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Interview with Georg Kell

“Sustainability makes companies more successful”

Since the end of October, Georg Kell has been a spokesperson for the Sustainability Council, which advises the Board of Management of the Volkswagen Group on topics such as sustainable mobility, environmental protection and social responsibility. Kell is the Founding Director of the United Nations Global Compact, the world’s largest voluntary corporate sustainability initiative. In the interview, he talks about the challenges of the coming years and the responsibility of the individual.

What excites you about the task of advising the Volkswagen Group on sustainability?

Our world is rapidly changing – driven by trends such as digitalization and threatening developments such as climate change. A company like Volkswagen has the opportunity to positively influence this change through its international presence and its technological strength. With the other members of the Sustainability Council, I want to help to use this opportunity in favor of sustainability.

What exactly do you mean by sustainability?

From the perspective of a company, sustainability begins with the awareness that all decisions have an influence on the environment, on employees, society or nature. This leads to the second step of being willing to minimize negative consequences for the outside world and maximize positive effects.

That sounds somewhat abstract. Which topics are you particularly interested in?

There are many important issues – from climate change, water scarcity and biodiversity to the future of work. Especially in Germany and other countries of the OECD, the question of meaningful employment is considered to be particularly important. A major trend that I have long underestimated is digitalization. It’s changing our lives much more radically than we could imagine. We must find the right answers to this.

How does the practical cooperation work within the Council and with the Board of Management?

The Council is made up of experts recognized for various aspects of sustainability. We meet regularly and are also in touch between meetings. We see our most important task as asking the right questions at our meetings with the Board of Management and putting forward arguments. Through this dialog, the members of the board get a valuable view from the outside. In addition, we have our own budget of 20 million euros to support projects.

“From the perspective of a company, sustainability begins with the awareness that all decisions have an influence on the environment, on employees, society or nature.”

International companies are faced with new challenges such as the strengthening of protectionism. Will sustainability be pushed into the background?

No, on the contrary. Anyone who doesn’t care about sustainability will have little success in the long term. Important growth markets are created through sustainable technologies or products. For many young people in particular, sustainability plays an important role in their purchasing decisions. Or take the example of water: For a long time, we have considered it as a free commodity, which is available in any quantity. But water is already scarce and expensive in many countries today. Companies have to adapt to this.

What are the new sustainability requirements for international companies in the coming years?

An important change is related to digitalization. For the first time in history, data is available – and can be evaluated – that shows: sustainability makes companies more successful economically. This means that more and more investors are putting their money where social responsibility is taken seriously. I am heartened by this trend, because the decisions of capital investors shape the policy of companies.

What is the responsibility of the individual?

We can all influence the future much more than most people are aware of. For example, if we bring our money to the bank to invest it in a fund, then 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 a quick return? If we don’t get a satisfactory answer, we can take our money with us and make inquiries at another financial institution. We all have the power to decide what happens with our money – whether as a saver or a consumer.