Cars

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 34 car brands.

We also look at choosing a low impact car, Next Green Car advice, the problem with diesel and give our recommended buys.

About 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.

What to buy

What to look for when buying a car:

    • Do you really need a car? It has never been more important or easier to drive less than it is today. Opt for bikes, public transport, car sharing or walking instead to reduce your carbon footprint.

    • Is it Next Green Car recommended? See below for the top 30 greenest cars ranked by Next Green car. Does it have at least one model on the top 30 greenest cars table?

    • Would an electric car suit you? If you mostly use your car for short journeys, particularly in cities, it's worth looking into electric cars. These alternatives have much lower climate impact and charging points are popping up all over the country - see our electric car guide. 

    Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

    What not to buy

    What to avoid when buying a car:

    • Is it diesel? 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.

    • Are they tackling climate change? Car manufacturers are some of the largest companies and biggest greenhouse gas emitters. According to a report by Carbon Disclosure Project, very few are reducing their carbon emissions. 

    Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

    Score table

    Updated live from our research database

    ← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
    Brand Score(out of 20)

    Our Analysis

    As well as being a leading cause of premature deaths from pollution, transport is now the largest greenhouse gas-emitting sector in the UK, accounting for nearly a third of total emissions.

    Car use accounts for 15% of those emissions and the figures are on the rise with the absolute amount rising by 2.1% in 2016.

    The Committee on Climate Change attributed the 2016 increase in car emissions to both an increase in the number of kilometres driven and an increase in the average CO2 intensity of cars. Given the need for everyone to be reducing their impacts by around 2% per year to limit climate change, it has never been more important for individuals to drive less, drive better and opt for a lower-impact car.

    See our separate guide for Pure Electric and Plug-in Hybrid Cars.

    Image: car pollution

    The problem with diesel

    The dieselgate scandal means that environmental campaigners, and now many governments, are no longer convinced by the promises of ‘clean diesel’. The continuing failure of diesel engines to meet pollution standards under real world driving conditions also mean that some manufacturers are beginning to announce phase-out dates for diesel from their entire passenger car ranges.

    So, although three diesel cars make it into the top 30 greenest cars table, we are continuing not to recommend them as an ethical option. Recent research from campaigners has suggested that over the full life cycle of manufacture, fuel refining and biodiesel impacts, diesel cars actually emit more CO2 than petrol.

    Diesel phase-out and fleet electrification

    Many companies are setting ambitious targets for diesel phase-out far off into the future but, without constant vigilance, it is not uncommon to see such targets slip. Nevertheless, when we look at how much has changed in the last three years, it is hugely encouraging to see clear(ish) shared goals and ambitions spreading so fast around the world. More needs to be done, particularly around electrifying larger buses and trucks, but it is encouraging nonetheless.

    The future is now clearly one of electric vehicles powered by a 100% renewable energy grid. And it is the emergence of electric vehicles as a viable replacement technology which has been key to giving governments the confidence to draw a line under petrol and diesel. Nevertheless, as with the phase-out of diesel, it is clear that some car manufacturers are embracing this change more enthusiastically than others.

    The table below combines Greenpeace research with an Ethical Consumer score to identify the companies with the most ambitious policies towards all-electric offerings. Performance on this table has also influenced our best buy advice for cars.

    Following the dieselgate scandal, UK sales of diesel cars have fallen by 17% since 2017 and by 37% comparing March 2018 with March 2017. With regulators no longer convinced by the promises of cleaner diesel, a range of tools are now being employed to discourage its use. Key amongst these are low emission zones inside big cities.

    There is a corporate responsibility issue here too, and the table shows which have most enthusiastically embraced the idea that diesel is a technology of the past. The two biggest car companies in the world, Toyota and VW, sit on opposite sides in the debate which is why much of Greenpeace’s energy in this space is now targeting VW.

    Table: diesel phase out and fleet electrification

    Lifetime cost: electric vs petrol

    Although some of the greenest cars look expensive for new buyers, new research in the UK, US and Japan has shown that, over a four-year period, pure electric cars are already cheaper to own and run than petrol or diesel cars. The lower costs of electricity over petrol and lower maintenance costs (as the engines are simpler and help brake the car, saving on brake pads) are a key part of this calculation.

    Next Green Car ratings

    With more than 500 car models on the market at any given time, it is beyond the resources of Ethical Consumer to assess the comparative impacts of each. Fortunately, the UK’s Next Green Car website publishes high quality, in-depth and frequently updated information on just this subject.

    Their database covers both new and second-hand models and 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 July 2018.

    The ‘Next Green Car’ 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 the three main greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane) as well as local pollution such as carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, particulates and sulphur dioxide. The impacts associated with the vehicle’s manufacture and fuelling are included, not just the real-world tail-pipe emissions.

    As you can see from the table, the top 13 are either electric or ‘PHEV’ (plug in hybrids).

    Table: green cars

    Choosing an ethical car

    The scoretable gives Ethical Consumer ratings for all the major petrol and diesel car brands in the UK. All the companies on the table have Ethiscores of 8.5 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.

    Carbon footprint

    Exhaust-pipe emissions only account for part of a car’s overall carbon footprint, albeit a large part (around 73%). Manufacturing the car, as well as extracting and processing the fuel contribute around 10% and 17% respectively.
     

