Ethical buying guide to Cars, from Ethical Consumer

Ethical buying guide to 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.

This guide is part of a special report on Transport and includes:

  • Ethical and environmental ratings for over 34 different brands of petrol, diesel or hybrid cars
  • Best Buy recommendations
  • how to choose a lower impact car
  • the top 30 UK green car models
  • which cars have the lowest CO2 emissions
  • company profiles
  • diesel v petrol


See also our guide to electric cars >

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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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Best Buys

as of July/August 2015

As our ratings are constantly updated, it is possible that company ratings on the score table may have changed since this report was written.


Scoring best against our usual ethical issues on the table are Volvo, Suzuki and Mazda.

The petrol engined Suzuki Clerio 1.0 SZ3 Dualjet is also the best-performing non-electric car in our Top 30 green cars table. It is therefore our best buy car. Happily, at £8,499, it is also the cheapest model in the Top 30 list.

Volvo and Mazda do not have any models in the Top 30.

Because individual motoring needs may not all be met by this model we recommend using the data in the nextgreencar website in conjunction with our score table to find something that works for you. With 11 other companies scoring 6 or above, there should be something there for everyone.

Published July 2015



Choosing a lower impact car

If we agree that an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 is what we need (the target of much national-level bargaining) then, in an ideal world, we might individually be looking to achieve a similar reduction over a similar period. At the time of writing, with 35 years to go, on average just over 2% per year would do it depending on your starting point.

This means that if you are looking to replace your car now, and the average length of ownership is (say) five years, then a model with an official CO2 rating of at least 10% better than the one you’re currently driving would work.

The CO2 emissions figures are commonly understated, but as we are looking for a relative improvement, then this matters somewhat less.


Manufacturing impacts

Calculating the carbon footprint of a car is so complex that, according to Mike Berners-Lee, EC’s go-to specialist on the subject, many attempts are doomed from the outset. [1] Different approaches have given answers that vary hugely. His own calculations estimate that the embodied emissions of a car are roughly similar to its likely exhaust-pipe emissions throughout its lifetime. Or as follows:

Citroen C1 = 6 tonnes CO2
Ford Mondeo = 17 tonnes CO2
Land Rover Discovery = 35 tonnes CO2

With this in mind we also need to be looking to the manufacturers to be making an 80% reduction in these manufacturing impacts by 2050. Those that are are listed below in 'Sustainability on track'.

Chris Goodall, in his book ‘How to live a low carbon life’ points out that this means that it almost never makes sense environmentally to ‘trade up’ to a new lower-emissions model, unless you scrap your current model and do not resell it.

Otherwise total new emissions will include your old car’s new mileage from its new owner plus that from the new one you are driving. To keep up with a 2% annual reduction target in this case might involve other stategies such as hypermiling or eco-driving (i.e. fuel-saving driving techniques), or simply reducing annual mileage accordingly. [2]




Sustainability on track?

image: ethical shopping guide to cars


Climate Counts is a not-for-profit organisation which scores the world’s largest companies on their climate impact. In December 2013 it released a report which analysed the greenhouse gas emissions of 100 global corporations between 2005 and 2012 to determine their performance against science-based goals that seek to limit climate change to 2° Celsius. [5]

The report found that 49 of 100 companies studied were on track to reduce carbon emissions in line with scientific targets to avert dangerous climate change. Of the car manufacturers included in the report, those on target were Hyundai, Volkswagen, and Volvo.

Unfortunately that means that just over half were still emitting unsustainable levels of carbon. Car manufacturers said not to be on target were BMW, Toyota and Ford.



Next green car website

Since we last reviewed car manufacturers (2008) a new website called Next Green Car has emerged with high quality, in-depth and frequently updated information.

Covering both new and second-hand models, it should definitely be part of anyone’s information gathering if they are looking to take environmental issues into account when buying a car.

We have been given permission to use Next Green Car’s data to populate the table below with some information on the 30 ‘greenest’ car models as of May 2015.

The NGC Rating is a bit like our ethiscore and expresses a vehicle’s environmental impact as a score ranging from 0 for the greenest vehicles to 100+ for the most polluting.

The score takes into account all measured (and regulated) air-based emissions – not just CO2 but local pollutants such as NOx and particulates – and includes life cycle impacts, not just exhaust emissions. The effects of diesel cars on human health (explained below) are therefore factored into the scores too.


top 30 UK green car models table 




The problem with diesel


As the table of green car models shows, the most common engine type in this list of low impact models is diesel. The focus on CO2 emissions in regulation and popular concern has increased the attraction of diesels whose engines are more efficient in this regard.

