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Kell: "Sustainability makes companies more successful"

Georg Kell is the spokesperson for the Sustainability Council, which advises the Volkswagen Group’s Board of Management on topics like sustainable mobility, environmental protection and social responsibility. In an interview, he spoke about the rapid transformation of the world and about how Volkswagen can have a positive influence on that transformation.


What do you find appealing about the task of advising the Volkswagen Group on the topic of sustainability?
Our world is changing rapidly – driven by trends like digitalization and by threatening developments like climate change. Because of its 
international presence and technological strength, a company like Volkswagen has the opportunity to influence this transformation in a positive way. Along with the other members of the Sustainability Council, I want to help make use of this opportunity by promoting sustainability.

Exactly how do you define sustainability?
From the perspective of a corporation, sustainability begins with the awareness that all decisions have an influence on the environment – on employees, society or nature. From there, the second step is willingness to minimize negative consequences for the environment and maximize positive effects.

That sounds a little abstract. What topics are especially important to you?
There are many important topics – from climate change to water scarcity and species diversity to the future of work. In Germany and other OECD countries in particular, the question of meaningful employment is viewed as especially important. One big trend, which I underestimated for a long time, is digitalization. It is changing our lives in a much more radical way than we can fathom. We need to find the right answers.


GEORG KELL
is founding director of United Nations Global Compact, the world’s largest voluntary corporate sustainability initiative. He holds degrees in economics and engineering from the Technical University of Berlin and has worked as a researcher at the Fraunhofer Institute. His subsequent experience has included working as a financial analyst. He also served as Senior Officer in the Executive Office of the Secretary General of the United Nations. Since 2011, Kell has been among the “100 Most Influential in Business Ethics” every year.

How does collaboration within the Council and with the Group’s Board of Management work in practice?
The Council is made up of experts with proven experience in different aspects  
of sustainability. We meet regularly and also stay in touch between meetings. We consider our most important task to be asking the right questions and bringing up important considerations during our meetings with the Group’s Board of Management. Through this dialog, the Board of Management gets a valuable outside perspective. In addition, we are able to initiate projects. For example, a research project on the transportation and climate politics of the future has been initiated with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and we are preparing an “Open Source Lab for Sustainable Mobility” with the German Artificial Intelligence Center.

International companies are facing new challenges today, such as growing protectionist tendencies. Is sustainability getting pushed into the background?
No, on the contrary. Companies that don’t think about sustainability have little chance of success in the long run. Important growth markets are coming into being through sustainable technologies or products. For young people in particular, sustainability plays a big role in purchasing decisions. Or let’s consider the example of water, which we long regarded as a free resource with unlimited availability. Today, water is already scarce and expensive in many countries. Companies have to adapt to that.

What new sustainability requirements will international companies face in the coming years?
One important change is related to digitalization. For the first time in history, data is available and analyzable showing that sustainability makes companies more successful economically. That is leading more and more investors to invest their money in companies where social responsibility is taken seriously. I find this trend encouraging because the decisions made by investors shape corporate policies.

What responsibility does an individual have?
All of us can influence the future to a much greater extent than most people realize. For example, if we take our money to a bank to invest it in a fund, we can ask critical questions: do the fund managers take sustainability criteria into account? Are they interested in the consequences of their decisions? Or are they just looking for quick returns? If we don’t get satisfactory answers to those questions, then we can take our money with us and ask at a different financial institution. All of us have the power to decide what happens with our money – whether as investors or as consumers.

Volkswagen Sustainability Council

► was founded in October 2016 in Berlin.

► advises the Volkswagen Board of Management on questions of business ethics and integrity as well as on key questions about the future of the automotive sector, such as the transformation from car manufacturer to mobility service provider.

► Volkswagen has made 20 million euros available for the proposal and promotion of the Sustainability Council’s projects.

Prof. Dr. 
Ottmar Edenhofer,
Deputy Director 
of the Potsdam Institute 
for Climate Impact Research

Georg Krell,
Founding Director, 
UN Global Compact

Michael Sommer,
former Chair of the German Trade Union Confederation

Connie Hedegaard,
former EU Commissioner for Climate Action

Yves Leterme,
Former Prime Minister of Belgium

Elhadj As Sy,
Secretary General of the 
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

Prof. Dr. Gesche Joost,
Professor at 
Berlin University 
of the Arts

Margo T. Oge,
former 
Director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)