They are the trend indicator when it comes to current developments in sustainability, whether they be regulatory, social or technological. They combine the external requirements that the Group has to meet with its internal goals and business strategy. In addition, they advise and support the specialist units in considering sustainability aspects within their work. Nicole Susann Roschker directs sustainability management at the Sustainability Competence Office in cooperation with the Corporate Environmental Protection department, while Dr Wolfram Heger is responsible for Stakeholder Management at the Mercedes-Benz Group. In the following interview, they talk about the modus vivendi with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the value of materiality analysis and the limits of corporate influence.
Ms Roschker, Dr Heger, what are the most important sustainability topics for the future of the automotive industry that you and the stakeholders have to keep an eye on?
Dr Wolfram Heger (WH): The priorities are manifold – starting from environmental protection, human rights and responsible supply chains to issues of social cohesion. In the future, we will address these issues even more strongly on the societal level than before. This means that we will look into what causes, social interdependencies and possible solutions exist in these areas.
Nicole Susann Roschker (NSR): In addition to human rights and climate protection, one of the top issues for the Mercedes-Benz Group is resource conservation. We can’t address climate change and resource use separately from the question of social justice. This is demonstrated, for example, by current regulatory developments such as Germany’s Supply Chain Act. Making a supply chain sustainable requires far more than just respecting human rights. Social and environmental aspects have to be addressed holistically and risks have to be avoided or limited along the entire value chain — from the raw material sources all the way to recycling. This will also be reflected in the statutory requirements that we expect the EU to introduce in 2022. In addition, we have to meet the expectations of investors, who are increasingly focussing on ESG¹ factors as well.
You ask internal and external stakeholders to contribute to the materiality analysis that is used for weighting sustainability topics. What role do the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) play in this context?
NSR: A very decisive one. As corporate citizens, companies are part of society and their activities have a positive or negative impact on its sustainability goals. We have therefore evaluated the effects that our business activities have on the SDGs (SDG impact analysis). Our cooperation with partners from the business community, society and government creates impulses far beyond our product that have an impact on society. Among our partners are companies, think tanks, universities and municipalities; each of these collaborations makes a contribution. At the same time, we examine how we can improve, for example in the supply chain or at our plants. We continue to work with the insights gained.
¹The abbreviation ESG stands for Environment, Social and Governance. The non-financial ESG criteria are used to assess investments and business practices.
Are there any aspects that evolved to an especially great extent in 2021?
NSR: Yes, the much more ambitious electrification targets of our Ambition 2039 in the car sector, according to which we want to make the whole value chain of our new car fleet CO2-neutral by 2039. Last year, we further reinforced this goal by taking the strategic step from “electric-first” to “electric-only”. In addition to a number of other factors, the results of the materiality analysis contributed to the company’s decision to switch to battery-electric drive systems by the end of this decade, wherever the market conditions allow. External and internal stakeholders classified climate protection as the most relevant area of action.
WH: I want to emphasize that we’ve been working on these goals for quite some time. I think our continuous and longstanding stakeholder dialogue with civil society and the Advisory Board for Sustainability and Integrity has contributed to the fact that today we have a Human Rights Respect System, effective data protection, Ambition 2039 and our electric-only approach.
Why is the external viewpoint so important for the analysis?
WH: External experts, such as those from non-governmental organisations and our Advisory Board, provide us with very frank ‘food for thought’ and contribute their specific expertise to the further development of our strategy and operational processes. With the aim of making progress on these issues, we organize the Sustainability Dialogue, in which the external experts voice their positions, express criticisms and expectations of Mercedes-Benz very clearly. And that's how it should be, because they continuously help us to determine what we can improve. This makes our stakeholders indispensable sparring partners and I expect them to become even more important in the future.
NSR: This trend is also evident in the fact that our Advisory Board is regularly consulted in between board meetings on a wide range of specialist issues. We greatly appreciate this dialogue because the discussions with external experts, who bring a different perspective, help us to make considerable progress.
What role did NGOs play in the materiality analysis?
NSR: NGOs are a key stakeholder group that contribute to all four components of the analysis: the desk analysis, the SDG impact analysis, the stakeholder surveys and the interviews with experts. The NGOs are driving many developments, including legislation.
