BMW: The Ultimate Sustainability Machine?

Article by: J. Dickey | Charleston Blog
View article as it appears on Charleston Blog

It s July 1996, a man is sitting on his couch, eagerly awaiting a call. The phone rings. The man leaps up from the couch, nearly knocking the couch over, and grabs the phone off the hook. He talks for a few minutes, and hangs up. His wife cautiously walks into the room, and suddenly, the man lets out a jubilant cheer, and hugs his wife. After months of searching for a job, he finally has one. It s at a new BMW plant down the road. It s going to change everything. This man is just one of 9,000 employees hired for the BMW Spartanburg, South Carolina plant. Many citizens of Spartanburg, including that man, have counted on, and continue counting on BMW for their quality and way of life. BMW prides themselves on this connection, as well as its sustainability policies. These policies are exemplified and listed on the BMW sustainability page.
BMW claims to follow the 10 Principles of the United Nations Global Compact which focuses on more than just environmental sustainability. In a world of false claims and greenwashing, has BMW proven that their sustainability claims are more than just a front to gain customers and business? Do they care about the world around them? Based on the evidence and personal observation, BMW, through the treatment of its employees on a local and international level, has proven to be more than just a greenwashing company- they actually care.

In my hometown of Spartanburg, where a BMW plant is located, BMW partnered with three local technical colleges by creating the BMW Scholars Program.

This is a two year program that enrolls thirty-five students a year that allows students to attend classes full-time, while allowing them to work part time at the factory. BMW also pays partial tuition, in addition to paying them to work at the factory. BMW uses what is called asset based community development , an idea originally invented to combat poverty. It is the process of going into a neighborhood and recognizing the talent of the people in the neighborhood and using that talent. This mindset is useful when dealing with a town like Spartanburg because there were already plants located there. BMW recognized that many people in the area were already skilled manual workers and knew their way around machinery. All BMW had to do was support that field of work, and funnel that skill into the more specific area of car making. This way of recognizing and using people s strengths in the community has a deep emotional impact on Spartanburg. People from the town view BMW as more than just an automotive company or a potential job. When a company invests in someone on a more personal level, it creates a community loyalty to a company, even from people who do not work at the actual plant or for BMW at all.

The Scholars program isn t the only student program BMW offers for the Spartanburg plant. BMW also teamed up with bigger public universities, providing these college students with a more corporate level internship like management and sales. On the BMW Spartanburg s web page, there is a video promoting such a program. The ad starts off with a pleasant, soft jingle, that through out the video crescendos into a concert like finale. The music follows the theme of the video, with the introduction being just a simple mechanic underneath the car putting on the bumper, to an employee test driving a car with a big smile on his face, to the point where the customer shakes the salesman s hand and the salesman hands him the keys. All during the video, a voiceover narrates the process, and how an intern gets to be a direct part of a happy customer receiving his/her car. The music, combined with the order of events helps tell this story of accomplishment, invoking a sort of emotional pride in someone to want to be a part of making some s life better with the creation and the eventual uniting of a customer and their car. The video employs the use of current interns being interviewed and saying how much they enjoy working with BMW as a means of building the program s credibility. This part of the video has the potential for a lot of bias though, because of how easy it would be to cut and doctor the interviews to take out any negative comments the interns might have made. The video itself lacks actual facts and information about the program, but I believe the video does a decent job of eliciting a general interest in the program. The point of the video is simply trying to catch the attention of a college student looking for an interndhip, once the attention is caught, the student can simply read the rest of the web page for specific information. What BMW has done in Spartanburg is not unique to the town itself. BMW elicits a similar loyalty from its employees internationally.

Just like they do on a local level, BMW applies this corporate compassion on a large-scale international level. Six of the ten UN Global Compact principles center around human rights and treating employees without biases or prejudices. Simply put, the UN just wants employees to be happy at the company they work for. How can one measure employee happiness one might ask? The answer lies in employee retention rates, and in polls where current employees rate their contentedness in their current business. A job rating site called Glassdoor, based on employee reviews on companies all over the world, ranked BMW the number one most attractive automaker company to work for, and #4 most attractive company in the world to work for, regardless of product. Glassdoor also gave BMW the top Glassdoor Award based solely on the reviews of employees that either left the workforce or retired from BMW. How does BMW manage to elicit that kind of employee loyalty? This particular award shows that BMW achieves this by taking long term care of their employees.

It s July of 2016, almost exactly 20 years after that employee was hired one faithful day in Spartanburg, South Carolina. It s an intense moment. A few high ranking BMW executives and their marketing team are sitting in a room, staring intently at one singular computer screen. The suspense is building. The screen refreshes. A cheer breaks the silence, and soon they are all laughing and hugging- they finally did it. In 2016, BMW was chosen as Forbes #1 World s Most Sustainable Company. They were chosen not just because they care about the environment. They were chosen because of the loyalty they have to their employees they hired back in 1996 to work in a plant that is not even based in their home country. In just six years, BMW went from off the charts, to number one. In the midst of European companies being accused of fraud left and right, BMW was able to rise above it by building up such a rapport over the years that Forbes voted them number one regardless of the allegations around them. If I had more time to research, I would be interested to see how many programs BMW has, like the Spartanburg scholars program, at other locations and factories. I wonder if any of the programs are similar, or if BMW creates programs specifically targeting the skill set of the area it is entering. I would also look into the accuracy of Forbes, and look into any biases they might have for or against certain types of companies. It is important to know the accuracy and reliability for such things, because of incidents like the Volvo scandal. Volvo, like almost all companies, claimed to be a company that cared about their employees and their customers and the environment. It was revealed that they were lying about the emissions made by one of their top selling cars. This betrayal of trust caused many people customers and employees alike to be weary of car company claims. Because of this distrust, it really is imperative that a company like BMW continues building that trust and rapport. Not just on an environmental level, but sustainable on a humanitarian level. BMW can do this by continuing to provide support and benefits for their employees, which arouses a rallying effect in local communities impacted by BMW that, in turn, produces international trust.

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