The Blue Oval Goes Green: A Q & A with Ford's David Berdish

As Ford Motor Company's manager of social sustainability, David Berdish is at the vanguard of executive chairman Bill Ford's goal of transforming Ford "from a motor company to a mobility company."

Berdish, 54, writes poetry, obsesses over baseball, and has seen his hero, Bruce Springsteen, in concert 59 times. At Ford, he's charged with transforming the company's business principles to integrate the "triple bottom line" of economic, environmental, and societal performance into current operating processes.

Berdish spends much of his time traveling to developing nations, where he identifies new business opportunities that will enable people who live in the world's mega-cities to thrive using sustainable solutions. He is the lead designer of the Ford Human Rights Code of Working Conditions, and a guest lecturer and member of the advisory board for the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. When he's not traveling to identify sustainable business opportunities in places like India, Brazil, and Africa, he lives in Ann Arbor with his wife and son.

You've been called Ford's sustainability guru and Ford's sustainability czar. Which do you prefer, czar or guru?

I suppose guru is better but neither really fits; we've got a whole team working on these things; it's not just me. But I've got the coolest job in the whole company, so I don't care what people call me, as long it's not a swear word.

What does it mean to be a sustainable business?

We believe that we can revive US manufacturing competitiveness through sustainable innovation and technology. Instead of feeling threatened by trends like car-sharing and mass transit, we want to encourage it, and be part of it. We want to make mass transit sexier and safer to use and encourage people to drive less.

To be a sustainable business in the economic, environmental and social sense, Ford needs to meet the changing needs and demands of increasingly urbanized markets where personal vehicle ownership will be only one of several transportation options. We have to understand our impact on future generations, to preserve the future for our kids and grandkids. For instance, we understand our impact on climate change, so we determine our product strategy around that. We understand our impact on communities, so we have developed the best human rights code in world, regardless of industry. But neither of these can happen or be paid for if we don't make money.

You've talked a lot about multi-modal systems as being the key to the future of transit. What does that mean?

Multi-modal means that a customer has a lot of options that make it easy to get to work or wherever, via public transit. It means that people have access to light rail, bus, taxi, bike share, car share and safe pedestrian walking. This is the direction we're going in places we've partnered with: cities like Chennai, India; Cape Town, South Africa; Salvador, Brazil; even Seattle and Portland.

Let's say someone is driving around the Atlanta Beltway, which is just ridiculously congested. They could be driving their Ford car and their system could tell them "Hey, there's no way you're going to make your meeting; why don't you pull off and hit the Atlantic Station MARTA, park your car and take the train down so you can make your meeting?" We're trying to be on the cutting edge of that kind of connectivity.

I'm intrigued by the prospect of an automotive company championing mass transit. In Michigan, the automotive industry famously aided and abetted the death of mass transit. What has changed?

What's changed is that the idea of 2.2 cars in everyone's garage is ludicrous in big cities, and it's an absurd business model. The Earth can't handle it, and congestion and gridlock will turn people away from our products. We want to make sure there's a role for Ford vehicles, like green car share or green taxis or first- and last-mile shuttles to enhance the multi-modal system.

First- and last-mile?

If person says, "To take public transit, I have to drive to a train station then once I get into the city I have to figure out how to take a bus or walk to my place of work," then they determine that they might as well just drive their car the whole way." What we want to explore is, can Ford vehicles pick them up, get them that first mile or two to the station, then have another shuttle handling that last mile, making public transit easy for people?

So, Atlanta, India, South America, Africa…why not Detroit?

I get this question all the time. I remember one time I was giving a speech here, talking about the cool things I was doing in South Africa, and this guy literally chased me down the hall and said, "Why the hell aren't you doing something in Detroit?" The truth is, a multi-modal system would be perfect in Detroit, especially for people in the outlying suburbs. But no one asks us to get involved here; there's not a lot of interest among politicians.

Maybe it's because municipalities feel the same way about us that you made reference to: That car makers are the people who undermine mass transit, not promote it. When I walk into a room, I suppose people see a big blue oval on my shoulder, and they're thinking, "What the hell are you doing here, you're going to try to cram more cars down our throats."

