Cars - electric

Ethical buying guide to electric & hybrid cars, from Ethical Consumer

Ethical buying guide to electric & hybrid cars, from Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

How ethical are electric cars? 

This guide includes:

  • Ethical and environmental rating of 17 models of all-electric and plug-in hybrid cars
  • Conflict Minerals
  • Charging up your electric car
  • Spotlight on Tesla


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Our ratings are live updated scores from our primary research database. They are based on primary and secondary research across 23 categories - 17 negative categories and 6 positive ones (Company Ethos and Product Sustainability). Find out more about our ethical ratings


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Last updated: August 2018 




Choosing an electric car


Many consumers are now seriously considering the purchase of electric cars.

According to a survey in July 2018 by the motor group AA, half of young people in the UK would like to own an electric car.

By the end of 2017, plug-in cars as a proportion of total UK registrations had only reached 2.9%, but the overall market for hybrid and electric cars has grown by 156% in four years.

Improvements in technology and a broadening of the range of models available (now over 90) from virtually all the major manufacturers should see this portion of the market continue to grow over the coming years.

Electric cars outperform most other models environmentally with recent research suggesting that, on average, they will emit half the CO2 emissions of a diesel car by 2030, including the manufacturing emissions. They do cost more though, and there are still issues with the distance they can travel before recharges. But they have become practical options for increasing numbers of people. 

As the 'Top 30 greenest cars' table shows below, electric cars can be expensive, even after government grants, although prices are coming down. The price quoted on the table is after the application of grants. Their newness also means that there are fewer second-hand models available at lower prices, although as the electric car market grows so will the resale market. You can search for used electric cars on Next Green Car.


Top 30 Greenest Cars


Table: Next Green Car rating




Hybrid cars

Although hybrid cars are at least as expensive as electric cars, they do solve the problem of distance between charges for those who want to reduce motoring impacts but need a longer range. Although they still have a petrol engine on board, many people see them as a useful intermediate technology until charging infrastructure and car technology improves to make pure electric practical for everyone.

There are two main types of hybrid car:

  • The old-style of hybrid uses batteries to give lower fuel consumption, but doesn’t really have a ‘range’ it can travel on battery alone. Three models make it onto the top 30 greenest cars table.

  • PHEV stands for plug-in hybrid electric vehicle and there are six models in the top thirty table. They can be recharged from ordinary mains electricity like a pure electric car and can usually travel around 30-40 miles on battery alone. 

Although almost all current hybrids mix petrol engines with electric motors, there are a couple of models of diesel electric hybrids appearing on the market. For the reasons stated below, we would not recommend them. 




Conflict minerals 


Today electronics form an essential part of a car. Drivers are now reliant on their cars’ computers for safety and maintenance, and futurologists tell us that cars will increasingly be shaped by the developments in the ‘Internet of Things’.

This means that car manufacturers are now one of the biggest consumers of elements commonly known as ‘Conflict Minerals’. Conflict minerals are defined as being tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold which have been mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and surrounding areas. The mining of these minerals has been implicated in the financing of no fewer than 27 conflicts within Africa.


Car companies’ conflict minerals policies

There has been a lot of focus on electronics companies with regards to conflict minerals, yet the automotive industry has received very little scrutiny from civil society. While nearly all the companies mentioned the issue of conflict minerals in their public reports, the industry seems to be very slow in reacting to the pressure needed to ensure minerals sourced are conflict free.

Of the 20 companies covered in this guide that we rated on their conflict minerals policies:

  • only Tesla and Ford received our best rating,
  • Toyota, General Motors and FiatChrysler scored middle
  • the remaining companies all received a worst rating.


Use of cobalt in batteries


Cobalt is needed to create lithium-ion batteries, and over half of the world’s cobalt supply comes from the DRC. Although it is not currently considered a conflict mineral, cobalt mining in the DRC has been linked to dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, deaths and widespread child labour. As a result, a number of human rights organisations are now pushing for it to be added to the list of minerals included in the Dodd-Frank Section 1502 Conflict Minerals Rule.

In November 2017, Amnesty International released a new report called ‘Time to Recharge’, looking at companies’ sourcing policies for cobalt from the DRC. It assesses the progress that 28 companies likely to be buying cobalt from the DRC have made since the risk of child labour was revealed to them in January 2016.

The progress report says: “As a group, the companies in the electric vehicle sector are lagging behind their counterparts in the computer, communication and consumer electronics sectors when it comes to due diligence over their cobalt supply chains. Only one company surveyed has made explicit reference to cobalt as a material requiring particular due diligence, even though many of the rest are already following the OECD Guidance for their 3TG [other conflict minerals] supply chains.

