Distributing opportunities and risks more fairly.

Mercedes-Benz is committed to respecting and upholding human rights – in its own Group companies and among suppliers throughout the value chain. How far does this commitment extend in the face of complex automotive value chains? And how can lasting social improvements arise from this commitment? A conversation with Marc-André Bürgel, Head of Social Compliance Department, and Elisabeth Viebig, Head of Corporate Citizenship & Memberships.

Mr Bürgel, please take a look from your position at the beginning of the supply chain, where there is often a high risk of human and labour rights violations. In what ways can and must Mercedes-Benz ensure that this does not happen?

Marc-André Bürgel: It is indeed the case that human rights risks are often the most severe where we have the least influence, namely in the mines and extraction areas at the start of the supply chains. Here, we lack direct control because we normally do not source raw materials ourselves. Nonetheless, we are intensely committed to exerting a positive influence at this level as well. For example, by requiring our direct suppliers to comply with our Responsible Sourcing Standards and to impose our requirements for the protection of human rights on their own suppliers. But also by making ambitious mining standards a prerequisite for awarding contracts in our procurement. In addition, we obtain our own risk-based impression of the situation in mining areas. In 2022, for example, our colleagues visited the Democratic Republic of Congo to inspect cobalt mines. At the same time, we can also exert a certain influence from Germany by developing and implementing corresponding processes and measures aimed at safeguarding human rights. We started doing this at an early stage, and on our own initiative. It also needs to be said that no company is ever "completely finished" with its human rights due diligence processes. We too are continuously improving our activities in this respect. Looking at the supply chain in its entirety, there will always be residual risks even with great efforts and systematic supply chain management. We will achieve the most when we try to improve the situation of the people affected together with our suppliers and partners.

Ms Viebig, what is your perspective on this? What responsibilities does Mercedes-Benz have when it comes to protecting human rights, but also promoting equal opportunities in terms of prosperity, education and participation in line with the global development goals?

Elisabeth Viebig: I am deliberately answering this question in the context of our social responsibility, rather than from a corporate perspective, because, as an employer and responsible business partner, we also contribute to global social sustainability goals. At Corporate Citizenship, we work on a topic-specific basis and complement the Group’s core business with sustainability measures, while also proactively creating value for society. In addition to sustainable environmental protection and disaster relief and prevention, our commitment also aims to strengthen social cohesion. This includes activities in the areas of human rights, educational equity, social participation and diversity. Our aim is to make a valid contribution in all these areas through our voluntary commitment.

How do you fulfil this commitment?

Elisabeth Viebig: Our work is very diverse. For example, we support a new programme named "beVisioneers: The Mercedes-Benz Fellowship" with donations. This is a global initiative of the non-profit "The Do School Fellowships gGmbH". The goal is to encourage and empower young people to drive forward specific projects in the area of ecological sustainability. The funds for this programme come from the auctioning of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR Uhlenhaut Coupé, a collector's item from the Mercedes-Benz Classic Collection. Another long-term commitment is our collaboration with local aid organisations, for example Bon Pasteur or Terre des Hommes. Together with these NGOs, we carry out projects to address systemic human rights violations at the start of the supply chain. To put it simply, it is not enough to combat child labour – we need to address the root causes, such as poverty and social disintegration. We also need to create alternative livelihoods. In Congo, for example, many years of war have led to a lack of agricultural know-how. This knowledge must be rebuilt. Many mineworkers are also not aware that they have not only obligations, but also rights, such as the right to education.

Marc-André Bürgel: It is important to understand that social and environmental risks vary greatly depending on the raw material and country of origin. Cobalt mining in Congo carries different human rights risks compared to lithium mining in the Atacama Desert, and the supply chains are different too. Transparency is an important first step here, but it is not an end in itself. We need it to identify the major risks along our value chain and reduce them by means of suitable measures. In our raw materials assessment, we have identified 24 potentially critical raw materials for which we derive and implement material-specific measures. We report on this in our Raw Materials Report, which we first published in 2022. For us, transparency also means openly stating where we have not yet progressed as far as we want to in the medium or long term. We hope that we can achieve more, especially with systemic challenges in some regions, through industry-wide solutions in the future.

Human rights experts complain that too little attention is given to those actually affected. What is your opinion? What is Mercedes-Benz doing to encourage a dialogue?

Marc-André Bürgel: In my view, it is fundamentally important not just to talk about those affected, but to talk to them. We can certainly do better in this regard, but we are already doing a great deal. Last year, for example, we we discussed on our Sustainability Dialogue with external human rights experts and non-governmental organisations in separate working groups how we can further develop our human rights protection measures. One of the key topics was how to involve those affected even more in the dialogue. We have established a new core group of external stakeholders with whom we exchange ideas. We also seek to engage with the people affected in our supply chains. For example, together with the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA), we have promoted an approach to create better participation opportunities in audit processes for the local population in mining areas.

A final question for the both of you. Mercedes-Benz aims to be fully electric by 2030 – wherever market conditions permit. This is an important step towards CO₂-neutrality along the entire value chain in the new vehicle fleet, partly including offsets. What would be a similarly ambitious social sustainability goal?

Elisabeth Viebig: I think it would be ambitious to link the resources available for our Corporate Citizenship engagement to key financial figures, so that, for example, a certain percentage of the Group’s profit flows into social projects annually. However, this should go hand in hand with a consistent impact assessment and reporting of our voluntary activities, so that it is clearly visible how our work contributes to social sustainability.

Marc-André Bürgel: I agree that this is an important aspect. We need to demonstrate as concretely as possible, what our activities are achieving in terms of strengthening human and labour rights. My goal would also be to make our "social footprint" even more transparent. In the long term, I would like to see all those involved in the production of a vehicle – from the mine to the finished Mercedes – receive a fair share of the value created. Every individual should be proud to have contributed to the creation of these high-quality vehicles and be able to make a good living from their work.

Ms Viebig, Mr Bürgel, many thanks for this conversation.

Marc-André Bürgel is Head of the department for Social Compliance formed in 2019 and has been Deputy Human Rights Officer of Mercedes-Benz Group since 1 January 2023. He has concerned himself with the subject of human rights for many years. As a young adult in a township in South Africa, he became very aware of the importance of social justice. Today, he and his team at Mercedes-Benz work on translating the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into Group-specific strategies and processes, and applying these worldwide.
Elisabeth Viebig is Head of the team Corporate Citizenship & Memberships at Mercedes-Benz Group. The name of this unit reflects the variety she so enjoys. Viebig, who holds a diploma in education, states that it is very important for long-term support programmes to be developed with project partners and to be given measurable goals. As not every approach immediately leads to goal achievement, regular dialogue is essential.