Tesla – unsustainable cars with a sustainable vision

Is the worlds most hyped car company as sustainable as we expect it to be? Let’s take a closer look to see if they are living up to their reputation or if Tesla is in fact making unsustainable cars.

This article is also available in Swedish.

Early on, Tesla imagined that the road to success could be divided into four parts. The masterplan was to start with creating an exclusive and expensive car (the Tesla Roadster). With the profit from on that first car, Tesla would develop a luxury sedan that would sell in larger numbers (the Model S). And then, with the money made on that model, Tesla would develop a medium-sized car at a lower price that would be the company’s first volume car. Also, according to the masterplan, the company would develop solar energy. Even though Tesla announced that that would start making solar panels to much surprise, it had actually been part of the strategic plan (and been posted on their website) for ten years.

The upcoming Tesla Model 3.
The upcoming Tesla Model 3.

Last summer, Tesla unveiled an updated masterplan. Founder Elon Musk outlined the arguments for integrating energy generation and energy storage (merging SolarCity’s solar panel operations with Tesla’s battery production), develop trucks and buses (Tesla is working on it), making sure the vehicles are autonomous and that they could be shared through a car sharing scheme.

Developing vehicles powered by electricity that are superior to vehicles powered by fossil fuels is how Tesla is helping making transportations systems. Mr. Musk’s vision is by far the most compelling vision in the automotive industry and it’s almost impossible not to be impressed by the energetic South African who himself seem to be powered by an inexhaustible renewable energy.

Teslas vision of the future is so bright one easily gets blinded. The company is one of the most hyped companies in the world today and everyone seem to join the chorus in celebrating Tela for its bold ambition to making products that contribute to a more sustainable future. But how sustainable are the products ithemselves? What do we know about the production? What raw materials are used in making Tesla’s cars, batteries and solar panels? How good is Tesla in recycling materials and to what extent are recycle materials used in production? How green is the power distributed through Tesla’s ever expanding network of charging stations?

The surprising answer is that we don’t know. Despite being a listed company, Tesla publish no information about its own efforts in making Tesla a sustainable company. Yes, that’s right: No. Information. At. All.

I’ve spent a few weeks taking a closer look at Tesla in order to find hard evidence on how the sustainability superstar embed sustainability into their operations in order to understand to what extent sustainability is part of their strategy. I’ve read numerous articles and reports where Tesla is labeled as a sustainable company and then tried to cross reference that with facts I could find on tesla.com.

But at the same time as companies around the world like to get a Tesla car in order to make a statement about their sustainability ambitions, signaling that they walk their talk, Tesla isn’t taking and might not be walking either.

Visit any website of a large or medium-sized company and chances are big that you’ll find a section outlining what they do in the field of sustainability. Some companies describe this briefly, others go to great length describing everything from their environmental footprint to their social responsibility, from their whistleblowing policies to where they stand in the question on whether to use palm oil or not. But not Tesla. Despite being called a sustainability champion, you won’t find a section called sustainability is conspicuously absent on tesla.com. It’s not that they call it something else, there’s actually very little information at all regarding sustainability on the website.

Entering “sustainability” into the search field on tesla.com will give you 82 hits at the time of writing this.

The most current hit is a press release from December 2016 stating that a large number of shareholders support Teslas proposed acquisition of SolarCity.  It’s not really about sustainability at all, but the word is mentioned in a paragraph at the end.

The second hit is a short video announcing the opening of Tesla’s battery factory in Nevada, the Gigafactory. It dates back to July 2016 and the factory is said to “accelerate a “sustainable energy future”. Another hit on the word.

The third hit is the story of Stephen Pascalon, a Canadian Tesla-owner who tells us that for him owning a Tesla is a part of his personal quest to live a more sustainable life. Well put, but is the car itself an example of a sustainability? No one knows. Mr. Pascalon can only hope.

For being such a big and talked-about company, often associated with sustainability, Tesla is remarkably silent and secretive of how sustainable they are. It’s never mentioned in the quarterly reports, called Update letters, and since Tesla don’t publish annual reports in the traditional sense, there’s none of the information about sustainability that you normally find in those kinds of reports.

Compare that to competitors of Tesla and the difference is stark. BMW is more than happy to explain how they work with sustainability within the group, Panasonic publish detailed accounts on how they manufacture their batteries and Toyota shares the details on how they actively tries to use only sustainable materials at their US plants.

Why is Tesla so secretive? One explanation might be that Tesla still operates very much with a tech mentality, which normally mean that you talk about what your thing do, but seldom about how your thing was made. The same thing goes for Amazon, who goes to great lengths describing the benefits of their Eco Dot speaker, but does not include a word about where and how the Eco Dot is made.   Maybe one should ask Alexa, the AI assistant powering the Eco Dot, but I’m not sure she knows either.

On the other hand, other tech companies have started to change. Famously secretive Apple have changed their attitude in recent years, and is now much more open, almost bragging, about the sustainability performance of their products. Apple realizes that consumers have the right to know, and often wants to know.

SolarCity realized that too, and published quite an extensive corporate sustainability report last summer. Since the merger with Tesla, SolarCity seem to have changed their priorities. There’s no section on sustainability on the website and no information about it.

Another explanation to the secrecy might be that Tesla made a strategic decision not to talk about their corporate sustainability efforts, sustainability tasks and responsibility would still be present in the detailed job descriptions posted on the Tesla website, right? Because they would still have to hire people with that skill set, even if Tesla don’t want the employees to mention it to friends and families.

