Premium and environmental protection

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Can luxury be sustainable?

This article was originally published in the Daimler blog.

Let’s be honest: There have been times when it was easier to say “You’ve got to live a little” than it is today. That’s because, at least at the emotional level, we suspect more strongly than ever before that many products in the premium or luxury segment are not good — for the environment, for the ecological balance sheet or at least for our own health. But is that necessarily true? Or can something like sustainable luxury exist?

The Duden dictionary defines “luxury” as “costly and wasteful expenditure that exceeds normal limits.” But we have to be careful with definitions — they depend greatly on who is making them. For one person, luxury is a good that’s worth pursuing for the sake of one’s own well-being, or it’s an expression of individual freedom. For another one, “luxury” is a synonym for expensive knickknacks or outdated ostentation. And that brings us to the question of what luxury really is. Is dinner in a nice restaurant a luxury? Or does luxury begin with an expensive sports car? Or only with a villa in Ticino?

At first glance, the question about luxury is a philosophical one. But it can also be relevant to business — namely, if your own company manufactures products in the premium class. For example, Daimler and its Mercedes-Benz cars. The brand with the star proclaims its membership in the premium segment with its promise “The best or nothing.” With a gross list price of at least €90,000, the brand’s flagship, the S-Class, is certainly in the price range that most people regard as premium. And if you take a look at the prices that well-kept vintage Mercedes cars fetch at auctions or on Internet portals, it becomes clear that there’s a good chance that such a vehicle will still be coveted a few years from now.

So far, so good. However, only last May Daimler presented its new corporate strategy. It’s a strategy that focuses on the concept of sustainability. It aims to make Daimler a green company. You might be wondering how these two things fit together: Premium and sustainability? Luxury and environmental protection? Self-indulgence without a bad conscience?

CO2 reduction is an important factor — but not the only one

For one thing, these concepts can fit together if a company is based on a firm conceptual foundation. That’s exactly what Daimler is confirming through its “Ambition2039” program. It calls for all Mercedes-Benz plants in Europe to conduct their production operations CO2-neutrally by 2022. And for the company’s entire new vehicle fleet to be CO2-neutral by 2039. If you know how products in the automobile industry evolve, you’ll understand how ambitious this time frame really is: 20 years — that’s not even as long as three product cycles.

There’s no question about it: A company that aims to reconcile luxury and sustainability has to significantly reduce its carbon footprint. But that’s certainly not the only factor that can be altered. In fact, says Anita Engler, “I believe we shouldn’t limit our discussion of environmental protection to CO2 emissions. Of course it’s a central aspect. But we’ve been practicing resource conservation for a very, very long time.” Anita Engler should know: Her job is to monitor the use of resource-conserving materials in Mercedes-Benz cars.

Mercedes’ first environmental certificate was granted in 2005

For Engler, who has a degree in agricultural biology, this topic is one she has always cared greatly about. But in recent years she has also noticed that awareness of sustainability and environmental protection has become a mainstream social trend. The era when environment-friendly behavior was dismissed as conventional, unsexy or stuffy seems to be over. “Before I joined Daimler in 2002, I worked as a corporate consultant specializing in environmental issues. Back then people would often say to me, ‘Wow, you’re not even wearing a hand-knitted scarf!’” she recalls with a smile.

Today advanced crocheting skills are no longer a prerequisite for supporters of environmental protection. Environmentalism has become mainstream in Germany. The best proof of that is the fact that in the Sunday surveys about Bundestag elections the Greens reliably receive a more-than 20 percent approval rating. According to current surveys, almost half of all Germans can imagine the Green party chairman Robert Habeck as the German Chancellor. And the state of Baden-Württemberg has already been governed by a Green Premier since 2011.

In the year when the first Mercedes-Benz received an environment certificate from TÜV Süd (Technical Inspection Society South), the Greens received just 8.1 percent of the votes for the Bundestag — and it was still taken for granted that the state in which the automobile was invented was deeply conservative in its politics. “The certificate was awarded in 2005 to the S-Class,” says Engler. In 2008 she was put in charge of the team that focuses on resource conservation and recycling at Daimler.

Her colleagues in two neighboring teams deal with other areas that are directly connected with the environmentally friendly design of our vehicles. One of the teams is responsible for substance bans, interior emissions, and allergens; the other one deals with the environmental balance sheet and the emissions over a vehicle’s entire life cycle.

Clearly, three teams are far from sufficient to do all the work that is needed to make the entire vehicle fleet as environmentally friendly as possible. “We have a completely cross-sectional function,” says Engler. “These are always projects that many people are working on: our colleagues in development, materials technology, design, purchasing, quality management, and of course our suppliers as well. It’s a shared responsibility.”

118 components of an A-Class are partly made of resource-conserving materials

Today all the vehicles produced in Mercedes-Benz car plants have an environmental certificate testifying to their compliance with ISO 14062. “That sets us apart from our competitors,” says Engler. Among other things, the external reviewers examine every single value related to the environmental balance that is cited by Daimler in its sales or advertising materials. For example, 118 components of an A-Class vehicle, with a total weight of 58.3 kilograms, are partly made of resource-conserving materials.

