Can the humble Kombi challenge our ethics?

Can the humble Kombi challenge our ethics?

I love our 1976 Volkswagen Kombi and the freedom she encapsulates.  She has a name, Dora. Lovingly restored, Dora is housed in a shed on the far North Coast waiting patiently for her next adventure with her hard-working city-dwelling owners. Backpackers, schoolies and buskers wave longingly when we drive Dora through coastal towns. It’s not us they are waving to; it’s Dora. They wave at memories of idle days past, chasing sunsets, carefree, leaving it all behind.

In recent weeks, I have longed to leave behind all the shocking revelations that have emerged about German auto giant Volkswagen. Europe’s biggest car-maker has admitted to cheating in diesel emission tests in Europe and the United States. Volkswagen revealed 11 million diesel cars worldwide are equipped with devices that can cheat pollution tests.

In its 2014 Sustainability Report, the Volkswagen Group said it “is aiming to be the world’s most environmentally compatible automaker. In order to achieve this goal, we have set ourselves some ambitious targets, particularly with regard to environmental protection. Our Environmental Strategy embraces all of our brands and regions, and extends through every stage of the value chain.”

As the world looks on, Volkswagen is under the pump to address the worst business crisis in its history. This global scandal has sent the car-maker into a tailspin and its share price plummeting. The German economy itself could come under pressure from the far-reaching impact of the Volkswagen situation.

I wanted to rush to Dora to comfort her, knowing she would be devastated that her brothers, sisters and grandchildren were facing, through no fault of their own, scandalous accusations that they had been born under a cloud of deception. Not to mention they had been unwittingly spewing tonnes of carbon into our environment for decades. They would have to bear the shame of the VW name forever being known among the highest polluters in the world. Ouch.

We all live in an era of corporate social responsibility or, as some call it, sustainability or shared values. Corporations are expected to report about and respond to their overall impact upon the environment, social wellbeing and other efforts that go beyond their regulatory requirements. 

This movement of corporate social responsibility was born out a need for corporations to do “good” in society because, environmentally and otherwise, corporations can create havoc.

It’s not all bad but is pretty bad. So, let’s take off the 1970’s rose coloured glasses and we see what seems to be a disturbing, recurring and unacceptable reality, as well as an ugly side of human nature that greed is acceptable and worse, that it is good. 

Volkswagen’s corporate disaster was preceded by the 7-Eleven corporate fiasco, where stealing from its own workers, exploiting the vulnerable seemed fair game. This recent spate of corporate lies and deceptions could well have us thinking: ‘Let’s cut these little corporate suckers loose. Let’s punish these ugly corporations and shame them into becoming accountable and grown-up responsible citizens of the world.’

How will I explain to my beloved Dora that Mr and Mrs Corporate VW — parents of all those little Volkswagens out there ruining our precious environment — have failed her dismally? And that she also has been failed by the society in which she lives, where everyone is connected, like it or not, thanks to the global economy.

Where could I seek comfort these recent weeks and find the opposite of disillusionment?  How could I express the hurt and anger I felt reading the ugly news headlines and hearing more stories about what at the very least seems to be motivated by greed?  Not one corporate scandal but two all in the space of weeks.

In preparation for how I will explain this to Dora when next I see her, I feel better if I name the bad behaviour. Ok, call it lying cheating, deception and dishonesty.

Next, I feel better if I try to find out why this could happen? Answer, greed and human nature.

Then I feel better if I look to a broader meaning in life so perhaps by the time I get to see my beloved Dora I’ll have a lovingly rational response to give her about why her Volkswagen family messed up so badly and why they are so dysfunctional.

‘Dora’ I’ll say in my best, loudest, caring voice as we start her up for a ride into town, ‘The behaviour was unethical and society is now bearing the heavy burden and cost of behaviour that won’t go unpunished.  I’m sorry. Society will learn from this.’

‘Are you serious? I imagine Dora replying. ‘Do you honestly think society is actually going to learn from this?’

‘Well, you see, we are essentially a society that is ethical,’ I’ll say.

‘What’s ethics?’ Dora will say.

‘Our moral principles and society’s collective response to, let’s hope, doing better,’ is how I might explain ethics.

Because that’s what corporate (and individual) responsibility can boil down to. Ethics. Now, we may find some solace here, by beginning to ask more questions about ethical behaviour. In the coming weeks, we’ll be hearing from UCA members and some of our UCA leaders about ethics and wisdom in everyday life from a Christian perspective.

The consequences of deception for Volkswagen Corporation are enormous. Since the emissions cheating scandal was exposed, the leadership at the top has changed, replacing the former CEO who resigned in the wake of the cover up.  The laboratory engineers at the centre of the company investigation as to how emissions measurement could have been doctored face punitive measures. It will not stop there.   There will be serious financial implications for Volkswagen; recall costs, fines, possible class actions, new projects will most likely be shelved and staff will experience uncertainty  as they face the prospect of possible layoffs.

The wide-reaching flow on effects of the scandal will get worse before they get better.  Until such time as worse gets better, doing ‘good’ will fall on deaf ears. Until the full impact is assessed recovery cannot be contemplated.

With the knives out at Volkswagen this is a perfect storm for not just Volkswagen to sharpen their sustainability tools but all companies in the global corporate landscape.

Lisa Sampson

 

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