The forest industry’s social licence requires proactive effort and investment

In this edition of Scion Connections we feature several examples of research related to the forest industry’s social licence to operate. Securing and keeping a social licence to operate takes dedicated effort and engagement with local communities, iwi and the wider public.

Those that set legislation, sign-up to international conventions and administer regional and district plans are key stakeholders too because they prescribe many of the parameters within which social licence is to be achieved.

‘Social licence’ generally refers to a local community’s acceptance or approval of a company’s project or ongoing presence in an area1. It is a prerequisite to the use of many technologies and implementation of economic development initiatives. Securing and maintaining a social licence occurs both outside of and as part of formal permitting or regulatory processes. Indeed, experience shows this work needs to be frontfooted in good faith with communities and iwi before formal submissions are made, hearings occur or technologies are used in the field. Building mutual understanding and trust – or social capital - by researchers and industry requires plenty of time for dialogue, active listening and responding to queries and concerns.

The forest industry has a wide range of ‘live’ social licence challenges. These challenges include the ability to use genetic modification and new breeding technologies, the application of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to forest management, the health and safety of forestry workers, sediment and log ‘trash’ entering waterways after harvesting, the legality of logs entering supply chains, the use of chemicals such as herbicides for forest weed control, methyl bromide for log fumigation and Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA) for wood preservation, and building standards.

Not surprisingly, Scion has considerable research dedicated to understanding the factors influencing (and likely to influence) community and key stakeholders’ perception and acceptance of technologies and practices such as those given above.

The significance and degree of difficulty in securing and retaining social licence is growing. In a recent address to the Association of Scientists entitled Trusting the scientist2, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Professor Sir Peter Gluckman expounded on some of the reasons why this is so for science:

We live in what is sometimes called a post-trust society … With today’s almost boundless access to news about science, claims and counterclaims can be confusing. Trust in science can be undermined by seeing too many breakthroughs debunked, too many conflicting arguments and sadly too many stories about bad science and scientific misconduct. Yet on the other hand, there has never been a more vocal public call for, and need for, active scientific expertise in addressing societal challenges, developing societal consensus and creating good public policy.

The need for trust and verification of performance applies equally to businesses and industry sectors. It is manifested in the increasing need for traceability in supply chains, third party certification of management practices, and tighter market access protocols. Addressing social licence adds cost, occasionally generates better margins and assures the right to participate. However, left unattended or only partially addressed, social licence issues quickly become very expensive to rectify as dairy farmers and oil and gas drillers are discovering; and the forest industry is experiencing with new genetic technologies and remedying public mistrust of building standards following problems with leaky homes.

Paradoxically funding for social licence research remains limited and tough to secure, whether from government or business. The new funding ($2.2 million) announced in Budget 2015 to provide additional support to the Science in Society initiative “A Nation of Curious Minds – He Whenua Hihiri i te Mahara” is welcome but not sufficient to effectively address matters such as those I have listed above. Industry will need to do more too.

As always your feedback and comments to me on social licence to operate or to the person listed under any of the topics in this edition of Scion Connections is most welcome.


Warren ParkerWarren Parker

Dr Warren Parker
Chief Executive

1 Owen, J., Kemp, D. (2013). Social licence and mining: A critical perspective. Resources Policy, 38(10), 29-35; accessed at, 27 May 2015.
2 Gluckman, P. (2015). Trusting the scientist. Accessed at, 27 May 2015.