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Poor Scores Highlight Need for Leadership in Remaking Auto Supply Chains

By Carly Oboth

During last year’s historic strikes against the “Big Three”–Ford, GM, and Stellantis–United Auto Worker President Shawn Fein wore a shirt bearing the phrase: “Eat The Rich,” as he criticized auto executives for worrying too much about their profits, and too little about the workers who power their profits. President Fein’s shirt instantly became an icon of the union’s fight to win fair contracts for America’s autoworkers.

His message resonated with autoworkers who, up until recently, had seen their wages stagnate while the CEOs of the Big Three took home record-breaking compensation. Although the UAW was successful in negotiating major salary increases for autoworkers as part of their new contracts with the Big Three, there are countless other workers along auto supply chains who also deserve better wages and better working conditions. 

Automakers must do more to protect the rights of these workers and ensure they are compensated and treated fairly for their labor. This is especially important now, as the auto industry undertakes a massive transformation, spurred by the need to phase out fossil fuel-powered cars and ramp up production of battery powered EVs. At the same moment, this transformation also marks a unique opportunity for the auto industry to reconsider how it works with its suppliers and responsibly manage its supply chains. 

Public Citizen is part of a global coalition of civil society organizations called Lead the Charge that is calling on automakers to remake auto supply chains in a way that is equitable, sustainable, and fossil-free. Lead the Charge recently launched its second annual Leaderboard, which scored 18 of the top automakers on their environmental, sustainability, and human rights practices.

Compared to their global competitors, the Big Three did reasonably well, each ranking among the top half of the 18 automakers evaluated. In fact, U.S. automakers made the most progress in improving their scores from last year, led by Tesla, which jumped from ninth place to third place.

Yet, a closer look at Big Three’s respective scores tells a troubling story: Ford, which placed first in the rankings, only managed to receive a score of 42%. Worse, Stellantis scored 27%, and GM scored only 22%. If the leaderboard’s evaluation criteria were an academic test, each of the Big Three automakers – and even Ford, the top-scorer – would have failed miserably. 

These scores mean that Ford, GM, and Stellantis all have a lot of work to do. If you compare their 2024 scores to their 2023 scores, it’s clear they are making some progress – just not at the pace needed to eliminate emissions or to eliminate environmental harms and human rights abuses from their supply chains.

Take Ford, for example. This year, Ford overtook Mercedes as the top scorer, but only managed to improve its score by 9%. To make this jump, Ford announced a new commitment to a living wage for its workers and pledged to decarbonize its steel and aluminum supply chains by joining the First Movers Coalition. This progress is laudable, but with so much improvement needed, maintaining the lead will take more than just modest updates year over year. 

But these scores are not about just checking the right boxes and saying the right thing. They reflect how Ford and other automakers prioritize the workers along their supply chains and the communities that are impacted. In particular, Ford scored unacceptably low on its supply chain protections for Indigenous people’s rights, an area where it made no improvement over its 2023 score. This is particularly troubling, given that the vast majority of the minerals needed to power the ZEV transition are located on or near land where Indigenous People live.

More than maintaining its lead, Ford must meaningfully invest in remaking its supply chains to be equitable, sustainable, and fossil-free. Lead the Charge’s demands include:

  • Decarbonizing steel and aluminum. Steel production alone generates up to 9% of global greenhouse gas emissions, while aluminum contributes an additional 2%. Steel and aluminum make up over half of a typical vehicle’s metal content. As the auto industry seeks to phase out vehicles’ reliance on fossil fuels, it’s imperative to address emissions beyond the tailpipe.
  • Ensuring responsible sourcing of transition minerals. Minerals like nickel, cobalt, and lithium are essential to the zero emission vehicle (ZEV) transition, but they have also been linked to forced labor, land grabs, and other human rights abuses. Automakers must have comprehensive processes in place to ensure these minerals are mined, traded, and processed safely and responsibly.
  • Respecting Indigenous peoples and their lands. Mining for the metals used in auto supply chains can have serious impacts on Indigenous communities, including damage to sacred cultural sites or destruction of meaningful resources. Free, prior, and informed consent is one of the most important supply chain safeguards automakers have to prevent harm to Indigenous communities.
  • Protecting workers’ rights. Automakers must ensure that basic principles and rights, such as the right to collective bargaining, the right to a safe working environment, and protection from discrimination and other forms of abuse are upheld across their own operations and throughout their supply chains.

Lead the Charge’s Leaderboard is a call to action, challenging automakers to take responsibility for managing not only their own operations, but their entire supply chain. Auto supply chains are long overdue for a transformation that eliminates human rights abuses, poor working conditions, and environmental damage. As the climate emergency forces automakers to grapple with reducing their carbon footprint, leadership is needed from automakers to redefine what auto supply chains should look like and how workers are treated, ensuring that the transition from fossil fuel-powered engines to batteries is also equitable and sustainable.