None are disclosing the identities of their cobalt smelters/refiners, as required under international standards. Though many companies have joined industry-led joint initiatives to address risks associated with cobalt and other raw materials, none is currently disclosing specific risks or abuses identified in connection with their supply chains. In light of the amount of cobalt the companies in this sector are expected to consume, much more action is urgently needed.”

Amnesty assessed company practices according to five criteria that reflect international standards, including the requirement that companies carry out ‘due diligence’ checks on their supply chain and the requirement that they are transparent about the associated human rights risks. The organisation gave each company a rating of ‘no action’, ‘minimum’, ‘moderate’ or ‘adequate’ for each criterion.


Progress of the car companies featured in Amnesty’s report:

Image: amnesty report

Charging your Electric Car


Obviously, if you’re using an electric vehicle your electricity usage will increase, so you’ll want to buy your electricity from a company that is as ethical as possible.

As we detailed in our guide to electricity suppliers, the effect of buying from a company that officially sells ‘100% renewable electricity’ is quite complicated and not as big as you might hope, as all of our electricity comes from the same grid, and the renewables on it were largely all built as a result of the same government incentives.

At the same time, there are a few companies such as Ecotricity and Good Energy that are doing something extra to help build renewables, and they are worth supporting.

Yet it is important not to get the impression that it doesn’t matter how much electricity you use just because it is ‘100% renewable’, (unless of course you are charging from your own renewably generated system). Using extra electricity can still result in more fossil fuels being burned, it will just be allocated to someone else’s account. Thus, no matter who your supplier is, always buy the smallest and most efficient car that will meet your needs. 

It’s generally OK to charge from an ordinary three pin plug, although some attention needs to be paid to cables, and faster chargers can be installed too.

Not having off-street parking for home-charging isn’t the barrier it once was, as the availability of public charging points is increasing. There are also grants for councils and workplaces to install charging points, which could mean you never have to charge at home.


Using public charge points

When charging on a public network, you have less control over the supplier. There are six national charging networks, three of which use electricity from companies that help to build renewables: Ecotricity, Zero Carbon World (Good Energy), and Tesla. There is a fourth: Chargemaster, which officially uses electricity from renewables that were built by others as a result of government mandates. Chargemaster is about to be bought by BP.

The Charge Your Car network, which also provides infrastructure to regional schemes such as Energise, GMEV, Source West and ChargePlace Scotland, uses electricity supplied by Ovo, which also does not build its own renewables, but 33% of its electricity officially comes from renewables built as a result of government mandates.

Ethical Consumer contacted Pod Point and Tesla to find out about the official sources of their electricity. Although no response was received from Pod Point, Tesla got back to us, saying that, “In Europe, where Tesla controls the connection and meter, we only work with 100% renewable energy providers. There are, however, some sites in the network that are connected to the property’s existing power source, in which case our host controls the supply along with the rest of the premises.”

The company was unable to give specifics but said that Tesla “would support a renewable energy policy for hosts [if they didn’t already have one].”

Different networks have different payment schemes. Some are pay-as-you-go, possibly with set charges (connection fee, price per time, price per energy consumed, or a combination of all three). Others have ‘free’ charging as part of a (paid-for) membership scheme. Most networks do require you to have an account before you can use their charging points.


Finding a public charge point

If charging at home isn’t an option and/or you want to know if there’s a good network of charging points within your regular orbit, visit Zap Map. Developed by Next Green Car, it has the latest information on where to find your nearest charging point, including, crucially, whether it is available to use. At the time of writing, there were nearly 17,000 connectors at 5,900 locations around the country, with more connectors being added every day.

The provision isn’t spread evenly across the UK. Urban areas are, unsurprisingly, better served than rural ones: some London boroughs have charging points every 0.1 mile, while in Devon the average distance to a charging point is 45 miles. According to the Energy Saving Trust, the average driver in England is four miles from a charging point, in Scotland it is three miles and in Wales it is 12 miles.

If you’re planning a longer journey, fear not. Electric vehicle charging points were widely available at motorway stations long before they were made mandatory in 2017. You can look up whether the service stations on your route have EV charging points and, importantly, find out which company supplies the electricity using Motorway services online

Charging points also have different speeds. While the slower chargers take many hours, rapid charging stations can now charge to 80% battery capacity in 30 minutes, which makes it plausible to do long journeys in electric vehicles. More information is on the zapmap.



Company profiles


Tesla Motors was founded in 2003 by a group of engineers in Silicon Valley who wanted to prove that electric cars could be better than petrol-powered cars. In 2012 Tesla launched Model S and it is said to have more than 50,000 vehicles on the road worldwide and has created a network of chargers which connect popular routes in North America, Europe and Asia Pacific.

Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk also co-founded PayPal. In June 2014 he announced that Tesla Motors would open up its patents to allow the future development of electric cars.


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