Posted on 02 March 2020

Words matter when it comes to social licence

The term ‘social licence to operate’ (SLO) implies that communities have the power to grant or withhold approval for marine businesses, but new research suggests otherwise.

Researchers from the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge studied how the term SLO is being used in relation to commercial activities in New Zealand’s marine environment; and the implications for power relations between government, industry, iwi, communities and the wider public.

The team analysed the sentence structure and verb choices of almost 100 relevant documents that mention SLO in relation to fishing, aquaculture, oil and gas, mining and other marine industries in New Zealand.

“We found that industry and government voices are more prominent in the conversation about SLO. They frequently state or imply that industry already has social licence and just needs to maintain or improve it, often without reference to iwi or communities,” says Mark Newton, lead author of the study and social ecologist at Cawthron Institute.

The result is that the language used to discuss SLO can disempower the communities that the term is meant to empower.

“The irony is that it’s often the more progressive companies trying to do the right thing with these discussions, but the outcome may end up being the opposite of what they intend. Changing their wording to more explicitly acknowledge the role of iwi and communities could make a difference, and lead to stronger relationships with greater acceptance and trust,” says Mark.

The study also found SLO is often talked about but there is no common or agreed definition of the term. This is not unexpected – the term SLO originated in the 1990s from the Canadian and Australian mining industries. It first appeared in relation to New Zealand’s marine industries in 2008. As with any emerging term, different groups or people using the term can result in multiple definitions. This becomes a problem if those defining it are perceived as doing so in a way that furthers their own interests.

“Perception is important, and so is shared understanding,” says Jim Sinner, a senior scientist at Cawthron and the Project Leader. “Having different definitions of a term often leads to conflict between those using it. Ideally, the people and groups in New Zealand who use SLO in the marine environment should debate and agree a common definition to ensure a shared understanding of what social licence really means.”

Notes for editors
  • Newton MJ, Farrelly TA and Sinner J (2020) Discourse, agency, and social license to operate in New Zealand’s marine economy. Ecology and Society 25, (1):2. DOI: 10.5751/ES-11304-250102
  • Research summary poster: Dissecting the discourse of social licence to operate
  • About the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge – The vision of Sustainable Seas is for Aotearoa New Zealand to have healthy marine ecosystems that provide value for all New Zealanders. It brings together scientists, social scientists, economists, and experts in mātauranga Māori and policy. It is funded by MBIE and hosted by NIWA. 
    sustainableseaschallenge.co.nz | Twitter @Sust_SeasNZ | Facebook SustainableSeasNZ

  • About the National Science Challenges – Sustainable Seas is one of 11 National Science Challenges. These align and focus Aotearoa New Zealand’s research on large and complex issues, bringing together scientists and experts from different organisations and across disciplines to achieve a common goal.

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We investigated the use of the term ‘social licence’ in Aotearoa New Zealand and what factors influence social licence.

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