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Electric cars have the ability to massively cut our carbon footprint and reduce air pollution, but do these vehicles cause as many ethical and legal problems as they solve?

In June 2018, the British government announced that new petrol and diesel vehicles will be banned from 2040, raising a question about which type of battery will be used in an electric car.

Currently

Currently, lithium-ion batteries dominate the market, and are used in most electronic mobile devices, including mobile phones, laptops – and electric cars. They are widely considered the best and only product, but sourcing the raw materials needed ethically and sustainably, presents many challenges.


Businesses that design and make products with lithium-ion batteries need to be constantly aware of the increase in the price of cobalt and possible shortages of the metal, a key component in this kind of power cell.

Supply Chain and Pricing

Even more importantly, they need to be aware and question how they source the cobalt due to the risk of using unethical practices in their supply chain, or even breaching the Modern Slavery Act.

The rapidly growing electric car market can only increase the strain, with automotive demand for batteries expected to grow exceptionally by 2038. Some electric car manufacturers are aiming to address these price increases by signing fixed-price agreements, guaranteeing them a certain amount of cobalt for a set period.

This is a suitable strategic move for businesses if they can reach a good deal, but cobalt providers may not be willing to agree, as they benefit from rising prices and demand. Volkswagen’s recently attempted to secure a fixed price agreement with various cobalt miners but were unsuccessful.

But concerns around purchasing cobalt extend beyond pricing and supply. Companies need to be aware of legal issues to ensure that, as well as supporting the government’s targets and environmental ambitions, they are also operating clean, ethical supply chains.

Human Rights

Modern slavery and child labour are issues facing most companies. Not accepting these or taking steps to reduce the risk can have a severe impact on a company and its reputation. The legal ramifications can also be severe and costly to a company.

Around 60 per cent of cobalt production takes place in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country has suffered civil war, corruption and numerous ethical violations.

At least 20% of cobalt from the DRC is extracted from artisanal mines, which Amnesty International described as “hazardous” and “unsafe”.

UNICEF has reported that of the 100,000 people that could be working in these mines – approximately 40% of them are children, who can be as young as six years old.

Minimal regulation and complex supply chains surrounding unofficial mines in the DRC makes it extremely difficult for businesses to conduct a proper audit into labour standards of the cobalt they buy. Metal from unofficial mines is often smelted together with that extracted from industrial mines very early on, so it makes it impossible to identify the original source.

Is there an ethical alternative?

From exploring some of these problems, alternatives to lithium-ion batteries look increasingly appealing. Panasonic, which produces power cells for Tesla, was one of the first big players to start working on producing a cobalt-free battery. Many others are following as you read this blog post, and The Blue Battery goes even further by using salt water to produce power, eliminating not just cobalt but toxins and many other components in lithium-ion models.

Companies who could switch over to these new technologies would circumvent the problem of cobalt production.

But the lifespan of lithium-ion batteries is so long that the volume required in the coming decade will outpace people getting rid of them, so this will not be a viable solution for many organisations, particularly those who need large quantities of the metal.

What Next?

All the above, are highlighted problems facing the ethical questions companies face when implementing electrical cars. If you have any comments, please add some feedback within our social media channels

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