After pouring way too much money into my lemon of a car over the last few years, I decided it was time for an upgrade. Always a daunting task for sure, but this was definitely going to be a new challenge for a number of reasons. First, I know very little about cars (hear: really nothing except how to operate one). Second, I wanted to find a car that was good for the planet. And third, I wanted to find a car that loved people.
The first reason probably resonates with many of you. And the second may also make some sense to you, whether you buy into the notion or not. But the third likely needs some explaining.
I used to work at an environmental organization, and this was before “green” was as en vogue as it is now. Products were certainly available, but not as commonplace and inexpensive as they are today. It was the beginning of the movement for the masses. I learned a lot there, including what my personal impact has on the planet. So, I started recycling and switching many of my personal and cleaning products to more eco-friendly ones. And I knew that the next time I purchased a car, this information would be taken into consideration.
Then, a few years ago I started to learn about supply chain through my volunteering with human trafficking and modern-day slavery organizations. Based on my previous environmental experience, I began to see that this was the next big movement in consumerism. Supply chain, if you are unfamiliar with the term, is just the process of taking raw goods through a production process to create an end result. And this can be in the form of anything: food, electronics, rugs, paintings, cars, etc.—anything. What we are often aware of, and something I’ve spent a lot of time talking about on this blog, is the harm that can occur to people in the cultivation and/or production process. For example, you have likely heard about child labor being used to pick cocoa beans, or poor working conditions in places like India, Bangladesh or Uzbekistan, or blood diamonds. Recently, there has also been a lot of concern over the dangerous situations children and adults are put in to mine coltan, a metallic ore found in almost every piece of electronics. The harmful effects of supply chain are everywhere, and can be found in most every item of your house, but are rarely talked about on the news. But it’s an important issue to me, so this is why I decided my new car should love people. I didn’t want anyone to be harmed in the making of my car.
This third aspect was the toughest by far because it has the smallest amount of established data. It’s not yet important to the masses, so it’s the hardest to track and find available information.
Ok, yes, then there is that pesky fourth requirement of being within my budget. Ugh.
And so my search begin . . . with lots and lots of research. Over a couple of months.
I actually don’t mind research because I love to learn. But if that’s not the case for you, I’m pretty sure you can deal with it when you’re going to be dropping this kind of money. ;)
Here are the initial steps I took:
- Asked friends what they already knew that might be relevant to my search.
- Asked experts I could actually contact for the same. These weren’t blind emails I’d retrieved from a website; they were people I’d spoken to before on different supply chain matters.
- Searched a few websites that take supply chain into consideration, including GoodGuide.com and BetterWorldShopper.com. Note: while things like clothing, chocolate and coffee are becoming more popular to buy as fair trade or ethically sourced, cars are still far behind the curve.
- Searched ConsumerReports.org for their advice and ratings.
- Googled and found a site called AIAG, which is a group of automotive related companies trying to create more excellence, transparency and accountability within the industry.
- Utilized social media to ask questions to the general public as well as car manufacturers.
- Emailed car manufacturers for more detail about their policies.
- Read Corporate Responsibility Reports (sometimes called Corporate Sustainability Reports or CSRs). I have read many of these types of reports across different industries, so it takes a some practice to understand what to look for and frankly, what I’d consider BS (or good PR).
Next, I dug deeper:
- Just by doing the things above, I was quickly able to eliminate some brands. This was either for poor ratings, lack of information (which is fishy to me) or because the car was too expensive (hello, Tesla).
- Sadly, my friends and experts in-the-know didn’t have any advice here. And again, that’s largely due to cars not being as much of a hot-button issue as products like cocoa and electronics. It’ll get there.
- I emailed the PR person for AIAG, who was listed on a press release housed on their website, to see if they had any sort of ratings in place. She responded right away! She was very nice, but unfortunately, they do not yet having a ratings system in place.
- Social media has been a big help in times past for various things, but it couldn’t really help me here yet. People that responded mostly had opinions or ideas, but nothing to back it up.
- I looked to see if they had any manufacturing plants in the US, so at least they were stimulating our economy in some way.
