By Kathryn Wolper
In the wake of a recent emissions scandal, Volkswagen stands at the nexus of ethics and image management. Earlier this month, the EPA divulged that Volkswagen has been allegedly using what the EPA calls a “defeat device” during emissions testing on its diesel cars in the U.S. since 2008. This defeat device consists of software that dramatically reduces the vehicles’ emissions during laboratory testing to levels that are significantly lower than practical, on-the-road emissions. This blow to Volkswagen’s reputation was reflected in the stock market as the company’s shares fell. Although Volkswagen’s diesel cars make up a small portion of its vehicles that are on the roads in the U.S., the scandal encourages general consumer mistrust of the company and its practices.
Volkswagen has begun to manage the scandal by appointing Matthias Müller, former chief of Porsche (a subset of Volkswagen), as CEO to replace Martin Winterkorn, according to the Wall Street Journal. Winterkorn issued a personal apology and Volkswagen has stopped selling the cars involved in the EPA allegations, according to the Wall Street Journal. Despite these efforts, the damage to Volkswagen’s reputation with consumers has already been done. Consumers who buy diesel Volkswagen vehicles for their supposedly excellent fuel economy feel duped by the automaker. The allegations undermine what consumers felt were their informed and eco-friendly car-buying choices.
The implications of cheating on emissions testing seem especially relevant in light of the recent attention to the importance of global commitment to the environment. Earlier this month, world leaders committed themselves to 17 Global Goals, which include an emphasis on clean energy and climate change. Furthermore, Pope Francis spoke clearly and urgently about climate change during his momentous visit to the U.S.
This scandal shows the intimate link between consumers, policymakers and companies in the effort to stop and reverse climate change. The EPA has standards in place to keep emissions low, and consumers must trust EPA standards and testing during their decision making processes before making purchases. However, manufacturers are an integral link in this chain. Without ethical and cooperative participation in EPA testing, consumers, policymakers and companies cannot work effectively together towards the same goals.
The scandal demonstrates a discrepancy between the goals of Volkswagen and the goals of the EPA. Volkswagen’s alleged lapse in ethics is a discouraging marker for consumers who are concerned with ethical consumption and rely on the policies of authorities like the EPA to make informed and conscious purchases.