From buzzing bees to solar panels: Inside Bentley’s green shift



(NEW YORK) — More than 30,800 solar panels. An on-site water recycling system. Over 2,600 locally grown ferns, grasses and evergreens arranged in a “living wall.”

One of the “greenest” automotive factories in the world belongs to 100-year-old British luxury automaker Bentley. The marque transformed its aging production facility in Crewe, U.K., into an environmentalist’s nirvana, an undertaking that took two decades and millions of dollars.

The 80-year-old facility does not resemble a traditional automotive plant. Three hundred thousand buzzing bees coexist with the company’s 2,000 workers, a biodiversity initiative Bentley introduced in 2019. The installation of a living wall of plants will produce around 40 kilograms (about 88 pounds) of oxygen as well as absorb heat, provide natural insulation and filter VOC toxins and dust. Bentley’s solar car port, the largest in the U.K., can generate enough energy for more than 1,750 homes. One hundred percent of the facility’s electricity is produced by either solar panels or purchased as certified green energy.

“We see [sustainability] as an opportunity, not a threat,” Adrian Hallmark, chairman and CEO of Bentley, told reporters in November. “It’s trendy to talk about sustainability. We’ve been ahead of the trend for a while.”

In 1999, Bentley met the ISO 14001 environmental management standard, a first for the industry. It has since racked up more environmental recognitions and accreditations by independent auditors. Last year the Crewe campus achieved carbon neutral status from the Carbon Trust. The company now aims to be a global leader in sustainable luxury mobility: Its thirsty, powerful 12-cylinder engines will soon be phased out of production.

“It’s really a transformation of business,” Hallmark said. “We want to create a carbon neutral company end-to-end by 2030.”

The first all-electric Bentley will launch in 2025 and be carbon neutral from “cradle to grave,” according to the company. Only plug-in hybrid and battery electric powertrains will be offered a year later. By 2030, every Bentley sold will come with a plug and electric battery.

Mark Wakefield, managing director at AlixPartners, said Bentley’s green conversion could sway environmentally conscious consumers into buying one of the company’s six-figure, handcrafted vehicles. But cost continues to be the No. 1 factor when shopping for a conveyance, he noted. That said, automakers do take the manufacturing process and the distance their parts travel seriously.

“Companies believe they have a role to play in reducing emissions,” Wakefield told ABC News. “It’s all part of how companies see themselves evolving. Most automakers are trying to be ahead of regulations. They want to appeal to investors and employees. Not all [of these efforts] are consumer-focused.”

Axel Schmidt, who leads Accenture’s global automotive practice, said governments have historically focused on tailpipe emissions rather than on a vehicle’s manufacturing process. In the U.K., the sale of new gasoline and diesel-powered cars will be banned by 2030 in an attempt to bolster electrified vehicles. Yet the raw materials, components and final assembly are all critical parts of the “decarbonization” of the car, Schmidt argued, noting that nearly 17% of the overall emissions are generated before the car’s ignition has been started for the first time. That number rises to about 30% to 35% with electric vehicles because of the energy-intensive production of the battery.

“Ongoing discussions about the emissions from battery productions have made consumers increasingly aware of the total carbon footprint of their vehicle, and they demand transparency from the automakers,” Schmidt told ABC News by email.

Eco-conscious practices are slowing becoming the new norm in the automotive industry. Ford Motor publishes an annual sustainability report that grades the Dearborn automaker’s total greenhouse gas emissions. According to the 2020 report, Ford seeks to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and use 100% locally sourced renewable energy for all manufacturing plants globally by 2035, among other goals.

Audi, part of the Volkswagen AG portfolio that includes Bentley, said its manufacturing sites will have a carbon-neutral footprint by 2025. The German carmaker’s Brussels plant, which produces the electric e-tron SUV and e-tron Sportback, was awarded a “CO2-neutral site” certificate by the Belgian testing company Vinçotte.

“All automakers have in place plans to make their facilities more environmentally friendly, especially as they’re building new ones,” Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights at Edmunds, told ABC News. “We’re seeing these small steps over time.”

Caldwell, like Wakefield, said these feel-good efforts by automakers help brand image more than actual sales.

“It would be great if these green production practices resonated with consumers,” she explained. “But in reality they don’t.”

The substantial costs associated with modernizing the production process and facility are worth it, according to Chris Craft, Bentley’s board member for sales and marketing.

“Customers are becoming more values driven,” he said, “and they will align with brands that reflect their own values.”

Craft and Hallmark also see the company’s shift to full electrification as a win-win; 55% of the brand’s customers say they would buy an electric Bentley in five years.

“We want to lead the change” in electrification, Hallmark said. “We’re not frightened by it but inspired by it.”

Bentley offered a glimpse of its electrified future when it revealed the all-electric EXP 100 GT concept car. Futuristic, bold and eye-catching, the EXP 100 GT also highlighted the company’s sustainable efforts. Materials in the attractive grand tourer included a leather-like textile upholstery made from a bi-product of wine making and 5,000-year-old fossilized oak that had been lying in peat bogs for centuries.

The coronavirus pandemic has not put a brake on Bentley’s plans, all part of its Beyond100 strategy. The company is still on track to deliver more than 10,000 vehicles this year despite a dismal second-quarter, 800 job cuts and a restructuring of operations. Its top-selling model, the Bentayga SUV, got a redesign over the summer with a new interior and muscular exterior styling. More than 20,000 Bentaygas have been sold since the SUV went on sale in December 2015.

Strong interest in the third-generation Continental GT and all-new Flying Spur have also helped the company bounce back, Hallmark said.

“We’re not out of the woods yet, but the product range is the freshest it has ever been,” he pointed out.

Consumers can expect to hear even more from Bentley about its long-term sustainable business model. Bentley’s board has also pledged its support for the Paris Climate Agreement, a landmark global accord adopted in 2015 to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

“We have to play our part … and transform everything that we do,” Hallmark said. “Every material that we use in the factory and the products, if not already sustainable, will be over the next five to 10 years.”

He added, “That’s only the beginning. We have a lot more to go. We’re taking 100 years of DNA and transferring that into a modern context.”

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