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Cars and Electric Cars

Finding an ethical and environmental car, including electric cars and hybrids. We rank 39 brands of cars.

We look at the carbon impact of different types of cars, the cost and range of electric cars, shine a spotlight on Tesla, 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.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying a car:

  • Are you a member of a car club? If it works for your particular circumstances, the case for car clubs is made even stronger by the switch to electric vehicles (EVs).

  • Is it an electric car? EVs are much better for the climate, and although they do have a heavier mineral burden, this does not outweigh the benefits.

  • Could you travel another way? See our guide to bikes and electric bikes, and find out your options for public transport.

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? It is now widely recognised that the human health impacts of emissions from the exhaust pipes of diesel cars are no longer acceptable. Almost all companies and governments are now phasing them out.

  • Is it a hybrid? Latest results suggests that, unless used carefully, they aren’t any better for the climate than conventional cars.

  • Is it from a company that gets our worst rating for supply chain management? Automotive supply chains are complex and there are many abuses of workers' rights. Unfortunately, all you can do is choose one that gets a middle rating, no company got a best.

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

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Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

Change comes slowly, and then suddenly all at once. In 2015, pure electric cars made up less than 1% of new vehicles registered in the UK. In 2022, in the year to date, electric vehicle registrations were close to 15%.

And at the global and legislative level too, it is really starting to look like the great internal combustion engine (ICE), first seen in 1876, is finally being told to lay its wee tired carburettor down to rest. Over 40 countries have announced upcoming bans of sales of new ICE passenger cars, ranging from 2025 in Norway, to 2030 in Germany, 2035 in China and 2050 in Indonesia. In the UK, all new sales of pure ICE cars are to end by 2030, although hybrids will still be able to be sold up until 2035. And the European Parliament has also voted in favour of revised regulation on C02 standards of all new cars and vans sold from 2035 to be zero emissions. 

Some companies have dragged their feet. In March 2021, the Guardian revealed that BMW, Ford, Honda, Jaguar Land Rover, and McLaren had lobbied the government hard not to bring the ICE ban forward from 2040. Honda and Ford have also succeeded in getting them to exempt hybrids until 2035, rather than the 2032 date the Climate Change Committee had wanted, by talking ominously of job losses at British car factories, most of which currently produce hybrids. All these companies lost marks in our political activities category.

However, it is clearly the rapid development of electric vehicles (EVs) that has given governments the confidence to act. And Tesla, the only dedicated EV company in this guide, undeniably helped – shifting the EV’s image from milk float into lightning bolt.

Are electric cars more environmentally friendly? 

What is the carbon impact of electric cars vs ICE

The carbon impact of manufacturing a car depends both on the car and, as usual, how you estimate it. But it is widely agreed that manufacturing an EV has a higher carbon impact than making an ICE car.

Average estimates are about 6-7 tonnes of CO2e for an ICE car, and 10-11 for an electric. (10 tonnes is about the average UK per capita annual carbon footprint).

However, a lot of the extra is the electricity used in making the battery, meaning that a battery made in Tesla’s solar powered factory in Nevada will have a significantly lower impact than one made in China with its coal-powered grid electricity. And as electricity decarbonises, it will fall. Even China intends to decarbonise by 2060.

And you will quickly make it back in use.

Currently, a person driving an average size electric car an average distance on the UK grid electricity will save about 1.5 tonnes of CO2e a year, so you’ll repay the extra manufacturing debt in about two years. As the average life of a car in the UK is 13 years, electrics are definitely worth it in climate terms if you are buying a new car anyway. Savings will also increase as the grid decarbonises further.

Person charging electric car

Should I replace my petrol and diesel car now?

There isn’t agreement on whether it is worth replacing early. Those who make higher estimates of the manufacturing emissions of making a car, like Mike Berners Lee, say don’t, while others disagree.

Using the figures above would suggest that you could make the total manufacturing emissions back within about seven years. However, that will also depend on what you are replacing, and with what – a larger EV will have a higher manufacturing impact. But replacing an old gas guzzling 4x4 right now might make sense too.

Should I buy a hybrid car?

While EVs may be driving on the heavenly highway, hybrids are currently parked in the dog house. A major 2021 study by the International Council on Clean Energy (ICCT) looked at real-world driving of around 100,000 plug-in hybrids and found emissions to be two to four times higher than that claimed by official values, because they weren’t really being charged very often and so the battery wasn’t being used much (a plug-in hybrid runs on battery until it runs out of power, then switches to the ICE engine). That brings their lifetime emissions more in line with conventional ICE vehicles.

Cartoon of a man standing by a hybrid car saying to a woman 'Well my conscience is clear, it's a hybrid'.
Image by Mike Bryson for Ethical Consumer

What should I do if buying an electric car is not practical right now?

