In its “WEffect” sustainability series, the BMW Group highlights how different people at the company contribute to sustainability – and what motivates them. Today: Dr Christoph Klahold.
There are many different aspects to sustainability at the BMW Group, which is about finding the right balance between business, environment and society. To meet our high expectations, we need committed employees. Everyone can play a part in making the BMW Group more sustainable.
Who are all these colleagues realising sustainability in their everyday working lives? What drives them to take concrete action all across the company? In the “WEffect” sustainability series, the BMW Group will be introducing associates who contribute to diverse and responsible further development of our company every day.
In this edition, Dr Christoph Klahold, Chief Compliance Officer and Human Rights Officer of the BMW Group, talks about the growing awareness among international partners, the “Cobalt for Development” initiative and how to make a positive impact.
Dr Klahold, Human Rights Day will be celebrated worldwide on 10 December 2022. The term human rights is widely used in different contexts – and, although it sounds pretty concrete, it is quite a complex idea. Can you explain it for us in simple terms?
Christoph Klahold: It’s true that human rights is a very broad concept. At its core, it’s about global fundamental rights that apply to every human being, no matter where and how they live. If I were explaining it to a child, I would say: It's about the things you shouldn't take away or withhold from anyone who lives on this earth – for example, the right to life, freedom and education, such as school. Or the right to earn a wage for work and free choice of occupation. It follows from these rights that child labour is also a violation of human rights, as is forced labour, or even slavery. Of course, the closer you look, the more detailed it gets. But at their core, these are the same fundamental rights all over the world, which the United Nations formulated back in 1948 after the end of the Second World War.
And have remained as important – if not more so – to this day. You’ve worked in compliance for the past 20 years or so. According to the dictionary, compliance simply refers to ethically correct behaviour in accordance with guidelines or regulations. Human rights compliance is necessarily a part of that. You’ve been the BMW Group’s Human Rights Officer for a year now. What does that mean exactly?
Klahold: First of all, compliant behaviour and respect for human rights are extremely important to the BMW Group and have been our accepted standard for a long time. We take responsibility for our own company, in the dealer organisation and in the supply chain. The topic has become more of a focus right now, due to new legal requirements and other factors – but respect for human rights is not a one-time thing. We have to work at it all the time. That’s why our Board of Management appointed a Human Rights Officer.
From a purely operational standpoint, the BMW Group is already in a very good position. We have assigned clear roles, with functioning mechanisms in place to ensure respect for human rights, including at our suppliers and in the retail chain. That’s why my job is more about discussing issues with the Board of Management, communication and ongoing dialogue with associates and partners. I raise awareness of critical issues. I explain what is going on and motivate people to get involved. Respect for human rights concerns us all, there are no distinctions.
There’s another aspect: We build state-of-the-art vehicles, so our supply chain is highly complex; in fact, it’s more of a supply network. New questions are always popping up in this network. For example: Where does the cotton yarn used to stitch steering wheel coverings come from? Is everything done by the book? We have to be able to answer these questions. In particularly critical areas, we actively avoid risk by sourcing raw materials ourselves. For example, we source cobalt directly from responsible mining to have full transparency on its origin. We then pass the cobalt on to our cell suppliers. At the same time, we are involved in the Congo, for example, an important mining area for cobalt, but one that is often associated with child labour. In January 2019 we launched the Cobalt for Development aiming at sustainably improving artisanal mining working conditions as well as living conditions for surrounding communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Of course, this consistent approach to human rights also protects the BMW Group – because our customers also pay a lot of attention to sustainability. We have rightly earned a good reputation – and we intend to keep it.
That’s the corporate side, but what are your personal reasons for advocating for human rights?
Klahold: I’ve been to a lot of different places during my career. I was in China, India and the Middle East. I’ve seen people of all ages doing physical labour in 40-degree heat, under the scorching sun. Moments like that make you realise that respect for human rights is not at the same level everywhere. Today, I’m able to address these issues with our partners and give them an impetus. That’s precisely what motivates me: I can set things in motion and contribute to change for the better in a very important area.
You just mentioned China and India, where the BMW Group also has its own plants: How openly are you able to discuss respect for human rights with your international colleagues?
Klahold: Our plants and partners in the international markets are very familiar with our BMW standards – but I also see a much greater awareness of the issues that goes beyond that. There’s a consensus that fundamental human rights must be observed. That means we can talk about anything; there are no taboos.
But we shouldn’t take our standard for granted, especially when the other country is still at a different level. We also have to be careful that implementation doesn’t create so much red tape our partners get overwhelmed. Well-intentioned documentation requirements that are extremely extensive will, ultimately, only put them off.
You’re talking about the Supply Chain Due Diligence Act that comes into effect on 1 January 2023. Put very simply, it requires a company to ensure human rights are observed, not only within its own organisation, but also at direct contractual partners along the supply chain, both upstream and downstream, and to document this accordingly. Does this law mean anything new in terms of content for the BMW Group?
Klahold: The Supply Chain Due Diligence Act doesn’t change anything with regard to our fundamental principles. Respect for human rights is already a priority for us, but when you look more closely, there are a lot of aspects we need to review: Does what we are doing meet the new requirements?
It’s positive that the law takes respect for human rights and related environmental standards for the supply chain to the next level: We are closely examining where things can become critical and why. That’s the reason we don't pull out right away if we become aware of an infringement. We try to understand where the problem comes from and require changes to be made. It doesn’t help anyone if we cancel contracts, but everything there on the ground just stays the same. We only terminate cooperation as a last resort. “Empowerment before withdrawal” is enshrined in the law. That’s an essential component for me.
You deal with human rights in your job on a daily basis, but how does that effect you personally? Has your perspective changed as a result?
Klahold: Of course, I’m affected by the reports of the NGOs I talk to. The impact is both professional and personal. My daughter spent a few months working for social projects after leaving school – so we have some lively discussions at home, too. How many of us know anything about the conditions under which the coffee we drink every day is picked? That’s the question she brought back with her from Africa, together with some positive and some very critical experiences. It is important that we explore the issues and look behind the scenes, so we are not fooled by greenwashing in the broadest sense.
And when is enough? When are you satisfied?
Klahold: That question doesn't really come up for me. Compliance is a mindset, not a status. With this mindset and an ethical understanding, we reflect – and then we move on to the next topic. I feel like we are tackling the right issues. That's why there’ll never be a time to say “That’s enough!”.
In the upcoming portraits from our “WEffect” sustainability series, committed colleagues will also describe their motivation and explain the contribution they are making to sustainability within the BMW Group.