Can a heterogeneous community grant a social licence? Insights from an NZ survey on aquaculture

Mr Jim Sinner1, Mr Mark Newton1, Jaye Barclay1

1Cawthron Institute, Nelson, New Zealand


Social License to Operate (SLO) has entered the public discourse as industry, government and civil society actors contest the operations of resource-based industries. With governments referring to SLO as a necessity for investment, companies are responding with their own evidence base for SLO. Such evidence is supposed to indicate consent from ‘the community’, so it is important to understand how attributions of SLO are differentiated across the population. This is especially true in the marine environment, a commons whose communities of interest extend well beyond a single locality. In the first survey to measure marine SLO, we surveyed New Zealanders (n=86) about a specific aquaculture company and, separately (n=153), about the aquaculture industry. Respondents living near the named company assigned greater SLO than distal respondents assigned the aquaculture industry, and recreational fishers assigned greater SLO than non-fishers. Differences in SLO assignment reveal how companies could gerrymander the measurement of their social license by surveying only those likely to approve. At the same time, our findings can guide companies interested in genuine SLO and can empower concerned citizens to critique and resist inauthentic SLO claims.


Jim Sinner is a senior scientist and team leader at the Cawthron Institute in Nelson, New Zealand. Active in both marine and freshwater environments, his research interests centre on critical enquiry into environmental governance, collective management of diffuse impacts and social licence.

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