For some people in 2022, an electric car will not yet be a practical choice. They might live in a remote location without enough charging infrastructure around; or they might be in a block of flats with no driveway or other local chargepoint to charge their car on; or the cost of a car that will go far enough might be too prohibitive right now for people with fewer resources.

In these cases, there are two key pieces of advice on how to make an ethical choice for non-electric cars:

1. Don't buy diesel

It is now widely recognised that the human health impacts of emissions from the exhaust pipes of diesel cars are no longer acceptable. Almost all companies and governments are now phasing them out.

2. Buy a petrol car with the lowest CO2 emission per kilometre you can find.

As discussed above, it is looking like hybrids are less good than they might first have seemed. This means that ultra-low emission petrol cars are likely to be the best stop gap choice for most people who are still waiting for the infrastructure and cost issues of EVs to be solved more effectively.

For new cars, Ethical Consumer's advice has been, for a number of years now, to go to the Next Green Car website. They allow you to sort by the type of car that works for you (e.g. supermini) and then find models with the lowest real-world emissions.

For used cars, other websites like Autotrader now allow you to sort your (advanced) searches by criteria like CO2 emissions or fuel consumption.

A little triangulation of one of these with the Ethical Consumer's own brand rankings should get you to a ‘least worst’ option fairly swiftly.

Blue painted EV 200v charging point sign on the road

Cost, range and charging issues with electric cars

Ofgem recently reported that one in four UK consumers are planning to buy an electric or hybrid car in the next five years. Those who weren’t gave their reasons as price (59%), worries about range (38%) and about being able to charge it close to home (36%).

Some of these fears are outdated. As far as cost goes, although the initial outlay is still higher, EVs are already on average estimated to work out cheaper than comparable ICEs over their whole lifespan, although because public charge points can be expensive this probably depends on your being able to charge at home.

EVs are going to continue to get more financially favourable. Battery prices have fallen by nearly 90% in the last decade, and are expected to continue falling – over the next six years the cost is expected to drop between 19 and 37%.

Fears about range are also probably unfounded at this point. Average new EV ranges are now approaching 200 miles, and the talk is that the next generation of batteries, coming in the next few years, will be able to do 500 miles.

Charging issues may be a more real problem. It isn’t always easy to find public charge points - you can use Zap-Map to find them but it doesn’t always tell you which ones are occupied or out of service. However, it does for networks which have provided the map access to their live data, which is around 70% of chargers. Also, as above, it can be expensive.

However, the news on charge times is good. With rapid chargers they can now mostly just be a normal driving break – for many you can add 100 miles of range in about 30 minutes.

Some government help is available for smart home chargers if you live in rented accommodation or a flat – you can claim 75% up to a maximum of £350 through the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles (OZEV). There is also a workplace grant scheme to help workplaces install chargers. There was a grant on EVs themselves, which went direct to the dealer and was included in the price tag, but the UK Government scrapped it in June 2022.

Minerals, cars, batteries and the environment

All cars use a lot of steel, aluminium, copper and manganese. And EVs need six times more minerals than a conventional vehicle, also using significant amounts of lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite, and small amounts
of zinc and rare earth metals.

The two commonly expressed concerns about this are about scarcity and human rights abuses in supply chains.

As far as scarcity goes, the story is really about quality: in some cases there may be a shortage of high-grade reserves and extracting from low grade ores can be expensive and energy intensive. However, worries about scarcity have often been inflated with false rumours – there is no imminent danger of our running out of materials to make batteries. And the technology is continuing to evolve – Tesla is working on new batteries that do not contain cobalt, for example, which is one of the scarcer metals.

Concerns about abuses have been particularly focused on cobalt and lithium, although aluminium has also started to receive attention. We also covered many of the issues in our guide to batteries.

Bolivian lithium salt flats
Lithium mining. Lithium is extracted from salt flats, like this one in Bolivia. But its extraction affects the water supply of local indigenous groups.

Lithium

The biggest current lithium producer is Australia, and there are fair amounts in China and parts of Europe, including the UK which has some high-grade deposits. Companies like Cornish Lithium are looking into extracting it.

However, over half of known lithium reserves are located in the 'lithium triangle' which spans Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. It is mostly in brine located in underground reservoirs below salt flats, from which it is extracted by pumping up the brine and evaporating off the water. This affects the water balance, and it is already a very arid area. Some local indigenous groups have protested, saying that it is affecting their water supply.

A number of technological solutions have been proposed, including improving or changing extraction methods. How well they work remains to be seen, but a lot of the problems are political, as companies are just not consulting with or compensating affected people. As Luisa Jorge, an activist in Susques, Argentina, said:

“lithium companies are taking millions of dollars from our lands … they ought to give something back. But they’re not.”