Michigan is a mess, in terms of transit options. I know your focus is global, but you live here. What are some of the solutions you see?

To me the mess is more in the politics. I get really frustrated. We thought we'd have light rail and rapid-transit connectors, all these things that could really move us forward here, but it never gets off the drawing board. There are ample opportunities here to create a multi-modal system, to reduce congestion on the highways. I mean, I'd kill to have a train that would take me from my home in Ann Arbor to my job in Dearborn. I'm a Ford employee, and I will always have my car, but honestly I hate having to drive it everywhere. There's just so much we could do, with enlightened leadership that really got creative about finding solutions.

On a day-to-day basis, what does your job entail?

I'm responsible for the company's global sustainability and human-rights strategies and codes. We're the only company in our industry that has a code where we assess, evaluate and remediate our supply base and partners, based on human-rights issues. I'm also the strategic advisor to our supply chain. We're the only manufacturer that won't do business with tier-one suppliers if they don't have human-rights codes. This puts us at a disadvantage against our friends in Asia, especially when you're talking about electric batteries and other parts in hybrids, since there's a lot slave and child labor used to make those.

I also engage with nontraditional stakeholders, such as NGOs and governments. For instance I'm going to India tomorrow, and I'll be dealing with local NGOs in the city of Chennai. We're helping to develop alternative forms of accessibility and mobility for people that are either too poor to own our cars and trucks, or who live in an area where congestion and infrastructure is so bad they wouldn't want to own a car or truck even if they had the money.

Among the automotive companies, why is Ford leading the charge?

The main reason is that Bill Ford is the long-term thinker and environmentalist of the Ford family. Through his studies and experiences and observations, he came to the conclusion that 2.2 cars in everyone's garage is an absurd business model. When we first started going in this direction, he and I were talking and he said he's always thought of the idea of Ford Motor Company becoming Ford Mobility Company. Now that BMW, Volkswagen and Toyota are all talking about becoming mobility companies too, maybe we need to be Ford Accessibility Company. Maybe Ford provides the systems to help people get access to a better quality of life, without owning without any kind of vehicle, but by being part of a system that Ford creates.

I've checked out Ford's Sustainability Report, and it seems to be a well-thought-out and ambitious strategy. And yet, it's coming from the company that makes the Expedition SUV. Does that hurt your credibility?

It did, but I think now people understand that we have to serve that market. And the Expedition still has the best fuel economy in its class. It's a product we have to make, but whereas we were making 70 percent trucks and SUVs 10 years ago, we are on our way to flip-flopping that statistic. It doesn't hurt that we now have the best fuel economy fleet-wide, which is something that Toyota had over us for a long time.

But we've got the other things going for us as well. One of the ways we build credibility is that if we have human rights and community impact in our strategy, it builds a certain amount of trustworthiness. In Cape Town, South Africa, we spent a lot of time in the outlying townships, which are still ravaged by apartheid. A main reason why citizens can't get into the mass transit system that could take them to jobs is that the safety and security situation around their home makes travel very risky; people are effectively denied access to transport.

So now we're helping them design a shuttle bus system to get people to the train stations safely. A guy we are working with from Cape Town said, "Ford is the only company in the automotive industry we could do this with, because this is a need created by apartheid, and Ford was the only auto company that stood up to apartheid." We are also the only auto company that has worked to deal with HIV/AIDS in the community, and the only company with a human rights code. He said, "How could we give a project like this to a company like Toyota, which doesn't even have a human-rights code?"

You're also a guest lecturer at the University of Michigan. If your students could take away just one piece of wisdom from their interactions with you, what would you want that to be?

How about two? First, the world is too complicated to solve these problems linearly. The best way to solve these issues is to engage people you've never worked with before and who you may be uncomfortable with, because they represent points of view that could provide good solution sets. The other thing I emphasize is that just because it's green doesn't mean it's sustainable. The worst labor exploitation right now is in the solar and battery industries. There are terrible things taking place in conflict-mineral zones, so that we can all have our electric vehicles and our smart phones. It may be good for the environment, but if people are being exploited and children are being killed so that we can have our product, that's not sustainable.
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