Environmental protection at Bosch
How the environmental idea of the 1970s developed into becoming climate neutral
The effects of industrial production on air quality and nature itself have been visible since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. However, it took a very long time before widespread awareness of the pressures on the environment and the desire for change developed. The economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s again resulted in a noticeable, negative impact on the environment, particularly in Europe and North America, giving rise to a movement in the early 1970s whose focus was squarely on environmental protection and resource conservation. This also took root at Bosch and continued to develop steadily until reaching CO₂ neutrality in 2020.
A first impulse was given in 1961 when Social Democrat politician Willy Brandt demanded that the skies over the Ruhr region must become blue again. In the largest urban conurbation in the Federal Republic of Germany, soot and smoke from coal production covered the sky and had been proven to be the cause of many illnesses in the local population.
When Brandt became German Chancellor in 1969, he created the position of a nature conservation officer. Toxic waste scandals and dying forests affected the population at large, and environmental protection became a socio-political issue, leading to the first program for environmental protection being launched by the German government in 1971.
However, environmental protection was not limited to Germany, but was fast become an international topic. The year 1971 also marks the birth of the environmental organization Greenpeace, which was founded in Vancouver, Canada. Studies critical of growth, such as the Club of Rome’s 1972 report The Limits To Growth, and international initiatives, like the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment first held in Stockholm that same year, caught the world’s attention. Two years later, the German Federal Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt), the first scientific environmental authority in Europe, was established in the Federal Republic of Germany.
Environmental protection at Bosch
This social development found its echo at Bosch’s corporate headquarters. In its “Research and development” section, Robert Bosch GmbH’s annual report for 1970 mentioned “Environmental protection” for the first time. “The ever-growing importance of environmental protection and the tightening of legal regulations require greater attention to issues related to environmental protection.” This was noted in the first Bosch environmental protection guideline, the first comprehensive measure to come into force on January 1, 1973.
Key aspects included waste disposal, noise control in production and in the products themselves, wastewater treatment, and the mitigation of harmful emissions through the advancement of fuel injection technology, as well as radiation protection. The topic was made a top priority and handed over to the executive management and plant management. At the same time, investment in environmental protection measures throughout the Bosch Group increased year on year.
Focus on environmental protection and resource conservation in products
Environmental protection was not simply limited to an anchoring principle in corporate activities, it was also established as an element in the development of products. Bosch was able to draw on its long tradition of developing products that conserved resources in the process. The developers at Bosch actively incorporated this aspect in household appliances for the first time and consequently in their product advertising as well. In Bosch’s automotive technology business, which typically focused on original equipment for new vehicles, this benefit of Bosch technology was invisible to buyers. However, the automotive manufacturers who worked with Bosch as customers benefited from Bosch technology.
This helped save fuel, making the vehicles attractive for car-buying customers. A second goal emerged in this field in the 1960s: reducing emissions in vehicles with combustion engines. In 1967, Bosch took a crucial step toward reducing car exhaust emissions with the D-Jetronic — the first electronic gasoline-injection system. Further development of injection systems continued in the same vein, enabling ever greater economy in vehicle engines. The new injectors combined with a three-way catalytic converter and the lambda sensor developed by Bosch (1976) to reduce exhaust gases by as much as 90 percent.
Safe, clean, economical as the goal of development
At the end of 1973, the board of management ultimately defined the 3S program as the primary development objective for the Automotive Technology business sector. The initiative took the existing aspects of reducing emissions (clean) and becoming more economical and added another: safety, for vehicle occupants and other road users alike. Since the second half of the 1960s, however, Bosch has also been researching alternatives to the internal-combustion engine as a powertrain. In the 1970s, Bosch showcased , which combined electric motors with internal-combustion engines.
The other Bosch divisions also stepped up. Beginning in the summer of 1976, the Bosch Thermotechnology division built an experimental single-family home on the plant premises in Wernau near Stuttgart to demonstrate the possibilities of saving energy with the latest technology. The conventional gas central heating system was only there as a reserve for the coldest winter days. Otherwise, the rooms and water were heated by a combination of a heat pump using warm air from outside and solar collectors on the roof. The name Tritherm was chosen to reflect the three heat sources used. The results were impressive: Under optimum conditions, the design reduced the amount of energy needed from fossil sources by 90 percent. It was a harbinger of intelligent energy management for buildings.
Far removed from the high figures achieved in experiments like these, the Bosch developers of washing machines, refrigerators, and heaters were hard at work chipping away at water, electricity, and gas consumption in mass-produced items. Their efforts have really added up over time; for example, Bosch refrigeration devices now use as much as 80 percent less energy than in 1990.
Taking a stand
All these measures and programs came together to form an increasingly clearer environmental stance at Bosch. In 1996, the board of management formulated its ten environmental protection guidelines as an equal goal alongside product quality and economic efficiency. By publishing its first environmental report in 1998, Bosch provided a complete overview of its environmental protection activities for the first time, from development and production through to the end of the products’ life cycle. The , which have been published regularly since then, make one thing in particular clear: constant work is involved, both in terms of responsibility for the blue planet as well as for economic success. Without all this preparatory work having been done, the implementation of in 2020 would not have been possible.
I am the head of Historical Communications at Robert Bosch GmbH, and I work on preserving and communicating our company’s long and multifaceted history. Before joining Bosch in 2007, I was employed for over ten years in various museums in an academic capacity. I also worked freelance in the same field. As a historian and specialist in cultural studies, I want to show that history is far from dusty and lifeless, but rather relevant and exciting.