In September 2016 Volkswagen appointed an independent Sustainability Council to advise the company on issues such as environmental protection, integrity and the future of work.
The Council is now entering a new two-year mandate. In an interview, Council spokesman Georg Kell explains where he sees a need to catch up and what he expects from Volkswagen. Kell is founding director of the United Nations Global Compact, the largest voluntary sustainability initiative of companies.
Four years on the Sustainability Council – how do you assess the results?
Surprisingly positive. When we accepted the mandate at the height of the diesel crisis, things looked pretty bleak. Each day a new bad piece of news. But crises are also always an opportunity for regeneration. We made three demands right from the start. First: a rapid technological change towards e-mobility. Second: a corporate policy that actively supports environmental protection and sees decarbonization as a strategic element. Third: a cultural change to less hierarchy and more agility. It can now be said that Volkswagen has become a leading driver of e-mobility. Also very positive: the policy change. The beginning was difficult, the legacy outweighed. But in the past two years, this has changed with topics such as decarbonization or green energy. We cannot yet pass judgment on cultural change because the Council itself has done little about it. We’ve built a very good working relationship with Monitor Larry Thompson and have been mutually supportive.
How much has the Sustainability Council contributed to the change?
We have clearly articulated the three demands mentioned and discussed them many times with the Executive Board. This was not necessarily harmonious at first – there was a lot of resistance. In the course of time, this has changed. I think we have certainly played a supportive role.
Is the company changing fast enough?
We would have wished for the first E-Cars sooner – a year, if not two ago. Overall, we are relatively satisfied. Among the major automakers, Volkswagen is the first company to roll out electromobility in this way and is determined to catch up with Tesla. Especially under Herbert Diess, who is very impatient and places great value on speed. We support this – we would like to keep up the pace.
You say: The discussions were not always harmonious. What was the struggle regarding?
At the beginning, for example, it was questioned whether electric cars are really better for the environment than efficient gasoline engines. We took a proactive approach and also initiated studies with renowned scientists to prove that e-mobility already makes a positive contribution to the current European electricity mix. Another major topic was the social consequences of the transition.
What are you personally satisfied with – and dissatisfied with?
The major strategic goals were achieved. Sustainability is now firmly anchored within the management level and recognized as an important strategic orientation measure. I am very satisfied with this. The problems are more likely to be in implementation – management is working partly according to old patterns of thought. Overcoming this resistance is a major challenge. Cooperation within the company is still too hierarchical and too complex.
What do you expect from the new mandate?
We will first discuss our strategic goals in the Sustainability Council. I assume that there are two main starting points. Internally: Where can we achieve more in terms of governance and corporate culture? How can we make decarbonization quantifiable with quantitative control variables? Externally, it is becoming increasingly important to improve the framework conditions for the transformation to e-mobility. This includes the pricing of CO2 as well as special technical regulations. The transformation at Volkswagen is fundamental for the German and European economy. It is important to me that Volkswagen rediscovers itself and moves forward. The best thing Volkswagen can do for climate protection is to assume a pioneering role and show that it can be done.