Cobalt

70% of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It isn’t associated with armed groups there like the other 'conflict minerals' we've heard so much about, but about a fifth of it comes from small artisanal mines where cobalt is dug from hazardous hand dug tunnels, often with no protective equipment and sometimes by young children. The miners are a mixture of waged labourers and people digging to sell the cobalt themselves. The DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world and a valuable mineral is an alluring prospect.

Some companies have tried to stop purchasing from these mines, and to just buy from the industrial mining operations which are regulated and don’t suffer from the same issues. However, as this threatens the livelihoods of those who depend on them, campaigners have urged companies instead to try to improve conditions, through initiatives like the Fair Cobalt Alliance, which Tesla has joined, and the Responsible Cobalt Initiative (RCI).

A lawsuit was filed in the US, in 2019, against several tech companies including Tesla, arguing that they have allowed dangerous forms of child labour to prosper in their cobalt supply chains. It was dismissed, but an appeal has been lodged.

Aluminium

Car manufacturers use 18% of all aluminium consumed worldwide, and more than half of it is primary aluminium produced from bauxite (as opposed to recycled). The biggest bauxite deposits are in Guinea (West Africa). Australia is the biggest producer, and mining has been associated with land and water grabbing in both countries.

Volkswagen, BMW, and Daimler have joined a certification scheme, the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI), formed in 2015, that audits mines, refineries, and smelters. Other companies should be encouraged to join.

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How do car manufacturers rank on ethics and the environment?

Carbon Management and Reporting

This is the first time we have rated car companies against our new rating. To achieve a best, companies had to have dated targets for transitioning to non-ICE vehicles in major markets, have a reasonable discussion of what they are doing to reduce emissions, disclose emissions data and have a decent emissions reduction target. To achieve a middle rating, they had to do the same, minus the non-ICE vehicles targets.

Tesla was given a special exemption for this report as, unlike any of the other manufacturers, it makes exclusively electric cars. It doesn’t, however, report on all of its emissions or have a reduction target, which isn't too clever, even if it is an important disruptor. It should start doing this now.

Five others got a best rating:

  • Volvo (100% electric by 2030)
  • Renault (100% electric by 2030)
  • Mercedes-Benz Group AG (will be all electric by 2030 “wherever market conditions allow” – this looks a bit like a get out clause, but it did have a lot of interim targets and an excellent discussion)
  • Ford Motor Company (“by 2030, we expect EVs to represent half of global volume. In Europe, we expect 100% of our cars to be fully electric by 2030”)
  • Kia (100% electric in major markets such as the United States and Europe by 2040).

Several car companies scored a worst rating:

  • Mitsubishi, because its targets and discussion were both weak.
  • Toyota, because its 2030 emissions target was weak.
  • BMW (Mini, BMW and Rolls-Royce), because its discussion was poor.
  • Suzuki, because its emissions target was weak.
  • Jaguar Land Rover (Jaguar, Land Rover and Range Rover), because it didn’t seem to publish any emissions data at all.
  • Honda was marked down for manufacturing aircraft parts.

The remaining companies scored a middle rating in this category: General Motors, Hyundai, Mazda, Nissan, Volkswagen and Stellantis (Alfa Romeo, Citroen, DS, Fiat, Jeep, Lancia, Maserati, Opel, Peugeot and Vauxhall).

Workers' rights

Automotive supply chains are complex. A vehicle typically contains between 15,000 and 25,000 component parts, making it all the more important for car companies to transparently report on supply chain management and the measures taken to protect workers. Unfortunately, car companies are still off the mark when it comes to managing supply chain workers' rights issues.

No company achieved our best rating and only Stellantis and Volvo achieved a middle rating.

The World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA) was established in 2018 and is partially funded by the UK, Dutch, Danish, Swedish and German governments. Like Ethical Consumer, it produces company rankings, but in an annual Corporate Human Rights report. In 2020, looked it at automotive companies and found, just as we did, that the sector’s supply chain management is extremely weak. It stated that it was the worst performing sector it has ever examined.

There was less agreement between the specific scores of our rating and the WBA’s. In the meantime we separately marked down those who came at the bottom of WBA’s scale, which were: Nissan, Mitsubishi, Tesla, Suzuki, and Volvo (Geely).

Arms and military supply

Tata Motors (Jaguar, Range Rover and Land Rover) have supplied vehicles to the US Army in Afghanistan as well as the Myanmar Army, and it has been named on the Burma Campaign Dirty List.

Hyundai Rotem, a subsidiary of Hyundai Motor Company, was found to manufacture ground weapon systems.

Tyres, microplastic and economy driving

Car tyres have recently come under intense scrutiny as they have been found to be probably the biggest source of the microplastic that is wreaking havoc on marine life. As they wear down they shed bits everywhere, and these bits get washed into waterways. EVs can sadly make the problem worse, as they’re generally heavier which increases wear and tear.

