“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”
Climate change reveals how true this thought, which is accredited to French author Victor Hugo, rings: More and more people are realizing that protecting natural resources is a matter of their own survival. In addition to customer orientation and quality, sustainability is the third requirement against which companies will have to measure themselves in the future.
Highly developed industrial societies in particular will have to admit that their efforts to date will not be enough to curb climate change: “In order to achieve the 1.5 °C target to which the international community agreed in 2015 in Paris, we all need to take action,” says Bettina Würth, Chairwoman of the Advisory Board of the Würth Group.
Four approaches to climate action
As an international corporation with more than 400 companies and over 4 million customers, Würth can contribute to reducing its environmental impact effectively in a number of ways. Products, systems, process design, and in-house infrastructures offer four potential starting points. For this purpose, the parent company established a certified environmental management system in 1996.
Two of Würth’s most successful products worldwide its the high-temperature lubricant HHS 2000 and its brake cleaner. Both problem solvers were switched over to CFC-free propellants over 30 years ago to avoid damaging the world’s ozone layer. isi! is a prime example from our system world: hazardous substance management for the trades and medium-sized enterprises. Introduced in 2004 in Germany, today it supports customers across many European companies in creating legally required hazardous substance inventories, safety data sheets, and operating instructions.
Cradle-to-Cradle®: From the life cycle to the circular economy
If sustainability is an important cornerstone for achieving climate neutrality, our primary objective has to be using valuable resources more efficiently, avoiding substances that are dangerous to the environment, and keeping our energy consumption to a minimum. This aim follows the Cradle-to-Cradle® design concept, which Adolf Würth GmbH & Co. KG has applied to many different product segments since 2017 at the initiative of Bettina Würth in cooperation with Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart. It extends far beyond conventional recycling and follows the following rule: Raw materials are used to create products, which are then broken down again to recover the raw materials. Cradle-to-Cradle® strives to reuse materials in virtually infinite loops by taking this circularity into account as early on as the product development process. Separating the components according to type, increasing the share of recycled materials, and reducing energy consumption throughout the entire life cycle are three important requirements. Würth’s quick-mounting system VARIFIX® demonstrates how well this works in practice as its circularity has been optimized over the last five years. Incidentally, the new VARIFIX® system was installed in Carmen Würth Forum as one of the first reference objects.
The circular economy also opens up enormous potential for the clothing industry. Würth MODYF shows its customers how attractive this can be in its circular 2023 “Cetus” collection. Workwear that meets the highest standards in terms of functionality, occupational safety, and comfort can be combined perfectly with sustainable resources. When processing high-quality yarns and fibers, it makes sense from an economic perspective to take the subsequent recyclability into consideration right from the start. Bettina Würth underscores this:
“In the long term, the circular economy should be inextricably linked to the Würth brand. For this purpose, we aim to develop new business models.”
How does Cradle-to-Cradle® work?
The Cradle-to-Cradle® design concept was developed at the end of the 1990s based on an idea by German chemist Professor Dr. Michael Braungart together with US architect William McDonough. It is inspired by nature, where trash does not exist. Although a tree loses its leaves in the fall, those leaves are broken down into their components by microorganisms and then serve as nutrients for other plants. Even the excrement and carcasses of animals are used as fertilizer for plants, which in turn serve as food for other animals and humans. In the case of products manufactured by people, Cradle-to-Cradle® differentiates between a biological and a technical life cycle: While raw materials in the biological life cycle are ultimately converted into nutrients for plants, the components in the technical life cycle should be reused endlessly.
In contrast to recycling, high-quality raw materials are not converted into inferior secondary raw materials in Cradle-to-Cradle®, but rather maintain their original value. This is possible because Cradle-to-Cradle® products are designed for this process right from the start. Instead of turning a wrecked car made of high-quality steel into primitive rebar, as is common practice at the moment, the steel is refurbished to fashion a new car. The power required for this process is generated from renewable energy sources.
Cradle-to-Cradle® also offers possibilities in terms of warehousing. For example, many components from the ORSY ® storage management system can be recycled sensibly after decades of heavy use. In the packaging sector, recycled materials save further raw materials. The streamlined packaging design for machining tools has already reduced the use of new plastic by 45 tons. Würth plans for half of all its packaging to be circular within the next three years.
Because each shipment also impacts the environment, it will be necessary to rethink our delivery in the interest of sustainability. One solution proposed by Adolf Würth GmbH & Co. KG: fewer individual shipments whenever possible. “Würth Delivery Day” is a service offered to companies that would rather receive one large shipment than multiple small shipments.
