Climate Activists Tell the EV Industry to Fix Its Filthy Supply Chain

Saturday’s demonstrators targeted South Korean auto giant Hyundai. In addition to criticizing the company’s reliance on coal-powered steel plants, which a report from climate groups linked to 506 pollution-related premature deaths in 2021, they also denounced the company’s reported labor practices. Last December, a Reuters investigation found undocumented children working in the automaker’s supply chain in Alabama.

“Hyundai does not condone or tolerate violations of labor law,” says Hyundai spokesperson Michael Stewart. “We took swift action in response to reported incidents, including launching a broader review of our US supplier network and collaborating with the US Department of Labor.”

Regarding the company’s climate commitments, Stewart says that Hyundai has set a goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2025 and is mobilizing significant resources to make sure its supply chain meets or exceeds safety, quality, sustainability, and human rights standards. “We, as an automaker, have to be more active when responding to climate change than companies in other industries,” he adds.

As the third-largest global automaker, Hyundai exerts considerable influence over auto suppliers generally, but it is not alone in facing criticism from activists. Saturday’s demonstrators are part of a coalition of climate and labor groups called Lead the Charge, which aims to hold automakers accountable for the impacts of their supply chains on climate, labor, the environment, and Indigenous people’s rights. The organization publishes a leaderboard which ranks 18 major EV makers based on their climate, environmental, and human rights impacts. Hyundai ranked 10th. Mercedes, Ford, and Volvo ranked in the top three.

Lead the Charge focuses its climate assessments on three automobile components: steel, aluminum, and batteries. Collectively, they make up around 70 percent of the lifetime emissions of an EV, according to Polestar and Rivian’s report.

As the top consumer of aluminum and batteries, and the third-largest consumer of steel, automakers wield significant power to push these industries toward more sustainable production, activists argue. “What we’re trying to get the industry to do is to flex their muscles so that some of the steel and aluminum companies will get off their asses and actually do something,” says Groch.

On Friday, demonstrators from the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen unfurled two banners outside the entrance to the auto show, calling out Toyota for its own supply chain practices. They read, “Stop stalling. EVs are the future” and “Drop coal and cut ties to forced labor.”