Picture: 123RF/Elnur Amikishiyev
Picture: 123RF/Elnur Amikishiyev

Most of us who have been involved in sustainable business remember when 2030 seemed a distant — and thus wholly attainable — goal for a low-carbon future with food, water and energy security. But 2030 is now less than a decade away, and businesses that haven’t already committed to, and progressed toward, the UN’s sustainable development goals and other benchmarks may have trouble doing so.

Covid-19 has, of course, disrupted every aspect of life and business, and any description of its economic impact seems like an understatement. But progress to sustainability must continue. As a global business that embarked on that journey 20 years ago, we’ve learnt some instructive lessons, as evident in Ford Motor Company’s latest sustainability report. It is important to recognise that everything you do moves you closer to or further from your goal, because each day without action taken is an opportunity missed.

Ford’s two main sustainability objectives are to put people first and to protect the planet. They have been on my mind, and those of my colleagues, during Covid-19. Many organisations claim to be people-centric and then discover, to their cost, that merely saying so in a vision and mission achieves little if it’s not reflected in the lived experience of people who interact in some way with the brand.

It’s more effective — and certainly more fulfilling — to heed the Greek philosopher Socrates, who said: “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear.” Accordingly, Ford invests heavily in putting people at the centre of what we do: employees, dealers, suppliers, the communities around our operations, and customers. Customer service is something we haven’t always got right in the past, and it’s a major area of focus for us.

Building a people-centric business manifests in innumerable ways across the business. It includes our efforts to become the world’s most inclusive and diverse company, and supporting community projects that focus on education, skills development and training. It includes investment in transformation and access to Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers, and our efforts to promote engineering as a career path for women. It includes manifesting our commitment to human rights, the LGBTQ community, and the disabled.

We've committed to making a positive contribution to the world by reducing the emissions associated with the use of our vehicles, and to responsibly managing our operations and encouraging best practices among our suppliers.

Ford’s Struandale Engine Plant in Port Elizabeth was last year lauded with an SJM Flex Environmental Award for excellence in environmental management. The award recognised efficiencies that have cut our plant’s water and electricity consumption, recycling 97% of waste, as well as employees’ commitment to community environmental projects, and drought-relief efforts through grants from the Ford Motor Company Fund.

We have also invested nearly R370m in a wastewater plant at our Silverton facility. It’s a critical step for a responsible water-user in a water-stressed country, and aligns with our efforts globally and locally, where we measure our efforts at environmental preservation against the highest standards.

Strategic partnerships and relationships are also critically important. They can and do deliver tangible victories that can fire the imagination and have a real effect. Part of our Covid-19 partnership effort extends to facilitating the sharing of  statistics between our operations worldwide, government health agencies, and from the cities where we operate locally.

It also includes making over 285,000 Covid-19 face shields to date for front-line medical personnel, as well as facilitating the handing out of face masks to commuters at taxi ranks in Mamelodi, Tshwane and Struandale, Port Elizabeth.

Ford has played an instrumental role in the SA automotive sector for over 96 years, and remains one of the country’s largest vehicle manufacturers, contributing more than 1% to SA’s GDP. But with the role of being a major economic player comes a great responsibility, and one we take seriously.

The broad objectives under the broad goal of sustainability — good health and well-being, innovation, sustainable cities and communities, and climate action — can seem daunting. None is a tickbox: each goal reached is a victory and a manifestation of commitment. So, my suggestion: when your organisation achieves a milestone, take a moment to celebrate, then recognise your team’s achievement as the new normal. Take your victories and move to the next goal. 

In setting those goals, ambition is an attribute: we know that making great vehicles and maintaining a strong business need not be at the expense of the planet and the natural systems that sustain us. Our priorities must be interdependent, not mutually exclusive. It’s why, for example, Ford remains committed to the Paris Accord on climate change, and to carbon neutrality by 2050.

In the early days of Covid-19 we marveled at how the shutdown brought back wildlife, at how residents of the city of Kathmandu could see Mount Everest for the first time in living memory. We can take that optimism and sense of purpose into what will no doubt be some difficult days ahead, as the domestic and global economies begin a slow recovery.

• Hill is MD of Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa.

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.