Mercedes-Benz is committed to respecting and safeguarding human rights – in its own Group companies and among suppliers throughout the value creation chain. How far can this commitment reach in the light of complex automotive value creation chains? And how can social improvements arise from this commitment? A conversation with Marc-André Bürgel, Head of Social Compliance Program, and Elisabeth Viebig, Head of Team Corporate Citizenship & Memberships.
Mercedes-Benz Group AG
Mercedes-Benz Group AG
Mr Bürgel, from the vantage point of your position, let's look at the start of the supply chain, where there is often a high risk that human and employee rights might be abused. To what extent can and must Mercedes-Benz ensure that this doesn't happen?
Marc-André Bürgel: It's a fact that risks to human rights are often the most severe where we have the least influence, namely in the mines and mining areas at the start of the supply chain. This is where we're unable to impose our standards directly, as we normally don't procure raw materials ourselves. Nonetheless, we make intensive efforts to exert a positive influence at this level too. For example, by requiring our direct suppliers to take account of our "Responsible Sourcing Standards" and to impose our requirements for the protection of human rights on their own suppliers. Moreover, our procurement departments make compliance with ambitious mining standards a precondition for contract placement. In addition, we gain our own impression of the situation in mining areas on a risk assessment basis. In 2022, 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 of our own volition. It also needs to be said that no company has yet "finished off" its duty of care processes with respect to human rights. We too are continuously looking to improve our activities in this respect. Looking at the supply chain in its entirety, there will always be residual risks despite the greatest efforts and systematic supply chain management. We will achieve most if we try to improve the situation of the people affected together with our suppliers and partners.
Ms Viebig, what's your perspective on this? What responsibilities does Mercedes-Benz have when it comes to protecting human rights, but also to furthering the global development goal of equal opportunities with regard to prosperity, education and participation?
Elisabeth Viebig: My answer to this question is intentionally in terms of our social responsibility and not from a corporate point of view, because there too, we as an employer and responsible business partner also subscribe to social sustainability goals. At Corporate Citizenship, we work on a topic-specific basis alongside our core business to reinforce the sustainability measures of our company while proactively seeking to create added value for society. In addition to sustainable environmental protection and disaster relief and prevention, the aim of our commitment is to strengthen social cohesion. This includes activities in the areas of human rights, educational opportunity, social participation and diversity. Our aim is to make a valid contribution in all these areas through our voluntary commitment.
How do you try to meet this commitment?
Elisabeth Viebig: Our work is very diverse. For example, we support a new incentive programme named "beVisioneers: The Mercedes-Benz Fellowship" with donations. This is a global initiative by the non-profit "The DO School Fellowships gGmbH". The aim 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 cooperation 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's not enough to combat child labour – we need to address the causes, which are poverty and social disintegration. And we need to create alternative means of subsistence. In the Congo, for example, many years of war have led to a lack of agricultural know-how. This knowledge has to be recreated. Moreover, many mine workers don't know that as well as obligations they also have rights, for example the right to education.
Marc-André Bürgel: It's important to understand that social and environmental risks can vary greatly depending on the raw material and country of origin. Cobalt mining in the Congo carries different human rights risks from lithium mining in the Atacama desert, and the supply chains are different too. Transparency is the first important step in this respect, but is not an end in itself. We need it to identify the major risks along our value creation chain and reduce them by means of suitable measures. In our raw materials assessment, we've identified 24 potentially critical raw materials for which we develop and implement material-specific measures. We report on this in our Raw Materials Report, which we published for the first time in 2022. Incidentally, transparency also means saying so quite frankly if we have not yet progressed as far as we want to in the medium to long term. We hope that especially where the systemic challenges in some regions are concerned, we'll achieve more with industry-wide solutions in the future.
Human rights experts complain that too little attention is given to those actually affected. What’s your opinion? What is Mercedes-Benz doing to encourage a dialogue?
Marc-André Bürgel: In my view it's fundamentally important not just to talk about those affected, but to talk to them. We can certainly improve in this respect, but we're doing a great deal. For example, last year we conducted the 15th Sustainability Dialogue, where we discussed how we can develop our human rights protection measures further in a separate working group with external human rights experts and non-governmental organisations. One of the key topics was how to involve those affected more strongly in the dialogue. We've created a new core group of external stakeholders with whom we continue a dialogue. We also seek to make contact 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 both of you. Mercedes-Benz aims to be fully electric by 2030 – wherever market conditions allow. This is an important step towards balance sheet carbon-neutrality. What might be a similarly ambitious social sustainability goal?
Elisabeth Viebig: I think it would be ambitious for us link the resources available to us for our Corporate Citizenship commitment to key financial figures, so that a certain percentage of our corporate profit goes to social projects, for example. However, I think this would need to go hand in hand with systematic measurement of effectiveness, and reporting of our voluntary activities, so it shows the impact of our work on social sustainability.
Marc-André Bürgel: I agree that this is an important aspect. We need to show as clearly as possible what effect our activities for the furtherance of human and employees rights are having. My goal would also be for us to make our "social footprint" more transparent. In the long term I'd like to see all those involved in the creation of a vehicle – from the mine to the finished Mercedes – receiving a fair share of the value created. Every individual should be proud of being involved in the creation of these high-quality vehicles, and be able to live well on the work contributed.
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.
is Head of the team Corporate Citizenship & Memberships at Mercedes-Benz Group. The name of this unit reflects the variety she so enjoys as an educational scientist. Long-term support programmes are developed together with project partners and given measurable goals. As not every approach immediately leads to goal achievement, regular dialogue is essential.