In the career section on tesla.com there’s no special category for jobs within sustainability. And when I went through every one of the several hundred vacant jobs posted on the site, it became obvious that sustainability is not part of the skill sets wanted at Tesla.

Not even in the descriptions of key positions such as global supply manager, or global supply managers for batteries are there any mentions of the importance of understanding something about sustainability in general or environmental impacts of purchasing in particular!

Tesla is known for producing good quality cars and as we’ve seen, their master plan relies on being able to make as much profit of the current lineup of cars in order to be able to produce the next generation of medium sized car (Model 3, due to go into production this summer). It’s then no surprise that the global supply managers are expected to know how to purchase materials in a way that ensure high quality and minimize costs.

If “making products in a sustainable way” would have been a part of the Tesla strategy, I assume it would be visible in the job descriptions much the same way as quality and low cost is, right?

Of all the open positions at Tesla, at the time of writing, only one have sustainability in its title. It’s an internship within an apartment called the Environmental Sustainability Group (ESG) tasked with minimizing the environmental damage caused by producing cars, batteries and solar panels. Obviously, their role is operational rather than strategic, with little influence of how the products are designed.

That leaves us with a third explanation. At this point in their strategy, Tesla have chosen not to prioritize any initiatives that would have made their products more sustainable. That means that Tesla have betted that as long as the company rides on the wave of hype, customers are ready to overlook the fact that the car isn’t sustainable as long as it’s cool enough.

To understand if Tesla is a sustainable company or not, I’ve taken various routes, including the most forward-looking one, which is trying to getting hold of a Tesla spokesperson. I wanted to let them explain what they actually do, and why they’ve decided not to publish anything about that on their website. I’ve tried to reach Tesla’s European press people on multiple occasions but they haven’t returned my e-mails or calls.

Then I realized that too is probably part of the strategy, and that I wasn’t the only one being ignored by Tesla for asking questions on sustainability. Crawling Tesla’s forum I found several consumers who didn’t get answers (e.g. here and here).

Asking the same questions in person at a Tesla show room doesn’t help. Sales people will answer that Tesla takes sustainability very seriously and then refer you to the website where one can find more information. Except for the fact that you really can’t.

To sum up: over the time of several weeks I’ve tried hard to find proof of Tesla being the sustainable company I expected. In the absence of such evidence; I have to conclude that none of Tesla’s products appear to be manufactured with special consideration for the planet.

The company likely purchase raw materials from the cheapest supplier without consideration of them being recycled or not, ignoring if they are mined in a responsible way and not caring if they are from Congo or Colorado. The leather used for upholstery is likely to been bought on the open market, at the cheapest price for the desired quality, regardless of how the cows were treated during their lifetime or how their skin was treated after their death.

Even if the factory in in Nevada is powered by solar energy, it doesn’t make the batteries produced there automatically more sustainable. Tesla claim the factory has less waste than other factories but there’s no sources to support that.

The cars are made in a factory in Freemont. Tesla purchased by GM and Toyota (I haven’t found any information on if the energy used at the site is renewable or not.) I now Toyota worked hard to make the factory greener, but if Tesla has continued that tradition, I don’t know (and, as usual, Tesla won’t tell).

What Tesla do want us to know is that they’ve added sky-lights, energy efficient lights and painted the factory white on the inside to “set the tone for laboratory like attention to detail”.  Apparently Tesla also seem to have installed a new level of corporate mumbo jumbo.

Tesla used to make a big point of the fact that Tesla owners got fee charging at any Supercharger station during the cars lifetime, but that has recently changed. Fair enough. But how about the power used when charging at any one of Tesla’s chargers. Given the fact that Tesla is helping advance sustainable transport, that is renewable or carbon neutral energy, right? Probably not, I’m afraid.

Since I haven’t found any information of anything else, we will have to assume that the electricity used in Superchargers is the same as the energy mix in each country where you will find them. In Norway, where hydropower generates most of the country’s electricity, the climate impact of charging a Tesla will be close to zero. In the US, on the other hand, almost two thirds ( 64,8 percent) of the electricity used is generated from fossil fuels (by burning coal and gas)  In Germany, the same figure is 55 percent. It’s of course still much better than using 100% percent fossil fuels to power your car, but the electricity is still not sustainable at all.

It’s time for a verdict. Overwhelming evidence mounts up to the conclusion that Tesla is a company with a sustainable vision but without sustainable products. Even if the visions of BMW, Mercedes or Audi isn’t nearly as visionary and sustainable as Tesla’s vision, but their products are still much more sustainable made than a Tesla.

A more sustainable alternative to Tesla Model 3
The BMW 3 series is a sustainable alternative to the Tesla Model 3.

Or to put it another way, If you want your car to make a statement on taking sustainability seriously, getting a BMW 3-series in the plug-in version seems to be a better idea than getting one of those Tesla Model 3. Sure, the Model 3 will have a better range, but the 3 series has enough range for your daily commute and is generally designed and manufactured in a more sustainable way.

That said, I would not want to end my analysis by concluding that Tesla vision is fake or that their products aren’t any good. And that’s because Tesla has changed the agenda of the auto industry like no other and has put pressure on others manufacturers (including BMW, Mercedes and Audi) to change what electric vehicles are like.

So let’s continue to celebrate Tesla’s vision while stopping to mention them as a sustainability forerunner, simply because there’s no evidence at all out there to support such a claim.

(This post is also available in: Swedish)