- It really came down to Good Guide, Better World Shopper, Consumer Reports and Corporate Responsibility reports. Besides just reading and research, I also emailed the first two websites because of what they’re trying to accomplish, which I admire. BWS emailed me back, which I greatly appreciate, and this was the second time he’s answered questions for me. But I’ll be honest here, there is definitely some conflicting information in cross-referencing, and it can be frustrating. Who do you believe? I usually lean toward the third-party who has no stake in the profit, which is why I really like BWS. Overall, it really takes 1) the desire for answers, 2) determination to push through and 3) discernment to cut through the crap. As I said earlier, the last one for me has taken some practice. It probably helps that I work in PR and marketing, and know what forms “fluff” can take!
- After all of the above, I finally narrowed it down to a Toyota Prius, Honda Fit and Ford Fusion Hybrid. You may do the same thing and get some varied results because part of it is just how you interpret the data. Sadly, it’s not really based on hard facts.
- I then eliminated the Fusion. Honestly, the three were all pretty close at this point, but I just didn’t like the way the Fusion looked. And let’s face it, I do have to drive it everyday so I wanted to feel comfortable in it. Sue me.
- Down to two. A major factor resulting in the Prius was the difference in Corporate Responsibility reports. Not only was Toyota’s the easiest to read, but I liked a lot of the other programs they were running to better people’s lives, both here in the US and in the countries where they manufacture or source parts. It felt genuine. And, of course, I liked the hybrid factor. But besides Ford, they also had the most impressive policy on supply chain. It was included, for one thing (not all do), and well thought out. It didn’t look like it was included for legal reasons or pressure to do so. They included a variety of topics including conflict materials (note: coltan) and worker’s rights.
- So, in the end, it was the Prius.
Buying the car:
Actually, before I bought the car, I knew exactly where I wanted to purchase it. My friend and mentor, Holly, told me about her friend’s dealership, Providence Auto Group, outside of Nashville. They are a family run business, not loyal to any particular brand, and give a lot to charity. Those were three things I liked better than any other dealership I was aware of. (And I was given a great deal on my trade!)
There was also no pressure on any front as far as what to buy or my budget. I did basically everything via email since I was four hours away, and it was ready to go before I arrived to test drive it. In fact, I basically sent them a wish list because I didn’t see what I wanted on their website. So, they found me that car and actually called me to see if I was interested before they listed it. They thought it was a good fit for me, and wanted me to have the first option. Um, what?
And as I mentioned, they are a family run business. So, they didn’t feel slimy. They have a kid’s room with a TV, movies and games since they said people come from all over the US to buy cars from them and need to bring the family along. There was a family in there at the same time as me from Michigan. The guy had a friend who’d purchased from them, and had a great experience, so he made the trip to do the same. And the co-owner’s dad was there making Root Beer floats for everyone the afternoon I was in. Not even kidding!
Finally, they contribute to a charity I already love, Thistle Farms, a long-term recovery and job training program for women leaving prostitution or trafficking. A portion of every car they sell is set aside to provide a car for select women coming out of TF programs. I was also given TF home and body products as a thank you for buying with them! Loved it. Providence said they are the largest (or one of the largest, I forgot) retailers of TF products in the nation—a car dealership! They also support several other charities in the Nashville area.
Driving off into the sunset:
So, as you can see, it definitely took some effort to arrive at my decision. But I’d certainly do it all over again. And policies and ratings change every year, so I will do exactly that the next time I car shop. Hopefully, the information will have caught up more by that time, too.
I know this is a different process than most people take, but again, it’s not like you’d go out and buy a car without having done your research. This is just an extra layer. It’s one, however, you can feel really good about. And once you’ve navigated it the first time, it gets a lot easier. You can’t unlearn it. And you can also see how the process translates to other items you purchase more frequently. Doing good in any way is always worth trying.
I love my Prius, and I’m proud to own it. Like me, it’s not perfect, but I feel pretty confident that we are both trying to be kinder to the planet and love people in our own way. And that’s all I can ask for now.