Now that we know Volkswagen purposefully rigged 11 million vehicles to circumvent environmental rules, releasing an enormous amount of pollutants into the atmosphere, the company’s Sustainability Report from 2014 comes off as a horrible joke.
"It's a jaw-dropper. So unbelievable," Linda Greer, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council told The Huffington Post.
In the report, which was reviewed by consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, the automaker details its commitment to the customer, its employees and, of course, to the environment. “Environment” is mentioned 335 times over 156-pages -- an average of twice per page.
“The Volkswagen Group has a long tradition of resolute commitment to environmental protection.” -- page 86.
“We intend to put our creative powers to good use for the benefit of people and the environment." -- page 14.
As we now know, Volkswagen put its creative powers to use in a far less noble way, devising software to purposefully cheat on emissions tests and secretly installing it its diesel vehicles. On Wednesday, chief executive Martin Winterkorn was forced to quit his job at the world’s largest automaker in the wake of the growing scandal and in anticipation of billions in fines, lawsuits and increasing customer rage. More firings are on deck.
VW’s report follows a long tradition of companies using self-reported data -- sometimes certified by well-paid consulting firms -- to make broad declarations of ethical commitment, used to reassure the public that companies aren't just profit-seeking monsters. These are called “corporate social responsibility” reports, "CSR" is the biz lingo. This is a huge movement; most corporations produce these things. Here’s Coca-Cola’s. And Ikea’s. And Exxon-Mobil’s.
And, of course, not all of these efforts are mere publicity ploys. Some companies take this stuff very seriously, even tying environmental goals to executive pay -- an extremely sigficant matter. But in the wake of the VW scandal, it’s going to be harder for anyone to believe a word in these reports.
“[Volkswagen] will probably severely tarnish this entire movement,” writes Greer in a blog post. She’s written before about the key danger of CSR programs: that they end up as merely shiny promotional efforts that allow businesses to sidestep true responsibility for their endeavors.
"There are some companies doing good things," Greer told HuffPost. "Oftentimes they're just doing it and not necessarily putting it in a report."
Yet many efforts are sideshows. Companies give money to philanthropies, for example, but fail to examine the core parts of their businesses that need attention.
“Volkswagen will probably severely tarnish this entire movement.”
Greer is working with Target now on cleaning up environmental issues in the retailer's supply chain. She also commends Apple for dealing with pollution issues overseas. "They have a CSR report, but I think they are walking the walk more than just talking the talk," she said of Apple.
VW’s absurd document follows a long tradition. BP is also notorious for the false promise of its environmental slogans. The oil company won plaudits for acknowledging the reality of global warming and for the slogan “Beyond Petroleum” back in 2000. Then, in 2010, BP caused one of the worst oil spills in history.
By contrast, Exxon Mobil after the Exxon Valdez disaster became “religious about safety standards,” writes Chrystia Freeland for the Washington Post in 2010. Getting the oil out of the ground and moving it around the world without killing anyone or destroying the ocean is a core social responsibility.
So is adhering to environmental regulations, which VW brazenly decided to forgo.
Companies need to start with those simple goals before moving on to marketing materials.