we create custom alloys combining the lowest carbon metal with our customers’ scrap. Through our partnership with AB InBev – the world’s largest brewer – we are combining our low-carbon aluminium with beverage can scrap recycled in our own cast houses to create slab products for cans with a 30% lower carbon footprint.

This supports aluminium being favoured over alternative materials. In the packaging space, aluminium is more sustainable than glass or plastic. An aluminium container weighs 90% less than a glass one and 30% less than a plastic one. This leads to lower emissions during production, transportation and refrigeration. In addition, an aluminium container has 73% more recycled content than glass or plastic containers.

We are investing in European-based battery technology and manufacturing company InoBat Auto to support the development of a battery ecosystem in Europe – spanning R&D, lithium mining, battery manufacturing and recycling. InoBat has a battery R&D facility and pilot plant under development in Slovakia and is pursuing plans to build a number of gigafactories, including one in Serbia where our proposed Jadar lithium mine is located.

There is no doubt we have a long road ahead – but we are already moving forward at pace. We know we can play a critical role in partnering with our customers and suppliers, delivering value, while working together to create a more sustainable future.

Materials for a low-carbon transition

Copper is the best non-precious conductor of heat and electricity on the planet. It's found in everything from the electrical wiring in houses to renewable power sources like wind turbines.

Elysis aluminium


In a low-carbon future we'll need more and bigger batteries for electric vehicles and power grids. That means we'll need significant amounts of minerals like lithium, a key ingredient in battery technologies. Aluminium is light and strong – perfect for use in energy-efficient transportation.

Iron ore is essential too, not only for ongoing urbanisation, but also in the drive to net zero. In China, for example, around 50% of carbon emissions are attributable to buildings – 30% from construction materials like steel and cement, and the remaining 20% due to heating and cooling. With a shift to green steel you can improve building standards and reduce the intensity of emissions. By replacing reinforced concrete with green steel structures, carbon emissions in building construction can be reduced by up to 60%.

In addition, a large scale move to renewable energy will create additional demand for steel for the construction of a multitude of wind turbines and electricity infrastructure.

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