      Company     Global 100 position       Change in GHG emissions between 2014 and 2015
    Toyota 20 -2%
    GM 22 +8%
    VW 24 -3%
    Honda 29 +2%
    Audi 51 +34%
    Nissan 64 -2%
    Ford 87 0
    Fiat Chrysler  94 +22%

    Car manufacturers are some of the world’s largest companies and biggest greenhouse gas emitters, which means they bear a particular responsibility to reduce their carbon emissions by the required 2% per year in order to limit climate change to 2° Celsius. But according to a recent report by the Carbon Disclosure Project, very few of them are managing this. The table below shows the eight car manufacturers featured in the report, their change in emissions, and position in the report, best to worst.

    Environmental reporting

    We have already seen how companies are performing against two key ethical issues of the moment: their commitments to phase out diesel and their ambitions to convert all their models to electric. In order for companies to have shown a reasonable understanding of their environmental impacts, Ethical Consumer required them to have targets on these commitments. Toyota and Fiat Chrysler were the only two companies not to lose marks, since they both had these and also met the other criteria for Ethical Consumer’s best ranking, such as having their reports independently verified.

    Climate change

    All car companies lose marks under Ethical Consumer’s climate change category for their role in selling products that emit CO2. Several companies also lose marks for other activities in the wider group: Honda for example is involved in aviation, and Toyota owns a company which is involved in the oil and gas energy sector.

    Pollution and animal rights

    The emissions scandal to date has implicated many of the companies on the table and therefore many of them now score worst in the pollution and toxics category. All the companies also pick up additional marks under Pollution and Toxics, and Animal Rights categories for using leather in car interiors.

    Workers’ rights in supply chains

    Last time we looked at the car industry, all the companies in the report scored a worst rating in Supply Chain Management. This time, one company, Groupe PSA, has received a middle rating. None of the companies’ policies mentioned payment of a living wage or restricting working hours to 48 hours plus 12 hours overtime per week, just as they didn’t when we last looked at the car industry in 2015.

    Tax avoidance

    Tax avoidance in the car industry appears to be rife with all but six of the companies – Suzuki, Mazda, Honda, Kia, Hyundai and Toyota – featured in the car report scoring worst for likely use of tax avoidance strategies.

    Arms and military supply

    Whilst there is now much less state ownership in this sector than in the past, there are still close relations with the military in many countries – this shows up in the Arms and Military Supply column on the tables. 

    Doing without a car

    Car sharing

    The last time we reviewed the car industry, we noted that, “traffic jams, lack of urban parking spaces, high maintenance costs and reduced job security are starting to make car ownership less appealing, especially within inner-city areas”.

    As a result, car clubs and car sharing schemes have started to appear in most major European cities. In London, for example, there are several competing back-to-base car hire schemes including Zipcar, Ubeeqo, Co-Wheels and Drive Now. These all offer members a chance to hire cars by the hour – often with fuel included.

    Carplus, an independent charity which monitors the car-sharing industry, reported that in the past 10 years there has been a 765% growth in car club membership across the UK, from 32,000 members in 2007-8 to more than 245,000 members in 2016-17, using more than 4,000 cars. It also reported that during the same period, more than 250,000 privately owned cars had been sold by club members who have adopted vehicle sharing.

    Transport blending

    Another idea which was raised in our previous guide was ‘transport blending’. The term ‘travel blending’ first arose in the late 1990s in the lead up to the Sydney Olympics, in a bid to improve local air quality.

    The AA estimates that just owning a car in the UK costs between £2,000 and £9,500 per year when capital costs, petrol, tyres, servicing, parts, parking, tolls, depreciation, road tax, insurance and breakdown cover is included. If a person no longer owns a car then this budget is freed up to be reallocated to the travel options available that suit us best. This means that between £40 and £180 per week could be available to spend on a mixture of public transport, cycling, walking, car clubs and taxis.

    Company behind the brand

    Nissan Motors, through the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi alliance, is the world’s largest manufacturer of electric cars.

    In August 2017, The Guardian reported that Nissan workers in Canton, Mississippi, had voted against unionising by a margin of 2,244 to 1,307.1 This followed a 14-year battle by the Union of Automobile Workers to represent workers at the Nissan production site. 

    In response to the vote, Nissan was decried as carrying out one of the “nastiest anti-union campaigns” in modern US history. It was said that Nissan managers held one-on-one sessions with workers to discourage them and blitzed local media with anti-union ads. It was also reported that it had required workers to regularly attend anti-union roundtable group meetings, as well as one-on-one meetings with their direct supervisors, “some of whom have worn ‘vote no’ T-shirts to work”.

    In March 2018, it was reported that Nissan and Renault were considering merging to form a new company. The two firms formed an alliance in 1999, and describe it as a “buffer to protect its partners during regional downturns”. The Alliance – which also includes Mitsubishi – became the largest car maker, ahead of Volkswagen, in 2016.

    According to Bloomberg, the groups are now in discussions about a possible merger that would create a single new company, trading as one stock. It was reported that Carlos Ghosn, the chairman of both companies, is driving the negotiations and would run the combined entity.

    Currently, Renault owns 43% of Nissan, while Nissan has a 15% return stake in Renault. Nissan owns a 34% stake in Mitsubishi.

    Want to know more?

    If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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