Land Rover hits the road to sustainability

Land Rover's Fran Leedham has a balancing act to perform. The company is driving for a greener image, which is embodied in a new concept car. But it also has to cater to its customers' needs. Tom Idle talks to the head of environment and sustainability about her challenging role

We like to shout about good environmental performance within these pages. But car manufacturers haven’t really had a look in of late. The automotive sector, and in particular the off-road vehicle market, hasn’t had it easy. Weighed-down with negative “gas guzzler” and “Chelsea tractor” monikers, the sustainability credentials have long been overlooked. And, as the world becomes increasingly aware of our need to curb CO2 emissions, it’s easy to see why. Transport is an easy target.

This month, I paid a visit to Solihull, home of Land Rover’s manufacturing plant where I met the company’s head of environment and sustainability, Fran Leedham.

“Land Rover’s environmental commitments go back at least ten years,” she tells me.

And, as one of the very first companies to adopt ISO 14001 back in 1998, a natural progression into the world of sustainability practice has evolved. And some of this has been driven by a customer interest in the responsible nature of Land Rover as a business. “Some of our customers are becoming more interested in the environmental performance and the company’s commitments. They care about Land Rover’s sustainability, and it’s very important that we have a strong sustainability profile. That’s important for all leading companies.”

But Leedham recognises that the firm’s environmental credentials are not ranked anywhere near as high as the importance of the end-product and the needs of the customer needs. “If you had a questionnaire that asked, ‘Where do you rank environment?’, alongside ‘Do you want a six-CD changer?’ or ‘Do you want a heated a steering wheel?’, environment would not necessarily feature very high.”

But Leedham says that her job of promoting Land Rover’s responsible nature has been made easier over the last three years as people have become much more aware of environmental issues. “Last year, there wasn’t a day that would go by without seeing another climate change programme on the TV,” she says. And maybe that’s the reason for the huge interest in Land_e, Land Rover’s technology concept initiative, launched at last year’s International Motor Show in Geneva. The vehicle, a concept car like any other, showcases a whole range of innovative technologies that reduce both fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.

Unlike other manufacturers, Land Rover has resisted the temptation to bring out a hybrid version of its popular models because, according to Leedham, “the ideal is not just one solution, it’s about getting a balance – finding the right technologies for the right situation”. But, as Leedham admits, the technology is not all unique. What is unique, is that the Land_e is a great example of a product integrating lots of different solutions to CO2 reduction. How much of this new technology, if any, will be incorporated into production, is unknown. But it certainly looks impressive

“The biggest challenge for us is being able to produce a vehicle that delivers the things our customers want – its capability, towing performance, and all the other reasons why they buy Land Rovers – and, at the same time, delivering all of the environmental requirements we need to. That is our biggest balancing act.”

And, of course, this balancing act makes Leedham’s task that more challenging. The characteristics of a Range Rover, for example, do not inherently fit with improving environmental performance. And it is this image of the 4×4 industry which has caused the development of some scepticism within environmentalist movements. “It isn’t easy, but it’s a very interesting challenge,” she says. And it’s a challenge that she has met. The manufacturing plants in Solihull and Halewood show excellent environmental performance. The factories are constantly reducing their energy, water and waste. “We have reduced our energy usage per vehicle by 28% since 2001.”

Having “addressed pretty much all of things we can do without significant investment”, Land Rover is now looking at the next phase of improvements, including process change, biomass, wind power and solar power. “Part of this process is thinking about logistics and supply chain,” Leedham tells me. “There is a lot of global drive for low-cost country sourcing, which inevitably means more miles. So we are looking at ship miles calculations. We are trying to get to the point of calculating the overall CO2 impacts of producing a particular vehicle, and you need some really good data to be able to do that.”

In the meantime, the company’s offsetting programme, launched last summer, is in full swing. There are two elements to it. Firstly, Land Rover pays to offset the damage being done by its manufacturing and assembly process – figures of which, I’m told, are confidential so as not to give away the business’s productivity rates.

The second part is the customer scheme. This offsetting is built into the price of the car for 45,000 miles and applies at present to UK customers of 2007 models and onwards. So, it’s a mandatory offset paid by your customers? “It is built into the price because we feel it’s important as part of our overall commitment. However, if an individual did not want to take part in the scheme, they can ask not to be a part of it.”

But, despite some negative reactions to many carbon-offsetting initiatives, Land Rover’s customers seem to have bought into the concept. “We could have made it a voluntary scheme but we know that take-up of that is very, very low.” At present, offsetting (orchestrated by Climate Care) costs around £85 for a £25,000 Freelander or around £165 for a £70,000 Range Rover.

Elsewhere, Land Rover is tackling the End of Life Vehicle (ELV) directive, which requires manufacturers to take back for free vehicles that have reached the end of their life and don’t possess any real value. Numerous collection stations (“they used to be called scrap yards,” says Leedham) have been set up across the country. The company’s design process incorporates measures that not only meet current legislation (such as the restrictions on hazardous materials), but also to find new uses or new materials that are recyclable, ultimately reducing landfill.

“We have to make sure that all components do not contain hazardous materials, like mercury or lead. Over time, there has been a change in components and component make-up. The challenge for us is managing our long supply chains. We have to ensure that by the time you get the car built, it doesn’t go over the environmental limits it is required to stay within.” As part of this, manufacturers’ vehicles must achieve a recyclability rate of 85% or more.

It is obvious that companies like Land Rover are doing some great work on CO2 reduction, improved fuel economy and product design with whole-life cycles in mind. And of course, this work is being carried out in one of the most heavily regulated industries. There has been for many years and for many reasons: pollution control, permitting processes, integrated pollution control, the aforementioned ELV and product recyclability targets. And now, they must contend with the CO2 targets that every car manufacturer will have to meet. “We are heavily regulated. There is a balance between society’s desire to have individual forms of transport and the world’s need to reduce climate change impact.

“As manufacturers of vehicles we have a responsibility to make sure we are delivering to all requirements, and to make sure that we are reducing our overall CO2 and environmental impact.”

And Land Rover is certainly making great progress. Over the last few years, the company has put new engines into its vehicles. In fact, the oldest engine in a Land Rover is just over two years old. Just by doing that, they have made 10% CO2 emissions improvements on petrol, and 5% on diesel. Add that to the wide range of innovations on show within the Land_e concept, which could soon become a reality, and maybe it’s time this particular vehicle manufacturer was given the chance to shake off its gas guzzler tag.

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