It is now well known that the problem with this focus is that diesel engines are much worse emitters of toxic pollutants which can have severe and immediate impacts on human health. They emit 7-10 times more NOx per mile than petrol cars and the World Health Organisation has classified diesel exhaust as carcinogenic. Living in cities with high levels of NO2 has been associated with low birth weight babies and small head circumferences, as well as excess deaths and heart attacks. [3]

This would matter less if there were effective emission regulations and technologies. Whilst there are new ‘Euro 6’ standards due to come into force this year, manufacturers are struggling to meet this standard ‘without costly additions’.4 They are lobbying for further delays. [3]

This means that, if you live in a city or do most of your motoring in a city, diesel is a bad choice from an ethical point of view. Fortunately for city dwellers, there are now electric, hybrid and petrol engines on the top 30 table also performing well on CO2. This may go some way to explaining the trend for falling sales of diesel cars recently.




Buying an ethical car


Buying a car is, after buying a house, usually the most significant purchase people make. And using it creates one of the most significant environmental impacts that people make. Because of this, ethical car buying decisions are normally focused on the environmental impact of the models themselves, rather than the wider behaviour of the companies that make them. We therefore looked in some detail at this subject in ‘Choosing a lower impact car’ above and in our Electric Car Product Guide.

Nevertheless, it is important not to let car manufacturers escape a more general scrutiny of their behaviour as corporations.


Score table explained

All the companies on the score table above have Ratings of 7.5 out of 20 or below. In other words they are in our ‘heavily criticised’ class. The size of business you need to manufacture a car means that there are no small, niche ethical producers in this market – unlike some consumer product areas like clothing. And whilst there is now very little state-ownership in this sector, there are still close relations with the military in many countries – as identified in the Arms and Military Supply column on our ranking tables (subscribers can click on the 'More Detail' link on the score table above to see this). 

Another area of direct criticism is for supplying Israeli state institutions, which campaigners against Israel’s activities in the Occupied Territories have identified as unethical.

Finally, in attempting to find economies of scale, some car companies are also increasingly merging, or operating in partnerships, or holding shares in each other. Our rankings try to take account of these complex holdings.


Cars and Palestine

A search of the Who Profits? (an organisation exposing the commercial involvement of companies in the continued Israeli control of Palestinian and Syrian land) database reveals that some of the car companies included in this guide have links to the Israeli military, or their equipment has been used in the demolition of Palestinian settlements.

Hyundai Motor Company holds a 2.88% stake in Hyundai Heavy Industries which in turn owns track excavators that have been used in many house demolitions in the Palestinian neighbourhoods of Beit Hanina, Silwan, Tsur Baher, Issawiya and At-Tur in East Jerusalem. The company’s tools also preformed demolitions in Beit Jala and in the villages of Jawaya and Derath in the South Hebron Hills. Hyundai excavators were used during construction works in the settlement of Halamish and in the Barkan Industrial Zone. [11]

Ford Motor Company vehicles were reported to have been used by a combat unit of the Israeli military, ‘Caracal’, which patrolled the West Bank areas close to the Separation Wall, the Israeli-Egyptian border and the occupied section of the Jordan Valley. [12]

Mitsubishi Motor Corporation’s Pajero car model had been “used by the Israeli civil administration for the distribution of demolition and confiscation orders in Area C in the West Bank”. The Pajero model was also said to be used by hundreds of senior officers in the Israeli military since 2007. [13]

Volkswagen subsidiary MAN was reported to supply the chassis for the car that carries the Skunk – a crowd control weapon. [14]

Toyota’s Hilux model was being used by the Israeli Army, police, border police and the civil administration in the occupied Palestinian territories. Toyota Hilux Vehicles were used by the Israeli armed forces to protect illegal settlements and military bases along the West Bank, to oppress Palestinian demonstrators and for executing house demolitions. [15]



Poor supply chain management

Overall corporate social responsibility reporting by the car industry can be said to be fairly poor. While most of the companies in this guide had environmental policies and some received top marks, all of the car companies received our worst rating for supply chain management. 

Some of the companies – Daimler, FCA, Ford, Nissan, Peugeot, Renault, Toyota and Volvo Cars – had basic supply chain policies which covered four of the six core International Labour Conventions: child labour, forced labour, freedom of association, and employment free from discrimination. 

None of the companies’ policies mentioned payment of a living wage or restricting working weeks to 48 hours and 12 hours overtime. 

Suzuki, Tata Motors, SAIC (MG), Mitsubishi, Honda and Proton failed to have any policy which guaranteed workers’ rights within their supply chain. 



Conflict minerals

As we know from our Product Guides to electronic goods, the high value of some minerals (such as Coltan) has fueled human rights abuses in the DR Congo in central Africa and elsewhere. Although electronic components are increasingly finding their way into cars, car companies are well behind the electronics manufacturers in their management of this issue.

We look in detail at this problem in our feature on conclict minerals. Companies performing badly against this issue (all of them except Ford) receive marks in our Human Rights and Habitats & Resources columns on the 'More detail' score table.




One of the most disturbing things that large corporations can do is lobby against environmental regulations which are essential for the wellbeing of the biosphere but inconvenient for them financially in the short term. It was as late as 2012 when General Motors stopped funding the ultra-conservative think tank the Heartland Institute – known for its scepticism about climate change. This is probably one of the last incidents of direct funding of anti-environmental lobbyists by car companies that we know of.

