It seems hardly a week goes by before Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is mired in another controversy. What is surprising about Tesla’s latest coronavirus scandal is the flagrant disregard for social responsibility revealed by the man seeking to sell environmentally-friendly electric cars and build a new society on Mars.
Musk has been vocal about his disdain for coronavirus lockdown measures enacted by the government. He tweeted that “coronavirus panic is dumb”, predicted that cases in the United States would be close to zero by April, and called lockdowns “fascist” forcible imprisonment (Mcfall-Johnsen, 2020). In March, he filed a lawsuit against Alameda County and reopened the Tesla Fremont plant without waiting for a ruling, daring officials to arrest him (Musk, 2020). Instead, Alameda County opted to back down and let Tesla restart production as long as it enforced strict social distancing and reported all cases of coronavirus (Siddiqui, 2020).
According to Siddiqui (2020), Tesla’s human resource director sent an email to factory workers declaring that if “you feel uncomfortable returning to work, you can stay home without penalty”. Two Tesla workers, Carlos Gabriel and Jessica Naro, decided to take unpaid leave and were sent termination letters citing a “failure to return to work”. Nero managed to secure her job, but Gabriel refuses to go to work in these conditions.
A half-dozen anonymous workers reveal that Tesla failed to sanitize equipment or enforce mask rules properly, and there is a general lack of transparency regarding infection rates (Siddiqui, 2020). Workers randomly disappear for weeks, with managers citing “health concerns” without further clarification (Siddiqui, 2020). In March 2021, the initiative Plainsite obtained data that shows 440 cases were reported at the Tesla Fremont plant from May to December (Boudette, 2021).
Elon Musk’s public and outspoken contempt for safety guidelines during a global epidemic is a bizarre move for an electric car company whose brand depends on environmental sustainability. Since the 1960s, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), the idea that corporations should tackle societal issues, has slowly gained traction (George et al., 2016). Over 14,000 companies have signed the United Nations Global Compact to adopt socially and environmentally responsible policies. Environmentalism is indelibly linked with the struggle for human rights, labor standards, and anti-corruption (George et al., 2016).
By forcing Tesla factories to reopen without following basic social distancing rules during a global pandemic, Musk reveals the hollowness of Tesla’s environmentalist agenda. Musk does not care about the safety and health of simple factory workers; he cares about delivering and selling an expensive product. Tesla’s claim of sustainability is just a carefully constructed brand identity to comfort their rich neoliberal clientele. In 2021, neoliberal environmentalists believe making the correct consumer choices will revert climate change (Ciplet & Timmons, 2017).
In addition to inadequate social distancing measures, Elon has been criticized for creating a toxic work culture, not providing job security, and preventing union formation. Building electric cars to protect nature while forcing your employees to work in unsafe conditions is the peak of American performative activism. To integrate corporate social responsibility into business strategy, it is required to rethink Tesla’s mission in relation to global social responsibility (Bocean & Sitnikov, 2017). If Tesla is positioning itself as the product of choice for conscientious consumers, it should promote sustainability and human rights. After multiple controversies, this will rehabilitate Tesla’s reputation and help it achieve a competitive advantage (Bocean & Sitnikov, 2017).
Boudette, N.E. (2021). Hundreds of Tesla workers tested positive for thcome virus after Elon Musk reopened a plant, data shows. The New York Times. Web.
Ciplet, D., & Timmons, R. (2017). Climate change and the transition to neoliberal environmental governance. Global environmental change 46, 148-156. Web.
George, G., Takeuchi, R., Tong, L., Wang, H. (2016). Corporate social responsibility: An overview and new research directions. Academy of Management Journal 59(2), 534-544. Web.
Mcfall-Johnsen, M. (2020). Elon Musk promoted coronavirus misinformation for months. Business Insider. Web.
Musk, E. [@elonmusk]. 2020. Tesla is restarting production today against Alameda County rules. I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone [Tweet]. Twitter. Web.
Sitnikov, C., & Bocean, C. (2017). Relationships between corporate social responsibility and strategic planning. In Idowu S., Vertigans S. (eds), Stages of Corporate Social Responsibility, (pp. 121-137). Springer, Cham. Web.
Siddiqui, F. (2020). Tesla defied county orders so it could restart production. The Washington Post. Web.