These materials include renewable raw materials such as cotton, hemp, and kenaf. They also include recycled plastics — components gained by recycling recovered synthetic materials.

“In the current debate about plastics, I think it’s essential to realize that plastics are not evil in themselves. They are important raw materials. That’s why we have to deal with them responsibly,” says Engler. At Daimler, this sense of responsibility is even enshrined in the specification sheet for suppliers. There Daimler specifies that plastic parts should be made from renewable raw materials or recyclates. “We coordinated this sentence with the purchasing department — and I felt it was important not to be vague,” says Engler.

That’s because there are still many more plastic components in vehicles that could be produced from resource-conserving raw materials. “We want to expand the area of application for recyclates. And we want to encourage our suppliers to work with us to find high-quality solutions that are environmentally friendly on the one hand — and fulfill our demanding technical and quality standards on the other.”

A different kind of recycling: Car seat covers made of PET plastic bottles

Recyclates are mostly used discreetly, in parts that are invisible to our customers or at least are not immediately noticeable. But they can also be used for components that can be seen full-on during every ride. One example of that is the seat covers in the new Mercedes-Benz EQC (Mercedes-Benz EQC 400: Stromverbrauch kombiniert: 20,8-19,7 kWh/100km; CO2-Emissionen kombiniert: 0 g/km*). Customers can choose the sunnyvale seat cover material as part of the Electric Art line or as individually selectable optional equipment. The textile of the seat cover consists of 100 percent recycled PET plastic bottles that have run through the complete recycling process.

“In a paradigm shift such as the one from the combustion engine to the EQ, we have to take a holistic approach to sustainability. That was the origin of the concept of sustainable seat covers,” says Silke Noack, who works in the Color & Trim department of the design unit at Mercedes-Benz Cars. Her team designs all the surfaces in the vehicles’ exterior and interior — in terms of their color, structure, material, and graphics. Her colleague Occa Büchner, who was responsible together with Anna Greif for the basic design of the surfaces of the EQC, still vividly remembers how the team came up with these innovative seat covers.

“We experimented with bamboo textiles, wool, and recycled PET in order to develop a sustainable and environmentally friendly material for the seat covers,” she says. “PET quickly became the front runner, because it was the best material for series production. ‘Repurposing instead of disposal’ is our motto — even though it required quite a lot of patience for us to transform the recycled material into a textile that meets Mercedes-Benz standards.”

PET plastic, which is recovered from recycled plastic bottles, is a member of the polyester group and can be easily processed to form textiles. It is non-wrinkling, tearproof, and weather-resistant, and it absorbs very little water. Material made from PET can also be molded under heat into any shape. Ground-up plastic bottles can be melted and then shaped into fibers. These fibers can then be spun into thread to make the textile for the seat covers.

The fact that plastic can be recycled is a good and important aspect — and it’s one that many people are aware of. But what about its connection with the luxurious interior of a Mercedes-Benz? At first these sound like irreconcilable opposites. But they aren’t. As Engler puts it, “For many people who are not very familiar with recycling, the biggest surprise is often the fact that the end product doesn’t necessarily have to look as though it includes reprocessed raw materials. On the contrary, it’s something that’s really beautiful and attractive.”

Luxury and sustainability are not incompatible

Not all of the components that are made with environmentally friendly resources at Mercedes-Benz are as outstanding and exemplary as the seat covers. But even projects that are less spectacular at first glance have a big effect. “For example, we now use resource-conserving plastic for the cable ducts of our cars. That’s the result of lots of hard work and almost three and a half years of development time,” says Engler. “Of course a component like a cable duct is completely unsexy. But the mass use of these components really makes a difference. Just think of the fact that a single car contains several kilometers of cables, and the fact that we sold more than two million Mercedes-Benz cars last year.”

It looks as though a huge number of small steps smooths the path to a major change. As a result, people are becoming less and less skeptical regarding the question of whether luxury and sustainability can be combined.

Anita Engler came up with her own answer to this question long ago: “Of course we have to clearly realize that luxury basically means more CO2 emissions and greater consumption of resources. But because we are a premium brand, our customers can justifiably expect us to address this apparent contradiction — and work to make our products as sustainable as possible. We’ve got fantastic, innovative, luxurious, and beautiful vehicles. And we want them to be sustainable. We work on that on a daily basis. Because luxury must be sustainable. Period.”

Sven Sattler

This article was written by Sven Sattler. He writes for various media at Daimler.

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From Blog to Daimler Magazine

Sorry to take you by surprise, but the Daimler Blog has retired on Nov 7, 2019 - after twelve years. Say hello to its successor: the new Daimler Magazine – a magazine for mobility and society.
The original blog article is still available in the magazine. We have therefore forwarded you directly to it.
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