Tesla released its 2019 Impact Report touting its sustainability this week. In it, the electric car and renewable energy firm touted a bevy of accomplishments.
They include claims that its car batteries degrade 15% less quickly than others, that it cut its water use in manufacturing by 45% from 2018 to 2019, that it makes more than twice as many electric vehicles than any other automaker in the world, and that it’s installed more than 3.7 gigawatts of solar capacity to-date. That’s all well and good. But due to the company’s labor practices and business model, Tesla isn’t sustainable.
Days after it released its flashy impact report, Tesla reached its highest ever stock valuation. The firm’s billionaire CEO Elon Musk responded to the news with some flippant tweets, but since that stock makes up a huge percentage of his net worth, that high value makes him richer. He’s now worth an estimated $42.3 billion. Of course, he wouldn’t have all that wealth (or a company at all) without the work of his employees who make Tesla products.
While Musk accumulates wealth, Tesla workers are suffering. The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that “several cases” of covid-19 had been confirmed at both the company’s Fremont production plant and its smaller seat-assembly facility. Soon after, Electrek reported that four Tesla workers tested positive for the coronavirus on Tuesday alone.
None of those workers would likely have contracted coronavirus on the job if Musk had agreed to adhere to government imposed stay-at-home measures. Instead, Musk called the lockdowns “fascist” and sued Alameda County, threatening to move his company out of state. The company opened its factories in spite of the county’s health rules and cowed officials into changing the rules, directly endangering workers at the plant.
Musk said being ordered to shut down his factory inhibited freedom and democracy, but polls show most Americans don’t want the lockdown to end due to concerns for public health. By defying the orders, Musk threatened workers’ freedom to remain safe and healthy. He could do so without any employee input because he’s a powerful boss. That’s not democracy—it’s plutocracy.
Musk defied lockdown orders, Tesla’s new report lauds the impact those shutdowns have had on air quality. It calls them an “unprecedented opportunity to learn from this disruption and accelerate the deployment of clean energy solutions.” In other words, Tesla ignored public safety measures to turn a quick profit, but celebrates those same measures only insofar as they can make Tesla more money down the road.
This is far from the first time Musk has clearly put his profits over the interest of workers. He once scolded an employee for missing a company event to be present for the birth of his child, saying “We’re changing the world and changing history, and you either commit or you don’t.” He’s shrugged off allegations of racist harassment in the workplace. His firm also has a history of above-average workplace injury rates, and though Tesla says conditions have improved since then, reporting also suggests otherwise. In the face of all of this hardship, Tesla workers have tried to exercise their freedom to unionize. But Musk has done everything he can to stop them.
It’s true than electric cars have a far smaller carbon footprint than their gas counterparts, that the world should use less water especially in the face of increased drought, and that solar will play an important role in the renewable economy. These practices should all be a part of our rapid transition to a more sustainable world.
But no matter how green the products a company like Tesla produces, for workers, these kinds of labor practices are unsustainable. So is the economic system that allows billionaires like Musk to treat workers this way to protect profits and fosters extreme inequality between CEOs and workers.
The climate crisis was largely created by massive, exploitive companies who made billions. Meanwhile, poor and working people disproportionately suffer from the impacts, including widening inequality. In building a new, green economy, we can’t allow that exploitation to persist. We need to reshape not only our transportation and energy grid, but also our relationships with one another. No matter how many solar panels and electric cars Tesla churns out, if its working conditions are exploitive, for workers, it’s not a sustainable company.