Japan’s new duty guidelines could help clean up the auto industry

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New Japanese government guidelines on business and human rights mean Japan’s auto industry should step up its efforts to clean up its supply chains.

Japanese automakers are gradually embracing the transition to electric vehicles, which could help reduce the country’s destructive climate footprint. Although Japan gets more than two-thirds of its electricity from fossil fuels, electric cars still have a lower carbon footprint than gasoline-powered vehicles.

When it comes to human rights, however, electric vehicles are problematic. The materials needed for car batteries and other parts are linked to global human rights and environmental harm. Japan’s three biggest automakers – Toyota, Nissan and Honda – all performed poorly in the 2020 Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, which ranks companies based on their global human rights performance.

My own research has documented the human rights impact of producing aluminum, a key material for electric vehicles. Mining of bauxite, the mineral needed to make aluminum, has driven poor farmers off their land in Guinea, West Africa, and destroyed community water sources. Aluminum production, which relies heavily on coal, is responsible for around 3% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions.

Japan’s new business and human rights guidelines, released on September 13, are non-binding and need significant improvement, but make it clear that Japanese businesses must identify human rights abuses in their Supply Chain and work with their suppliers to fix them.

Last year, Human Rights Watch wrote to Toyota and 11 other global automakers about their links to human rights abuses in their aluminum supply chains. In response to our letter, Toyota referred us to its responsible sourcing standards, but would not comment on “individual transactions in the supply chain.” It was different from eight other automakers who met with us to discuss our research. At least four have since pressured their suppliers to improve.

Toyota is one of the largest automakers in the world and, like its fellow automakers in Japan, could have a major impact on protecting human rights and the environment if they choose to do so. Japan’s new business and human rights guidelines should be all automakers need to accelerate their respect for human rights.

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