“On Würth Delivery day, multiple individual orders placed by a customer are bundled together and delivered on a set date in the week. Customers can set the delivery date themselves,”
explains Bettina Würth. The result: up to 30 % lower CO2 emissions per customer. And less manual handling in the customer’s warehouse.
Climate neutral with the help of Würth’s innovation center
Sustainability is not a coincidence or a side effect of normal business operations, but rather a fundamental attitude that calls for consistent action. The company is now creating an appropriate framework for this in its new innovation center in Künzelsau: Cutting-edge laboratories and workshops are being set up on 15,000 square meters of space.
Its close proximity to the product management department and sales team makes it possible to speed up the development process considerably, from the concept to the marketable product. Prof. Dr. h. c. mult. Reinhold Würth, the Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Würth Group’s Family Trusts, explains the second major concern-improving sustainability: “One of our most important research objectives will be developing product lines and manufacturing processes for our company that consume less energy during production and in subsequent operations. Thus, the EUR 70 million we are investing in this project will be highly rewarding, not just in terms of profit but also in line with our goal to make the business activities of the Würth Group climate neutral.”
Personal initiative is our greatest asset wherever infrastructure is lacking.
For a direct selling business with an efficient sales organization, mobility is indispensable. Today, numerous manufacturers offer electric cars capable of withstanding the rigorous demands of the sales force. However, access to an adequate charging infrastructure is lagging behind this development. In order for Adolf Würth GmbH & Co. KG to replace the entire vehicle fleet of its sales force with electric cars within the next two years, a total of 200 charging stations are being installed at the headquarters in Künzelsau, while additional charging stations are planned at many of the more than 550 German pick-up shops.
Using renewable energy sources consistently
Whoever develops innovative solutions for many sectors of the construction industry and finishing trades, as the Würth Group does, looks to improve their own facility management as a matter of course. For example, in terms of the heating and power supply. The main office in Künzelsau has already switched over completely to using power produced from renewable sources. Bettina Würth:
“Our goal is to switch over entirely to renewable energy sources wherever possible and to reduce our CO2 emissions as much as possible.”
The same holds true for the subsidiaries, such as the corporate headquarters of HAHN+KOLB in Ludwigsburg. When constructing the company building, focus was placed on a modern, sustainable design that would make it possible to use clean energy. The 90-meter deep geothermal boreholes support an innovative heating and air-conditioning technology. Together with the heat pump, they cover approx. 70 % of the annual heating needs and even cool the building in the warm summer months. Native plants cover the roof, the outdoor area has been recultivated while preserving the old trees, and nesting boxes and insect hotels enrich the ecological environment.HAHN+KOLB received the UN “Decade on Biodiversity” award for its efforts in 2019.
Anyone wishing to take a holistic approach to sustainability must not lose sight of the social consequences. Würth continues to be a family business that is operated today according to the same basic principles laid out by Prof. Dr. h. c. mult. Reinhold Würth decades ago:
“The Würth Group’s corporate culture is characterized by mutual trust, reliability, honesty, and integrity both inside and outside the company.”
Visionary energy and pragmatism are not a contradiction in this context. Instead, they form the basis for defining ambitious new goals and achieving those goals with great persistence.
Many of the employees hired by Reinhold Würth himself in the early days of the company have passed their enthusiasm onto their children and grandchildren. This solidarity and a focus beyond day-to-day business activities are instrumental in the implementation of the sustainability strategy — all the more so because the predominantly trade and medium-sized customers and business partners share the same fundamental mindset.
As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The Würth Group has already taken many steps toward climate neutrality.
“Würth would like to contribute to greater sustainability and hopes to inspire other companies to embark on the same journey,”
says Bettina Würth. Greater sustainability is not just a noble cause, but rather a highly productive and practical experience. It starts with a decision — and the first step.
CHAIRMAN OF THE CENTRAL MANAGING BOARD OF THE WÜRTH GROUP
As the Würth Group, it is our responsibility to our more than 83,000 employees worldwide and to our customers to lead our company into a successful future. To accomplish this goal, however, we have to be dedicated to creating a healthy environment in which we can live sustainably. Anyone who ignores this ecological responsibility is ruining the future for themselves and everyone else. After all, an intact planet is the basis of life for us as humans. A commitment to the environment entails costs and efforts on our part, but it also offers us new opportunities. Whenever we rethink our processes and structures, innovations and new business models are born. As the Würth Group, our goal is to create a win-win situation —for us, our customers, and the planet. We aim to actively contribute to change in the industry. But we are not interested in greenwashing or a short-lived trend, but rather aspire to true change. The decisions we make in the here and now will determine our future, and that of the next generations. We must not disappoint them.
Interview mit PROF. DR. MICHAEL BRAUNGART
Read more on the topic in our interview.