In recent years, we’ve seen a boom in an interest in environmentally friendly lifestyles. What used to be “granola” is now trending, and people across the country are clamoring to get their hands on the hottest green tech.

It’s no secret that cars are one of the proven culprits of our environmental concerns. And in an honest effort to reduce emissions, car companies and consumers alike have turned to modifying motorized vehicles to reflect our increased environmental awareness.

Seemingly, one of the companies doing the most for the environment is Tesla Motors.

But what do we really know about Tesla?

Tesla Motors is an American electric car company, founded in 2003 under the principles of sustainable design. They’ve reached widespread fame with the 2012 release of their Model-S, an all-electric sedan with the power to go 200+ miles per charge. Tesla is also the only car company to sell directly to consumers (as opposed to through a third-party multi-brand car dealerships).

Tesla’s well-known for being sleek, smart… and expensive. But exactly how much of this image is the real deal, and how much is the work of a stellar marketing team? And does Tesla’s feel-good image match its actions?

The Innovation (And the Price)

While Tesla may indeed be something special, that “something” doesn’t translate when you run the numbers. According to a chart by Business Insider, it appears that the nearly $70,000 price point of a Tesla Model S is at least $30,000 above that of its comparable counterparts, and yet, it gets similar mileage. Of course, Tesla currently makes luxury vehicles, and you don’t buy a luxury car for its mileage. Though from a purely environmental standpoint, you can keep your $30,000 and still save the planet.

Essentially, Tesla is filling an important gap in the market by producing an electric vehicle for high-end buyers who might otherwise opt for gas-guzzling car candy. They’ve stated that their next goals include lowering the price point of future models to reach new markets, but so far, electric cars remain luxuries.

Tesla’s CEO, and Company Culture

Then, there’s Tesla’s CEO and Co-founder, the renowned ultra-innovator, Elon Musk. The 43-year old South African seems to stand for all things cool and forward thinking: he regularly makes the news for his inventive ideas, such as the high speed Hyperloop rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the high-tech payment system Paypal, and his concept for the new energy company, SolarCity.

Musk has been at the helm of some incredible innovations, certainly—he’s a brilliant entrepreneur, and has done a great deal of top-line thinking about business’ role in economic progress. He’s reportedly quite open about Tesla’s technologies, to allow for others to build off his creativity. 

It can be easy to get distracted by Musk’s glimmering public image, a perfect picture of how we can solve our impending environmental crisis through economic growth—a pleasing point for both ardent capitalists and fervent environmentalists. But does Musk’s wildly brilliant mind also conjure social innovations? Do his visions to help the earth help his workers as well?

Workers at Tesla’s manufacturing plant, located in Fremont, California, have been laboring without unions since the factory’s 2010 opening. According to the a January 2014 article in the SF Gate, there had been talk of unionizing Tesla’s workers. But based on a lack of news thereafter, it’s safe to assume that such efforts never materialized.

The SF Gate also describes varied Glassdoor reviews, which average out to a healthy rating of 3.6 stars. Overall, it seems as though Tesla offers a fast pace environment and long hours with an unfavorable work/life balance, as well as workers who describe “average” wages.

For his part, Musk seems to have steered clear of talk of the efforts to unionize. He rarely comments on the developments and when he does, takes on a neutral stance. Though in an earlier interview with Wired dating back to 2009, Musk expressed his misgivings about the “two-class system” created by unions, which inherently separate workers from managers.

Yet despite his apparent apathy in recent years, it’s abundantly clear that his company views unionization as a threat. According to the SF Gate, Tesla’s 2013 annual financial report stated that unions could hurt Tesla’s reputation among investors and bring down their stock prices.

In 2014, Tesla announced their plans to hire more American military veterans, and to make their company culture more supportive of veterans who are employees. Tesla’s current workforce employs about 300 veterans, or 5% of their full staff.

All in all, it seems that Tesla’s treatment of workers is relatively fair, but it’s certainly not in line with their usual innovative spirit.

The Bottom Line

But for me, the main question prompted by the onslaught of electric vehicle options is: should we really be answering our car problem with a car solution?

More efficient vehicles are great, necessary, forward thinking and are capable of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent in comparison with gasoline. But America, and the entire world, needs to rethink our transportation systems—and it should not be left entirely to cars.

In Los Angeles, a city known for its terrible traffic, more than 67 percent of commuters drive to work and less than 11 percent weather the less-than-reputable public transit. This crowds highways, pollutes the air and leads to higher numbers of traffic accidents—in 2009, 848 people died in traffic accidents in the Greater Los Angeles area. All in all, cars don’t seem to be doing much good for the City of Angels.

And that’s just in LA: 85 percent of Americans arrive at work via their privately owned car.

According to reports by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, the goal should not be to fix our cars, but to fix our urban infrastructure. Our cities are made for cars. They’re composed of road after road, and freeway after freeway.

Instead, we should strive to build cities for people by creating pleasant places to walk, as well as ample public transit. Don’t get me wrong: there is and always should be room in the discussion for electric vehicles, particularly with regard to a longer commutes—but they simply shouldn’t dominate the conversation when it comes to earth-healthy urban transportation.

No matter how you slice it, electric vehicles are an important—but not the most important—piece of the progressive equation. It’s hard to ask a brand to be the end-all, be-all of ethical companies; thinking practically, Tesla’s hit several checkmarks of responsible business. So if you do need to go the distance and you’re going green, Tesla is not a bad way to get there.


Molly Cornfield is a freelance writer, UCLA environmental science graduate, and aspiring environmental health advocate living in DC. In the past eight years, she’s lived in five different cities in three states and on two continents. Her love for chocolate is second to none.