However, as we have noted in our page on ‘Cheating the tests’ – lobbying against the introduction of new test methods for car CO2 emissions is also irresponsible from a climate point of view. We also discuss above in ‘Choosing a Lower Impact Car’ the problems of a similar lobbying exercise against updating the diesel emissions tests. The Political Activity column on our score tables identifies companies involved in all these lobbying activities and more.

Aside from Tesla, all the companies in the report had operations in Oppressive Regimes. 

In addition, all the car companies picked up a mark under the Animal Rights column for the use of leather within vehicles. Nissan and BMW confirmed that it was possible to order a car from them without the use of leather.





Company profiles


General Motors is one of the world’s largest car companies producing cars and trucks through eleven brands including Opel and Vauxhall. Since 2014 Mary Barra has been the Chief Executive Officer of General Motors, making her the first woman to head a major auto firm. It was reported that in her first year in charge Barra was paid $16.2m. 

Hyundai Motor Company has one of the world’s largest car plants in South Korea building 1.5 million cars per year. The company owns roughly a 34% stake in fellow South Korean car manufacturer Kia. Kia owns a 17% stake in Hyundai.

Hyundai Rotem, a subsidiary of Hyundai Motor Company, supplies South Korea’s ground weapon systems including armoured tanks. [6]

Fiat Chrysler Automotives (FCA) is a new company created in 2014 by merging Fiat S.P.A and Chrysler LLC into a Netherlands based company. Its brands include Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Fiat and Maserati. In October 2014 the board of directors of FCA announced its intention to separate Ferrari from FCA. The Agnelli Family, who were the original owners of Fiat, still own 30% of shares.

Mitsubishi Motors is part of the Mitsubishi Keiretsu which is involved in a wide range of industries from tuna fishing to uranium mining. Its two largest shareholders are Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi Corporation.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries states on its website that it “provides support in every area of national defence, including land, naval, and air defence, contributing to Japan’s national security through the development and manufacture of equipment based on leading-edge technologies.” This included armoured tanks and vehicles; destroyers and submarines; defence aircraft; and guided weapon systems. [7] 

Jaguar Land Rover has been owned by India’s largest car company Tata Motors since 2008.

Tata Son’s Tata Advance Systems (TASL) subsidiary is in the business of defence, aerospace, aero-structures and homeland security. It is also developing a family of Mini Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for various defence and civil applications. [10]

MG Cars was a British company until it entered receivership in 2005. Its assets were purchased by Nanjing Automobile Group Co Ltd which later become SAIC Motor Corporation Limited. SAIC is a Chinese state-owned enterprise. Other Chinese state-owned enterprises include companies which pick up criticisms in the following Ethical Consumer categories: Animal Rights, Climate Change, Habitats and Resources, Nuclear Power, Pollution and Toxics, and Arms and Military Supply. 

The other Chinese-owned car company is Volvo Cars. However, unlike MG Cars, its parent company Geely Automotive Holdings Limited has no financial links to the Chinese state. According to the Financial Times Geely is China’s first non-state owned car maker. 

Ford was incorporated in 1903 by Henry Ford, in Michigan, Detroit. In March 2015 an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigation found “reasonable cause to believe” that four women were discriminated against and subjected to racial and sexual harassment at Ford’s Far South Side assembly plant. The EEOC also found evidence showing Ford retaliated against the women by reassigning them to less favourable job assignments or shifts, denying them overtime or transfers and disciplining or firing them.

Renault currently holds a 38.8% stake in Nissan and in return Nissan holds 15% in Renault. Renault-Nissan have a 3.1% stake in Daimler. In return Daimler brought a 3.1% stake in both companies.  

Following a rescue package in 2013 PSA Peugeot SA shareholders now include the French State, and Chinese state-owned car manufacturer Dongfeng Motor Corporation. 

Mazda is a Japanese car manufacturer that sells more than 1.2 million vehicles annually. Ford did own 33% of shares in the company up until 2008 when it had to sell its shares because it needed cash. It now holds 3.1% shares in Mazda.

DRB-HICOM Defence Technology (DEFTEC) is a subsidiary of Proton’s parent company DRB-HICOM. According to the DRB-HICOM annual report 2014 the subsidiary plays an integral role in the development, manufacture and supply of armoured and logistics vehicles for military and homeland security.8 A subsidiary of DEFTEC was also involved in the manufacturing of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones). [9]



1 Mike Berners-Lee How bad are bananas 2013 p143
2 Many websitegive information on eco-driving such as
3 Transport & Environment briefing- March 2015 Six facts about diesel the car industry would rather not tell you
5 Climate Counts and the Centre for Sustainable Organisations: Assessing Corporate Emissions Performance through the Lens of Climate Science. December 2013
8 DRB-HICOM Annual Report 2014



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This guide is part of our special report on transport. See what else is in the report. 



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