Harley-Davidson Embraces Sustainability, but Will Its Customers?

At the Green Energy Summit that took place earlier this month in its home city of Milwaukee, Harley-Davidson President Matt Levatich publicly touted the company’s sustainable business initiatives, calling them a core part of its business strategy. Although Harley-Davidson released Sustainability Strategy Reports in 2009 and 2010, and has been tracking greenhouse gas emissions since 2004, sustainability has not typically been a strategic focus for the company.

However, attention to sustainability has been ramping up at Harley over the last 18 months and some progress has been made. The creation of a sustainability subcommittee within the board of directors is partially responsible for this new strategic focus. According to the 2010 report, the company cut carbon emissions from its manufacturing operations by 42 percent from 79,232 metric tons in 2004 to 46,184 metric tons in 2010. Harley is also evaluating several different waste reduction projects and efficiency investments in its York, Pennsylvania factory. “We’re planting a lot of seeds. None of them are heroic by themselves,” Levatich said. “Collectively, we think it’s going to make a big difference.”

Despite these developments, there is more work to be done for Harley. The greenhouse gas data the company is reporting is restricted to direct emissions from manufacturing only. Its tracking does not include emissions for indirect sources like electricity consumption, purchased materials, or impacts associated with product use. I’m no product lifecycle expert, but given that motorcycles generally produce more tailpipe emissions than cars, I would bet the farm that the carbon impacts from customers riding Harley motorcycles are more significant than the emissions that result from manufacturing them. If Harley-Davidson is going to get serious about sustainability, they need to start taking a hard look at how they design their products.

The company also needs to do a better job of communicating with customers and the public about its sustainability work and how it relates to the business and the brand. After much searching, the only mention of social responsibility I was able to find on the company’s website was in relation to the organizations receiving money from the Harley-Davidson Foundation. There are also no visible links to the Sustainability Strategy Reports which I could only find using a Google search. The reports provide a basic overview of the company’s sustainability perspective and initiatives, but the strategy articulated within seems largely driven by current and impending regulations.

The company’s past reluctance to be more upfront about sustainability is likely due to fears about how Harley customers – who are some of the most brand loyal in the world – would feel about it. On the one hand, the Harley-Davidson experience lends itself well to values like nature conservation and preservation – values that are fundamentally connected to sustainability. According to Levatich, the company’s new sustainability focus was driven in part by customers’ appreciation for nature and their experiences with it on the open road. He says, “The passion and bond our customers have for us and their desire to escape to beautiful places represents a terrific opportunity around this notion of preservation and renewal.”

On the other hand, Harley is extremely conscious and protective of its image and it’s unclear whether customers are willing to embrace this softer side of the company. It remains to be seen if the company can balance the hard, rebel-like nature of the brand with the pressure to adopt a more conscious, caring approach to conducting business. My guess is, most Harley customers will get on board with the company’s desire to operate more responsibly – up to a point. If Harley-Davidson decides to start looking at how to clean up those roaring motorcycle engines, some customers are likely to take issue.

[Image credit: Moyan Brenn, Flickr]

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Kara Scharwath is a corporate social responsibility professional, marketing consultant and Sustainable Management MBA Candidate. She is currently working as a Graduate Associate in Corporate Citizenship at the Walt Disney Company while pursuing her degree at Presidio Graduate School. Follow her on Twitter @karameredith.

Kara is a corporate social responsibility professional and marketing consultant with expertise in consumer research and environmental science. Currently, Kara is working as a Graduate Associate on the Corporate Citizenship team at the Walt Disney Company. She is also a founding partner of BeSui Consulting, a boutique marketing consulting firm specializing in consumer insights and marketing communications.Kara graduated from Rutgers University with a B.S. in Environmental Policy, Institutions and Behaviors. She is currently pursuing her M.B.A. in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School where she is exploring the impact investing space and working to identify new ways to increase access to capital for start-ups and social ventures. Follow her on Twitter @karameredith.