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Interview with Janine Thies, BMW Group Recycling and Dismantling Centre Strategy and Communications

Janine Thies works at the BMW Group Recycling and Dismantling Centre Strategy and Communications. We talked to her about her work, learnings, plans, goals, and what sustainability means to her personally.

“BMW is the place where I can have the biggest impact possible in my situation and a lot of powerful resources to enable change.”

What does sustainability mean for you?

Janine Thies: “For me, it is understanding the boundaries of our planet – full stop. That’s the most essential part of sustainability: understanding that there are limited resources and that it’s my responsibility to make sure I make a positive impact and contribute to conserving where we live. For me, it’s an elementary term.”

 

And in regards to this, what motivates you to work in sustainability?

JT: “It’s more of a passion than a job description. I’ve always felt very connected to nature since I was a kid. It was natural for me to be in nature for hours. I didn’t need any toys, but I needed to be out in nature and explore. Everything – every stone or leaf – has a meaning or a task. It’s fascinating that, in nature, everything makes sense.

Since we are also part of nature, I always seek to answer the question: What is my part in that system? This is what motivates me every day.”

 

How did you become a circular economy manager?

JT: “I can say I grew up with a sustainable mindset. My dad is an architect, and in our home, everything’s focused on natural materials. And to be honest, when I was a kid, I didn’t like that. But my dad made me understand that there are natural and artificial materials and their benefits and disadvantages.

I studied Russian, English, and business economics. After my studies, I started working at BMW as a so-called brand protection manager. I worked in the field of counterfeits where we were looking for fake manufacturing buildings where BMW parts got produced in an unauthorized way. These parts are not safe, and some customers can’t distinguish the original from the fake. I was responsible for the US and the Russian market. The peak of working as a brand protection manager was finding the manufacturing buildings where they produced the fake parts. In the US, I worked with the FBI a lot. When we located a building, they would raid the building while we would wait in a secured car nearby. You can really imagine it like you see it in movies.

Why do I tell you all of this? One day, one of the FBI agents I grew friends with was sitting next to me while a raid was happening and asked me: Why do you actually do that job? He asked me this because I would always talk to him about the urgency of changing our economy because of climate change. At that moment, I gave him the usual answer: Because we want the BMW customers to be safe from fake parts. But on my flight back to Germany, his question really had me thinking. I realized that the job of a brand protection manager was not what I was passionate about. So, all of a sudden, I decided to write a business case for the materials we found when we did our raids. Up to then, all materials found in raids were scraped. And this is how I found myself calculating how we could recycle and reuse the material while I was on the plane back to Germany.

Long story short: This is how I came to change jobs inside BMW and join their task force for a circular business. The task force, which I was a founding member of, grew very successful, and BMW created a venture out of it.

I didn’t join the joint venture but decided to join the recycling and dismantling team of BMW and became a circular economy manager.”

 

What are some things that you do to make your own life more sustainable?

JT: “Six years ago, I decided not to fly anymore. It just didn’t feel right to fly to a conference and then talk about the importance of sustainability on stage. That’s one thing.

Another thing is that I rarely eat meat, and if I do, it is from the region I live and very sustainably farmed. The third thing, of course, is talking with my kids about being part of nature and giving back so they grow up with the mindset of being part of nature.

And the fourth thing is supporting my husband’s business to grow more sustainable. He’s been a leadership trainer for 19 years, and four years ago, he changed his training into being in nature. To see how it developed and a lot of high-level management come there and understand the importance of being in balance with nature is really cool.”

 

What is something new you learned in the past year?

JT: “I learned something about myself. Big companies like BMW oftentimes get a lot of hatred, claiming that they could and should do a lot more for sustainability than they already do. What they forget is how eager and passionate sustainability people work at these kinds of global players. However, this totally affects me. I´m continuously questioning myself if I was in the right place. I´m absolutely impact-driven and realized that the needed shift in our economy needs all global players driven by passionate employees.

So, for me, BMW is the place where I can have the biggest impact possible in my situation and a lot of powerful resources to enable change.”

 

What do you think companies lack to become better at sustainability?

JT: “While a lot of people talk about technology, I’d say even more than technology, we need better people. As a keynote speaker, I get some deep insights into companies, and what most companies lack is investing in the development of their employees. These companies need to understand that sustainability is also a personal decision. People need to ask themselves what kind of world they want to create for their families and friends and how they can match their motivation with their daily work. Sustainability needs more than what is said in most job descriptions. If companies decide to come up only with technological solutions and they don’t develop the people and mindsets behind it, it’s not gonna work out.”

 

What would you rate your most successful measure for more sustainability and or circularity in the last years and why?

JT: “Eight years ago, I would have said it’s creating that business case. Next would be the founding of the joint venture. Today, looking back at the last 14 years, I’d say it is understanding how to create momentum for the people I talk to – no matter if it is in a one-on-one conversation or if I’m standing in front of hundreds of people on stage. I found a way to – in a matter of 30 minutes – take people on the personal journey of finding what is important to them, how to match that to their work, and creating concrete measures from it that they can apply straight away. And the best part: The measures are not only sustainable, they’re also profitable. I’d call that my biggest achievement of the last two years, especially because the thoughts I provoke are often multiplied by the people I talk to.”

 

What would you wish for from a legislative point of view?

JT: “Overall, I think sustainable decisions should be made easier for consumers from a monetary point of view. I don’t understand why, in Germany, we need to pay more taxes on vegetarian food than on non-vegetarian food. Why is flying as cheap as it is worldwide, or even owning a private jet?

Why are big oil companies allowed to destroy nature/ people, although they have been knowing their effects on climate change and human health for decades?

I think everyone can be part of the solution if laws, subventions, and tax reliefs focus on the real big levers and support the needed shift towards an economy that´s in peace with Mother Nature.”

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