Are car brands going green?

02nd July 2024
erin_baker_headshot.jpg Erin Baker

Small but significant eco changes are underway in the car world, that deserve bigger plaudits, and point the way towards a more ethical future for the car industry which consumers are ready to embrace.

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The first huge but unremarked change is that, from this year onwards, chrome has been banned in new cars sold in the EU. The chrome-plating process is carcinogenic, releasing toxins into the air and the water course, harming flora and fauna. Its use – both cosmetic and anti-corrosive, in the silvery surface you see on door handles and grills, is banned here and in the States at the disappointingly later stage of 2039. Still, it’s a big change. Until now, despite pressure, luxury car brands in particular have said they will continue to use it unless their customers specify otherwise. They have now rightfully been forced into the change through regulation.

The second significant move is a thorough exploration of the use of plastic by Volvo, throughout its entire supply chain. “Plastic” as a term has been demonised without much thought to the different types, their chemical processes, and possible alternatives. Volvo’s detailed analysis reveals that some plastics can help the brand’s journey to net zero.

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Back in 2021, for example, about 90 per cent of the plastics used by the auto industry were derived from oil. Today, industry plastics are sourced from recycled plastics, bio-waste, vegetable oils, and even captured greenhouse gases. These are sustainable, useful plastics. US Consultancy firm McKinsey estimates that more than $40 billion (c.£32 billion) in capital needs to be invested into chemical recycling of plastics over this decade in order to scale up and satisfy 4-8 per cent of the plastics demands by 2030.  Volvo is calling for urgent decarbonisation of the plastic industry. This is the sort of useful deployable clout car companies can offer, rather than topline generalisations about the life cycle of cars.

Renault, meanwhile, is focusing on its carbon footprint from purchased parts, and its batteries, aiming to reduce the latter by 35 per cent and the former by 30 per cent by 2030, which is frighteningly close now. Just six materials and components together account for 90 per cent of the brand’s carbon footprint from purchased parts. They are: steel, aluminium, polymers, electronics, lenses, and tyres.

It’s not just the carbon footprint but also the ethics of the supply chain under forensic analysis right now. Since 2021, Renault Group has entered into several partnerships to ensure the traceability and decarbonisation of the raw materials for its electric batteries, with Vulcan to secure low-carbon lithium in Germany, with Terrafame in Finland for low-carbon nickel sulphate, and with Managem group, for a supply of low-carbon cobalt sulphate from Morocco.

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Renault Group is thus securing supplies closer to its ecosystem of low-carbon electric battery manufacturing in Europe, and the ethics of sourcing rare-earth materials and metals from Germany, Finland, and Morocco sound far better than sourcing anything from Chile, China, and the DRC.

Re-shoring as much of your supply chain as possible also helps protect against future political uncertainties. Europe cannot continue to rely almost exclusively on China for its battery procurement. We face an uncertain period now as the EU votes to impose tariffs on Chinese imported cars, and China considers counter measures. We also learnt several important and painful lessons when the pandemic struck the world and showed up the fragility of a just-in-time procurement process for every stage of car manufacturing, the ramifications of which consumers are still suffering in the UK car market as supply races to catch up with demand and prices of new and used cars stay high.

In short, work to decarbonise your supply chain is never time wasted, not only because we need to row back on carbon emissions and energy usage as quickly as possible and hit our net zero targets, but also because car brands urgently need to scrutinise their ethics and values throughout the supply chain, to clean up their operations from a moral optic. Whether OEMs wish to become better citizens of the planet is almost irrelevant; consumers are demanding better brand behaviour and will vote with their wallets before the decade is out.

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