The 13th 'Daimler Sustainability Dialogue' event is just around the corner – for the first time online, but by no means less important: climate change, the global pandemic and a massive debate on racism are fueling the global discourse. Everything is in motion: people are taking to the streets and the presidential elections in the USA are just a few days away. At the same time, the auto industry has to reinvent itself in order to pave the way for zero-emission mobility. The aspiration "build back better"¹ been posited – how that can succeed will likely be one of the subjects of our dialog with representatives from business, politics and society in early November. If you don't want to miss this session, you have a chance to win one of 50 access rights to the panel discussion here. As a kind of warm-up, we spoke with one of the pioneers of the stakeholder dialog, Dr. Wolfram Heger, about why critical exchanges of views are so important for Daimler.
Dr. Heger, you have accompanied the stakeholder dialog at Daimler for 12 years – what actually brought you to the Daimler Sustainability Dialogue – or did it come to you?
I am a primary rock of the dialog, so to speak. Some might also describe me as a dinosaur, since I've been arguing for dialog with the various stakeholders long before the first Daimler Sustainability Dialogue took place in 2008. Even then I was convinced that such an exchange with civil society was indispensable - but there was not yet the right format for it. You need to know that at that time, some factions like non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and our company just didn't talk to one another. We wanted and needed to change that.
No sooner said than done?
Exactly, except it wasn't quite that fast. As a first step, my colleagues and I had to try and explain why the dialog format is the right approach for us. We ran into some headwind in the beginning. However, in the end everyone was convinced that dialog – even with our critics – is beneficial. We are still following this vision today. Nor are we the only ones, by the way: for many of our stakeholders, too, the Daimler Sustainability Dialogue is an established event on the calendar each fall.
Why is dialog important to us?
I am firmly convinced that this format will help to make us fit for the future. After all, many of the framework conditions that significantly determine our core business are increasingly being developed in cooperation with various stakeholders. That's why we need dialog. In this context, it helps us when Daimler not only listens to positive voices. A company that is such a central part of society needs to interact with its entire environment. For one thing, that is very important in order to find out what our company will be facing and what is expected of it. For another, the Sustainability Dialogue is a place where we can learn from experts.
What has always distinguished the Daimler Sustainability Dialogue?
It creates a space for trust. Because the event is subject to the "Chatham House Rule"² all participants can openly address problems or dilemmas, discuss solutions and really make a difference: How do you emerge from the crisis more sustainable than before? What courses are being charted by the policymakers? Or also, very recently, how do sustainability and luxury actually go together? It is tremendously valuable to know that all issues are being addressed, even if we don't always only meet with approval.
And are there really differences being made after everyone has had their say?
That is precisely the objective of the event: Steer controversial issues towards common solutions. These are developed in workshops at the event. Experts from Daimler work with the external participants in small groups to examine specific challenges relating to human rights, data responsibility or environmental issues, for example. The agreed goals are then pursued over the course of the year and the progress made presented at the Sustainability Dialogue event the following year. The format has by now also caught on in one of our most important market, in China, for instance. While the cultures of discussion are different in every country, the intent remains the same: to enter into dialog in order to become collectively and sustainably better.
Which dialog do you recall particularly positively and why?
It is not one, single dialog, but instead the sum of what we have accomplished over the years: We have been able to build a little bit more trust each year. Many participants have already been involved for years now. A proof that the dialog works. The success of the event is also reflected in the number of participants, which has been climbing steadily: We started in 2008 with roundabout 60 guests. Today, more than 250 guests come to discuss with us and to assess our achievements against the previous year's goal.
What are the challenges and why?
In the early days, some colleagues felt they were going to have to defend themselves instead of seeing an opportunity in the open dialogue. Some seemed to worry about the risk of being asked difficult questions to which they perhaps did not have an answer. The trust that has grown out of this dialog on either side helps us today. All participants know: It is okay that there are differences of opinion. It is also fine if you do not have a perfect answer to everything right away. These things are what we are here to talk about. Where the atmosphere was sometimes tainted by confrontation, you can now sense a great willingness on both sides to understand the other's point of view.
Who takes part in a Daimler Sustainability Dialogue – and for what reasons?
