Coinciding with the release of symposium co-sponsor Alcantara’s fifth annual Sustainability Report, the International Symposium on Sustainability brought together leaders in the automotive field including manufacturers, NGOs, and academics from leading universities.
Staged at the prestigious Venice International University in Venice, Italy, the symposium’s purpose was to share ideas and, at times, argue salient points from varying perspectives to redefine sustainability as it impacts global welfare. Green Car Journal was in attendance to hear first-hand the divergent perspectives.
Presenters and panelists included top industry executives from Alcantara S.p.A, Audi AG, BASF Group, Formulec Co., General Motors, and PSA Peugeot Citroen. On the academic side there were directors and leaders from Aarhus University, Ca’ Foscari University’s Center for Automotive and Mobility Innovation, Ecole Politechnique de Paris, Kedge Business School, University of Lausanne, and Venice International University. The World Bank and Connect4Climate were also represented.
As a buzzword, the term ‘sustainability’ has been overused and is rarely consistently defined in standard conversation. For some it is simply a financial term used for keeping profitability high enough for production to move along at a healthy pace. For others, it is keeping product lines fresh and appealing to draw sufficient consumer interest and maintain long-term existence. Regardless of perspective or intent, today sustainability has become an initiative of strategic importance in conducting business around the world.
Throughout the course of the two-day symposium, discussion netted some solid resolutions for change in addition to opening a dialogue for future consideration. It was perhaps the conflicting perspectives that generated the most interesting results and demonstrated some of the voids between academic perspectives and practical applications by major manufacturers. This is not unique to a single symposium and, in fact, the disparity in viewpoints between automakers and academia was previously noted by Green Car Journal at its Green Car Summits on Capitol Hill in the States.
The International Symposium on Sustainability was conceived to explore three fundamental topics for better understanding the challenges that the automotive industry will face in years to come, focusing on consumer perceptions, sustainability indicators, and products technology. In addition, its goal was to explore the possible trajectories and development paths the industry could take to achieve its sustainability goals.
A belief that current products and technologies are not sustainable was a common thread in symposium discussions, even as there was recognition that much has been done in recent decades to curb the auto industry’s negative impacts. It was also recognized that not only products but also the processes implemented to produce them need to be greener, with an inclusive focus on the entire value chain and not exclusively on automakers.
No one was more outspoken about corporate infractions to the environment and supply chain worker conditions in poor countries than Professor Guido Palazzo, Director of the Strategy, Globalization, and Society Department at the University of Lausanne. Kicking the symposium into high gear right from the start, Palazzo called for major change by what he referred to as ‘global business actors.’
“We have unclear or non-existent rules of the global game, which generates a growing negative impact on multinational business activities,” said Palazzo. “There are direct political struggles between corporations and the civil society, which will ultimately create changes leading to corporate engagement in filling global regulatory gaps and self-regulation. This is a compound agenda that will not change overnight.”
Professor Palazzo shared the perspective that a ‘radical transparency’ change is long overdue with regard to production processes and the inclusion of workers and unions in formulating policies that achieve environmentally friendly production. Manufacturers do not believe that such radical change is possible if profitability – and their very own corporate sustainability – were to be maintained, said Palazzo. While there is no conflict with regard to the need to achieve carbon neutrality, he pointed to the corporate orientation as one of taking smaller steps to work towards the common good. Investing time to research supply chain policies to ensure that products are created in more environmentally responsible ways is a given as part of this.
In his presentation, Frank Figge, Professor of Sustainable Development and CSR at Kedge Business School, noted that the world is 90 percent dependent on petroleum today and this handcuffs the market to an “environmentally damaging source of power.” Indeed, there was a clear consensus among those attending that dependence on oil was the most significant hurdle.
Also supporting this was GM Director of Sustainability David Tulauskas, who said that moving away from petroleum and toward alternative sources of power is needed for vehicles, with safe and cost-effective transportation systems created to support sustainable lifestyles. He added that consumers are at the center of what automakers do and they increasingly want advanced vehicles that address this.
Thorsten Pinkepank, BASF Group Director of Corporate Sustainability Relations, shared that companies not only need to do good but need to know how to do good, pointing out that driving sustainable solutions to current challenges is both a major growth initiative and a responsibility for all.
Consumer behavior is co-determined by motivation, ability, and opportunity, said John Thøgersen of Aarhus University. He added that the gap between motivation and behavior is rooted in many causes with no magic bullets to solve this problem, and in fact a wide range of techniques are needed to facilitate willing participation and make ‘sustainable choice’ the easy choice for consumers. According to Thogersen, energy labels like those indicating fuel economy and CO2 emissions on new cars can be effective tools for change, but improvements in the clarity of labeling and education of consumers is still warranted.
Alcantara Business Development Leader Eugenio Lolli shared that his company was pushed on creating quality product by its Japanese competition. But he also noted it was the edict laid down by management to achieve 100 percent sustainability that allowed Alcantara to reach its goals, with this sustainability not only achieved through the production of materials but also with suppliers through self-assessment and audits.
“We need to improve the quality of our lives and modify the way we use our cars,” stated Andrea Boragno, CEO and Chairman of Alcantara as he summarized how the nature of the car is changing. His conclusion was that we need to push for a better understanding and sharing of sustainability technology to achieve the goals and standards being set for manufacturing and consumer goods.
Simply stated, current products and technologies are not sustainable, although much has been done in recent decades to curb the negative impacts of the industry. Importantly, not only products but also the processes implemented to produce them need to be greener, with specific focus on the entire value chain and not only on carmakers.
According to Professor Palazzo, the challenge can be summarized by the following: The way we produce products in the world is not sustainable at the current rate. Even if a company ‘greens up’ its supply chain, that may not be enough to have an impact on a company’s sustainability. There is current concern for the ability to market ‘green’ initiatives on their own. Importantly, there is a need to understand that change is required by those running corporations today. He also added that consumers have routines that are deeply entrenched, thus there is a duty to educate the consumer and transform their mindset for sustainable product creation and a preference for companies that have sustainable production.
Concluded Professor Palazzo: “We cannot continue at our current mode for two billion cars. It is unrealistic. We need a different system…the current one makes us sick. We need to change the way we live today.”