Sustainable Innovation in the Automotive Industry

It's not all about being electric.

Emma Menebroker

8/29/20234 min read

Sustainable Innovation in the Automotive Industry

While the automotive industry for many is synonymous with resource harvesting and pollution, the push for sustainable innovation in recent years has led to some exciting initiatives aimed at reducing the industry’s environmental impact. In this post we will address the major sustainable initiatives impacting the auto industry today outside of the shift from combustion engine to electric motor.

1: Recycling and Refurbishing Automotive Parts

One of the main innovations that the auto industry must undertake is the transition to the circular economy. This economic model would require the materials throughout the car’s lifetime, including production, use, and at the end of life, to be accounted for. All materials put into the car should be effectively reused as opposed to wasted. Companies like Renault have pledged to ensure that parts off their products can be repurposed to fit newer models. Renault has repurposed a plant outside of Paris that is purely focused on promoting the circular economy within the business. The company has pledged that they will be carbon negative by 2030 while creating local jobs (World Economic Forum, Wolff and Deloison, 2020).

A coalition working to bring this vision to fruition is the Circular Cars Initiative (CCI), an organization composed of 60 members, including automakers, NGOs, research institutions, and international organizations. The goal of this organization is to connect stakeholders across the automotive industry, ensuring that those in the automotive industry have the resources to expedite the transition to a circular economy.

Going hand-in-hand with the recycling of old parts is the need to incorporation of modular design in new car production. The age of planned obsolescence has passed. I order to ensure that cares are not being prematurely wasted as a capitalistic scheme, producers must ensure that parts can be replaced throughout the lifetime of the automobile.

The World Economic Forum believes that the three trends that must occur to ensure this circular transition including the ‘high vehicle utilization models’, using ride hailing platforms that ensure that cars do not remain idol for extended periods of time, the implementation of recycling centers and re-manufacturing facilities, as well as the adoption of modular design.

2: Incorporating Innovative Materials

Sustainable materials are becoming ever more present in cars today. Common materials used instead of glass fibers include hemp, kenaf, and flax. Cars like the Nissan Leaf and Ford Mustang are utilizing plastic bottles into their fabrics. The Leaf also utilizes recycled clothes to insulate under the hood and recycled electrical appliance components are incorporated into its center console. Ford has also invested in creating wiring harness clips out of plastic fishing nets. In the Lincoln MKX cellulose-reinforced plastic was used, as opposed to plastic reinforced by fiberglass (MotoTrend).

While these sustainable materials are a step in the right direction and appealing to an audience, many of these companies are pushing back on legislation to decarbonize the auto industry in a timely manner to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Don’t get me wrong, these material shifts are essential in making the production process more sustainable, but simultaneously there needs to be proactive actions taken by automotive producers to mitigate carbon emissions once in customer hands.

Innovation 3: Recycling of EV Batteries

One of the main forefronts of the auto industry is the recycling of lithium batteries. The battery cells of are predominantly composed of minerals including, lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, and aluminum. Recycling these materials would ensure that electric vehicle production becomes more sustainable, mitigating the harmful environmental impacts of extensive mining.

Furthermore, the technology for recycling lithium batteries is still being developed and it is very costly. While 99% of lead batteries are effectively recycled, as little as 5% lithium-ion batteries are currently being recycled (Marchant, 2021). The EU has set a goal combating these statistics, creating a goal where 70% of lithium and 95% of cobalt, copper, and nickel will be effectively recycled by 2030 (Davis- Peccoud, Jenny, et al., 2022). Additionally, if these batteries are dumped in landfills, as opposed to being recycled, they will contaminate soil and leach into water. Advancements in battery lifecycle management is essential to the successful transition to a sustainable auto-industry. Many automotive companies and partners have started investing in recycling their battery products and this field will greatly expand in the near future.

Where Do We Go from Here?

While cars have contributed to our current climate crisis, there is much to be said for the initiative being currently undertaken to make the industry more sustainable. To truly become sustainable the automotive market must uncover a transparent supply chain, embrace the shift towards a circular economy, continue to adopt sustainable materials, and invest in new technology that ensures that electric vehicles can be effectively recycled.

If you have a green energy solution that could revolutionize tomorrow’s automotive transition, contact us, we would love to assist you on your journey towards bringing your design to fruition!


MotorTrend. “Earth Day Friendly: Cars That Use Recycled Materials.” MotorTrend, Accessed 29 August 2023.

Davis-Peccoud, Jenny, et al. “Reuse, Remanufacturing, Recycling, and Robocabs: Circularity in the Automotive Industry.” Brain & Company, Accessed 29 August 2023.

World Economic Forum. “Circular Cars Initiative.” World Economic Forum, Accessed 29 August 2023.

Wolff, Christoph and Thomas Deloison. “The circular economy could forever change how cars are made– here’s how.” World Economic Forum, Accessed 29 August 2023.

Marchant, Natalie. “5 innovators making the electric vehicle battery more sustainable.” World EconomicForum, Accessed 29 August 2023.