The Editors' Post: Is BMW becoming a cleaner, greener carmaker?

B Corp crisis for The Body Shop?; Social Enterprise Day 2023; ImpactFest interviews. This week's view from the Pioneers Post newsroom.

BMW Group, obviously, makes cars (and motorbikes). But the company wants us to know that it does a lot more than that, and so a bunch of journalists were brought to South Africa earlier this month to learn more about its commitment to sustainability. Over three days we got a glimpse of its efforts to make manufacturing greener, its rather beautiful, biodiversity-friendly office buildings, and its investment in education and training. (You can read my first dispatch from the trip here.)

While the focus was on operations in South Africa – BMW has been manufacturing there for 50 years – senior employees from the Germany HQ were also flown over to host us. The overall message, as you’d expect, was that sustainability is core to the business; BMW says its ambitions are to be a “responsible corporate citizen”. That desire certainly came across as genuine among the employees we met, many of whom have come up with their own initiatives to help the wider community. South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with frighteningly high unemployment, so there is much that a “responsible” company can offer here – not just stable jobs, but also specialist training, apprenticeships for disadvantaged groups, and even keeping the lights on at a nearby primary school so that classes aren’t disrupted by daily power cuts. BMW does all this and more. 

But carmakers don’t always have the cleanest record. Critics might well point to their lobbying against regulations that seek to reduce the industry’s impact on the planet. Those pushing for a wholesale change to our economy might question what place there is in the future for business models that essentially rely on more individuals owning more cars. 

And, whether you’re a fan or a critic, it’s hard to ignore the irony of making premium vehicles in a country where most people are stuck with sometimes unreliable and unsafe public transport (96% of BMWs made in South Africa are exported). Or the irony of a worldwide push towards electric vehicles, when the countries they’re being made in struggle to provide power supply for everyday tasks. What’s clear is that the idea of “responsibility” has become a huge part of corporate culture – perhaps even more so in South Africa, where citizens trust business much more than they trust the government – and an evident source of pride to employees. 



Social Enterprise Day 2023

It was Social Enterprise Day this week. Did you get involved? Check out what has been going on around the world to mark the day in our story

Finally, my colleagues David Lyons and Julie Pybus will be in Turin next week at EVPA’s Impact Week. Do say hello if you’re there too!


This week's top stories

Natura &Co sells The Body Shop to private investor Aurelius Group

BMW-Unicef partnership launches amid carmaker's drive to be 'responsible corporate citizen'

‘They shouldn’t be afraid to compete with the big brands’: how must impact startups change to succeed?


Top photo: Pupils demonstrate what they've learned on a group robotics project to visiting journalists in November 2023 (BMW)