We invite a cross-section of society – NGOs, representatives of communities and associations, business leaders; but also analysts and investors. Personalities from whom we can learn how to be better at what we are working on. And they come to us because they know that we actually take up their ideas - as long as it makes sense and is possible.
Can you give us an example?
Yes, of course. The results of the very first dialog 12 years ago have shown that the issue of human rights will become increasingly important for companies in the future and that responsibilities for the issue of human rights across the company need to be clearly assigned. Therefore, since the second dialog, there has been a separate working group for this purpose. With which we still double-check today whether we are on the right track, for example with our Human Rights Respect System: Are we aware of the human rights risks that are relevant for us? Are we still missing an important key indicator? How good is our risk analysis really? How do we solve concrete dilemmas? Without the many discussions in the workshops, our systematic approach to the respect for human rights would not be the industry-wide benchmark it is today in many fields: these days our Social Compliance organization and my department work together to ensure that rules and standards on human rights are implemented. The Sustainability Dialogue therefore also has a legitimizing function: there isn't always that one solution, but the solution we find is accepted as a good one by various parties, including external ones, and, if there is doubt, adjusted. The stakeholders' arguably biggest motivation to take part in our dialog.
Who absolutely needs to be represented for the dialog to be meaningful?
Regarding the external participants it is not about a specific organization. It is more important to have people there with knowledge, who do not shy away from standing up clearly for their position. At the same time, serious interest in a constructive dialog is a requirement. For the company's part, it is important that those who actually work on the issues are there. And that doesn't always have to be the boss.
Is there a discussion you had at one of the past dialog events that is particularly memorable to you and why?
I remember a story that stayed with us for the first three years: we definitely wanted to have a reputable NGO at the first dialog. In response to our invitation, we received a fax that read: "We have nothing to discuss with Daimler." We tried again the second year – and received the same answer. However, in the third year, the youth organization accepted our invitation and took part. Since then, this organization has been an integral component of one task force of the dialog!
With whom are you perhaps still in contact today?
We also tap into our network, which has grown over the years, intensively in everyday working life. Especially in situations where I need an assessment or when there is a urgent question, I can simply pick up the phone.
¹ The expression "Build back better" is used by such organizations as the World Business Council of Sustainable Development (WBCSD) as an expression of the need for a change in thinking. The pandemic has brought into focus many of the vulnerabilities in our systems and institutions. However, it also offers us a chance to shape a more resilient and sustainable world. Businesses and policymakers, for example, could start to build the green and inclusive future that we need.
² Events (or parts of events) that are subject to the Chatham House Rule permit the participants to use the information received freely under the condition to reveal neither the identity nor the affiliation of speakers or other participants. (Source: Royal Institute of International Affairs)
3 questions for Project Manager Dr. Karsten Schröder
What goes through your mind, the night before the dialog?
That is always exciting, my mind is occupied with quite a few things. For example, the question of which issues might be addressed. Or whether we have sufficiently different positions on the panel for a fruitful discussion. However, this year I will have the technical plan under my pillow for sure. We have been meeting virtually as a project team for eight months now to put together an event that has never before taken place in the digital realm.
Are there also advantages among the special requirements this year that benefit the dialog?
Yes, absolutely. For example, putting the panel lineup together last year was a bit nerve-wracking. Renowned experts are often very busy people. It is much easier for us to win them over for our dialog in the digital world. A state secretary like our panel member Rita Schwarzelühr-Sutter would have never been able to come to us in Stuttgart during a session week. But now she can take part, because we are meeting virtually. This format is therefore significantly more barrier-free – incidentally, for viewers as well. We are therefore running a draw for 50 "live tickets" among our staff. Excerpts from the event will also be made available afterwards to anyone interested.
Who would be your favorite guest on the panel?
At the moment, I am pleased that this year, too, we are once again discussing with us personalities who bring with them great expertise and a will to shape the future. But of course, there are still candidates on our wish list. Without highlighting any of them, I can say that what unites them all is a clear attitude towards sustainability and we can learn a lot from them. Our goal is to bring together different, even controversial, positions on the topic of sustainability. This is the only way we can jointly find solutions that balance climate goals, social justice and economic strength.