Ode to visions past

By Nicola Robins (18 Oct 2011)

It was with some regret that I traded in my 15-year-old Nissan Sentra last month. No doubt my buzzy little Peugeot 107 has useful attributes – including lower fuel consumption – but I am clearly a late adopter.

My trade-in preceded Nissan announcing plans to launch its Leaf electric vehicle in the SA market in 2013, subject to government policy on zero emissions vehicles, largely relating to battery charging infrastructure and incentives. It’s going to be an interesting decade for the auto industry. Change is afoot, as it is for all of us.

In the early nineties, fresh out of UCT and looking for funding to support further studies in the USA, I realised that sustainability was not yet on the agenda for most South African businesses. My funding requests were turned down politely or not responded to at all.

My brand loyalty for Nissan is based on a single memorable conversation: John Newbury – then CEO of the company – phoned me personally from his car phone (remember those?).

“I got your request for funding,” he said. “Sustainability. This is going to be big in the future. We’ll pay for your studies and you come back and work for us.”

And so I came to be employed as Nissan’s environmental manager in the mid-nineties.

It was the time of ISO 14001 (Nissan’s Rosslyn plant was the first auto company in the southern hemisphere to get accreditation to that standard) and the Industrial Environmental Forum (a notable forerunner within the business sustainability movement).

Both Jonathon Hanks, who was then working for AECI, and I were impressed by the breadth of vision of some of the business leaders contributing to debates in those days. They included Mike Sander, then CEO of AECI, Ian McRae of Eskom, and Margie Keeton of Anglo American. Newbury’s vision included sending his engineering director to Israel to check out early prototypes of Zebra battery technology more than fifteen years ago. The hitch: no infrastructure, of course. Have a look at Better Place to see where Israel’s early explorations have taken them.

These business leaders saw a bigger picture, the potential for innovation, the need for radical change. Despite their foresight, few were able to overcome the inertia of the corporate tide to enact decisive changes at the time.

Sustainability is finally on the agenda and this is good. The more cynical amongst us might note that mounting environmental, social and governance compliance requirements from government, industry bodies and global stock exchanges have edged out the visionaries of that time. But, as with the Leaf, new products are being tentatively announced; new processes are slowly coming to light.

Whether South African businesses managed to seize the day early enough to achieve the competitive edge should provide some fuel for thought.


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