“Our customers expect sustainability”
Ralf Pfitzner has been the new Head of Sustainability at the Volkswagen Group since the beginning of the year. In an interview, he talks about climate protection, trust and ambitious environmental goals.
Sustainability is a comprehensive term – how would you define it?
Sustainability begins with how we make decisions. During the planning process, we must also consider ecological aspects, in addition to the economic ones. This requires being pragmatic and open for reasonable compromises. Sustainability extends far beyond just the ecological aspects – it’s a matter of human rights, integrity, social responsibility, cultural change and providing employees with opportunities for further development. All those factors contribute to sustainable economic success.
The Group strategy focuses on sustainable growth. What are the most important areas of action?
Growth must occur with the right products and services. In terms of climate protection, we want to be “part of the solution”. Crucial courses of action aimed at this are the commitment to pursuing the expansion of electromobility with Roadmap E, further investments in our modern combustion engines, the range of CNG vehicles and new mobility services such as those being developed by MOIA.
What else does the company have to offer in terms of sustainability?
The Volkswagen Group makes many positive societal contributions, which we have not systematically depicted yet. Some examples are the employment of more than 600,000 employees worldwide, training programs for young people, our enormous purchasing volume connected with the corresponding workplaces for suppliers, indirect effects along the supply chain and the fact that we ensure individual mobility for several million people. We are committed to several wonderful initiatives throughout the world – whether it be the conservation of species, promotion of disadvantaged young people or refugee assistance. There are so many different things that we can be proud of. However, the initiatives are extremely heterogeneous. In the future, we will use a corporate citizen strategy to establish even clearer priorities aimed at increasing the overall effectiveness.
What is your first step?
We want to incorporate the topic of sustainability even more firmly into our core business. In the case of climate protection, we still must do more with regard to decarbonization – in the supply chain, in terms of our own production and for our customers’ vehicles. The plans to convert the large power plants at the Wolfsburg site to an environmentally sustainable natural gas operation represents a significant step in this direction. Additional steps aimed at renewable energies are intended to follow – also because this is becoming increasingly economically worthwhile. We also have to address seemingly difficult topics such as the CO₂ efficiency of our own company cars.
How credible is the Group regarding the topic of sustainability?
Unfortunately, our credibility has noticeably suffered as a result of the diesel crisis. We want to win back this trust. On the one hand, we will focus on concrete initiatives and investments specifically aimed at sustainability. While on the other hand, we will continue the open dialogue with our stakeholders and candidly address conflicting goals in the process. This type of transparency is essential. Our actions must be credible, because this will enable us to win back some of the trust we have lost.
If we approach it the right way, sustainability is not a cost factor, but rather an investment in a viable company.
New technologies and new competitors are fundamentally changing the automotive sector. Can Volkswagen even afford the commitment to sustainability?
If we approach it the right way, sustainability is not a cost factor, but rather an investment in a viable company. In my opinion, there is also economic potential that has remained untapped thus far: Some environmental investments may not pay off in two years; however, in five years they will. We should also consider that for our internal “rules of the game”. Furthermore, the focus is always on our customers. They want to buy our products in good conscience and also expect us to operate sustainably. In addition, many fleet customers also have strict CO₂ emissions standards. In other words, we cannot afford to save on sustainability.
How does our mindset have to change in order to achieve sustainability goals?
We have to adopt a more holistic approach regarding how we think about topics, which includes placing greater importance on ecosystems. Electromobility is an excellent example: The energy and transport transition must go hand in hand in order to achieve the climate targets. Within the company, we require close collaboration without a silo mentality. Therefore, cultural change serves as an important foundation for sustainability.
What can individual employees do to contribute to a sustainable company?
There are simple things: I can turn off lamps and devices when I leave the office to go home. I can make sure that my department uses efficient processes that do not waste any resources. Furthermore, several employees are committed to volunteer work in the form of social, cultural or environmental projects. Volkswagen supports that. Sustainability poses a fantastic opportunity to identify with the company and proudly go to work.
How can you measure progress?
The Stimmungsbarometer within the company is a great way of receiving feedback from employees. Furthermore, ratings and rankings are a means of being assessed by external experts. Topics such as risk management, compliance or environmental and climate protection are becoming increasingly important for professional investors. Last but not least, we also receive valuable feedback from members of the sustainability committee who advise us as independent experts and cause us to reflect upon our overall performance. That is very valuable.
What are the key features of a sustainable company in 2025?
As one of the major automobile manufacturer, we want to contribute to finding a solution for reducing global CO₂ emissions. Working together with the cities, we want to develop new, sustainable mobility solutions – just as we are already doing in Hamburg for example. The Volkswagen Group should act as a role model for sustainability and integrity, a recognized dialogue partner for its stakeholders and be highly profitable in the process.