When NGOs make demands or suggestions, how do you incorporate them into your strategy and processes?
NSR: The materiality analysis underpins our strategy process. For every topic that our stakeholders mention in the analysis, we conduct an in-depth analysis that addresses the risks, opportunities and key trends. We ask ourselves how to address a given topic at the company in the best manner. We not only present our analysis in the Group Sustainability Board, but also prepare the findings for all of the departments and interdisciplinary working groups in our strategic areas of action. In this way, the results of the materiality analysis contribute to the further development of our strategy. We then derive operational measures and use performance indicators to assess the results.
WH: A practical example of this is our Human Rights Respect System, which we have repeatedly mirrored in cooperation with external stakeholders over many years. In doing so, we take up suggestions and discuss dilemma situations, but also sharpen processes and KPIs and adjust them. We haven’t adopted every idea, but very many — because they are helpful and we have a common objective in mind. So, this dialogue is extremely important to us.
That sounds like a trustworthy working relationship.
WH: Absolutely. That wasn’t always the case. However, the regular discussions, including those conducted during 14 years of Sustainability Dialogues, have gradually led to the growth of a trusting relationship. As a result, today we have a good relationship with almost all stakeholder representatives, given that they are interested in a constructive dialogue. There is a certain modus vivendi, which is based on reliability, trust and mutual respect. This enables us to address critical topics and jointly deliberate them. Incidentally, honest dialogue also includes pointing out the limits of our corporate influence.
At the same time, you, as a company, use national and international mandates in order to present your positions to governments.
WH: That isn’t a contradiction — on the contrary. The regulatory framework is established by the political institutions that are legitimately entitled to do so. Together with other stakeholders, we can present our positions via mandates such as those of the UN Global Compact, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and econsense. In this way, it is perfectly legitimate to demonstrate towards politics what we can realistically achieve.
Let’s get back to the materiality analysis: where has a stimulus led to a concrete strategy?
NSR: Our focus on resource conservation, for example, can be traced back to the analysis. We held intensive discussions with the Procurement unit in order to determine to what extent we should set corresponding goals for our suppliers. How we could cooperate with them to greatly improve resource conservation and climate protection along the entire value chain was also part of the discussions. This also includes checking whether the Supplier Sustainability Standards are still sufficiently ambitious and continuously developing them further.
Do you also see your in-house role as explaining stakeholder interests to others?
WH: We see our role as translating society’s current expectations for our company. However, we also see ourselves as a source of information and impulses for future sustainability developments. For example, we provide specialist units with advice on how they can plan and shape their measures. Like sustainability as a whole, this task isn’t a sprint, but rather a marathon.
NSR: We bring internal and external viewpoints together when we pass on what we hear in discussions with our stakeholders to the various specialists at our company.
In 2021 you held the 14th Daimler Sustainability Dialogue with stakeholders. This was the last such dialogue to date. Will this format be continued in 2022?
WH: Definitely. We are constantly developing the content of the dialogue and are also planning an anchor event in 2022. We are currently developing the details — and we’re also considering additional smaller dialogue formats and discussions on special topics. Above all, it is important to be in continuous exchange. We will continue to do everything in our power to contribute to the sustainable orientation of the company in dialogue with our stakeholders.
Dr Wolfram Heger
is responsible for external stakeholder management, including the Sustainability Dialogue and supporting mandates, for example in matters involving the UN Global Compact at Mercedes-Benz Group AG. His team channels external momentum onwards internally and addresses future sustainability topics. He has been with the company since 1998. Before then, he studied economics and politics and received his doctorate for his work on value-oriented internal communication.
Nicole Susann Roschker
mainly looks after the development of strategy and governance for sustainability as well as the area of sustainable finance at Mercedes-Benz Group AG. She is currently carrying out a new materiality analysis. Together with her colleagues from Corporate Environmental Protection, Roschker is responsible with her team for the Sustainability Competence Office, the working body of the Group Sustainability Board. She successfully completed her MBA in Sustainability Management at the Leuphana Professional School in Lüneburg in 2012 and has been active in the field for many years.
Find this and other articles in our Sustainability Report 2021.