Friends of the Earth argues that there needs to be government backed testing to discover the resilience of each tyre type, with labels for buyers and the worst performers banned. It is also arguing for more measures to capture the microplastic, such as more road cleaning and emptying of roadside gully pots which are often allowed to overflow, and the use of more expensive porous asphalt, which can trap particles. It says that the industry meanwhile needs to either improve resilience or make tyres from materials that will biodegrade in the environment.

As an individual you can drive less, and try to drive in ways that reduce abrasion, which are mostly the same things that save fuel.

Economy driving or hypermiling

  • Drive smoothly, avoid aggressive manoeuvring, accelerate and decelerate gently.
  • Use the correct tyre pressure. Under and over inflated tyres increase both wear and fuel use.
  • Try to drive the smallest vehicle you can and remove unnecessary weight from it. Consider only half filling up as a full tank adds significant weight.
  • Avoid rush hour black spots where there will be a lot of stopping and starting. It uses more fuel and increases wear.
  • Go easy on air conditioning, it burns more fuel.
  • Take off unnecessary roof boxes and roof bars, they create drag which increases fuel use.
  • Maintain your vehicle. If an engine is not serviced regularly, it can use more fuel.
  • Drive slower, it saves fuel
Cartoon of a car share scheme. One person says "I'm not sure if you fully understand the car share scheme!" as other people carry away parts of a car like a wheel tyre
Image by Andy Vine for Ethical Consumer

Car clubs

The average car is just parked for 96% of its life. Research has found that each car club vehicle on average can replace 18 private cars. The switch to EVs therefore makes the case for car sharing stronger, (as their emissions in driving are much lower and a larger proportion of their emissions comes from manufacturing).

EV car clubs have been growing. They can also work out significantly cheaper for individuals. Research by Element Energy estimated that about 30% of UK cars drive less than 5,000 miles a year, and many of the owners of these would save money by using clubs instead.

There are three main club types:

  1. Commercial ones (such as Co-Wheels, Enterprise, Hertz, Ubeeqo and Zipcar) which generally charge a joining fee and then an hourly hire rate.
  2. Community ones (such as Derwent Valley Car Club) which are more socially focused and sometimes incorporate things like lift sharing and voluntary help schemes for people who can’t drive.
  3. Peer-to-peer sharing platforms (such as Getaround, Hiyacar, Karshare and Turo), which allow people who aren’t using their own car to rent it to out, like Airbnb does with rooms.

They all work in different ways. Some demand that you bring the car back, while others allow you to leave it at one of many drop off points.

CoMoUK (Collaborative Mobility UK), the national organisation for shared transport, has details of regional schemes, and lots of other meaty information.

However, it seems that Brits don’t know how to share: while about 3% of Germans are part of a car club, in the UK the figure is only about 0.5%.

CoMoUK and Transport and Environment think that the big barriers are lack of sufficient clubs, particularly outside London, and the lack of suitable charging infrastructure – the different usage pattern of car club members means that they are more likely to need rapid charging.

We have a separate feature article on car clubs.

Company behind the brand

Tesla is a dedicated environmental company, making EVs, solar panels and battery systems, and is based in Texas. Its strategy is pretty famous: start with high-end, fast, flashy EVs aimed at wealthy early adopters, and then move into affordable ones once you’ve established the economies of scale. It seems to have worked, and Tesla has overtaken Nissan to become the biggest EV player, having 23% of the world’s pure electric market in 2020. Its CEO Elon Musk bought it six months after its founding in 2003 with money he made from PayPal, and is now the richest person in the world.

Tesla deserves credit for hastening the EV revolution.

However, it is also a controversial company as it has been involved in a string of lawsuits and scandals. It has been accused of anti-union activity and the persecution of whistleblowers trying to raise safety and environmental issues. It has also recently been heavily criticised for expanding into the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It gets our worst rating for too many things to be recommended, including supply chain and likely use of tax avoidance strategies.

Even on the climate front its environmental stewardship is not as exemplary as you might hope. Its emissions reporting is poor. And in 2021 it got embroiled in a fight about Bitcoin, after it started accepting payments in it and revealed that it had invested $1.5 billion in it in 2020. Bitcoin has an eye watering carbon footprint – a recent academic estimate put it at comparable with Greece, which, per transaction, works out at about 0.6 tonnes, or 6% of the average yearly UK per capita carbon footprint. While the company did do a U-turn on accepting payments in it, Elon Musk still spoke approvingly of the cryptocurrency and raised the prospect of Tesla accepting it again in the future, which caused the price to rise. And it is the price, not the number of transactions, that principally determines the carbon impact.

Musk also owns a number of other tech, infrastructure and AI companies, including OpenAI, and SpaceX, a rocket company. He is a playful, trollish, sometimes deeply irresponsible figure: he was strongly criticised for spreading Covid misinformation, called his sixth child "X AE A-XII", and arguably presents an existential threat by claiming that humans live in a computer simulation.

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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