Is It OK to Buy a Tesla and Resent Elon Musk?

The answer is, in short, complicated.

An image of a black Tesla vehicle getting charged.
Nathan Stirk / Getty Images

When Elon Musk was named Time magazine’s "Person of the Year," the news garnered a decidedly mixed response from climate- and clean-tech folks.

On the one hand, there are those who appreciate how Tesla has supercharged the world of electric vehicle charging, developed (if not yet scaled) alternatives to heavy-duty trucks, and forced even reluctant car makers to take electrified transportation seriously. On the other hand, there are those of us who are suspicious of cars as “the answer,” dislike Musk’s trashing of public transit and are furious about emissions related to a privatized space race. And that’s before we get into other issues like mass wealth inequality, questionable tweets and SEC regulations, or labor relations and unionization.

It’s led some climate concerned folks I know to ask a very sensible question: Is it OK to buy a vehicle (or any product) from a company if you have issues with the behavior of that company’s leadership? And this is where things get complicated. 

After all, it’s well documented that a large number of other vehicle manufacturers are also engaged in less than optimal behaviors when it comes to climate action—even as they tout their new electric vehicles. 

Many of us live in regions where car ownership is the norm and where going without a car can be a challenge—especially if you need to commute any kind of distance, or if you don’t have the resources to live downtown. And while many have ethical issues with Musk’s behavior, in a world where there are few, viable long-range electric cars just yet—let alone car companies that have built a decent charging infrastructure—there are good reasons why many would choose Tesla for purely practical reasons. Indeed, I have several friends who drive Model 3s, say it’s the best car they’ve ever owned, and would also quite like Musk to change his ways. And the key thing to remember here, as with so many aspects of so-called climate hypocrisy, is that few, if any of us, can claim 100% consistency between the values we hold and the consumer purchases we make.

I was reminded of this in a recent conversation about climate with Minh Dang, executive director of Survivor Alliance, who drew the analogy with her own work in the anti-human trafficking and forced labor movements. Given the sheer prevalence of forced labor throughout supply chains, she argued, she had quickly come to terms with the fact that the purchases she makes and the ethics she espouses may sometimes come into conflict. And rather than allowing that tension to derail her efforts, she’s had to instead get used to focusing her attention on where she really can make a difference. Climate, she argued, is no different. 

This leads to my second point: While there may be times when someone chooses to buy a Tesla, even if they take issue with certain behaviors of the company or its leadership, it’s also important to recognize there may be times when they shouldn’t. By that, I mean it’s perfectly OK to eschew a product or company for personal, ethical reasons. And it’s also a valid and proven tactic of social change to team up with others who are doing the same thing. 

Here, though, it’s important to remember that organized boycotts are a far more complex and sophisticated tool than simply aligning our shopping with our values. And that’s because the decision to purchase (or, more accurately, not purchase) a given item is directly linked to a whole host of other tactics that include public campaigning, lobbying, and targeted communications. In fact, research has shown that the immediate dollar impact of boycotts is not the determining factor in their success. Instead, it’s the power of coming together that creates movements, and public pressure, that can eventually result in a change. 

So by all means, buy a Tesla, if that’s the best choice for you and your family to move toward somewhat more climate-friendly transportation. Making that purchase by no means precludes you from supporting workers, advocating for legislative change, or other steps that might put you at odds with the company’s founder. 

And by all means, don’t buy a Tesla, if that choice doesn’t suit you, you have better options, or (ideally!) you can get by without a car. But if you’re really focused on ethical differences with a certain CEO, then it’s important to remember that your non-purchase is unlikely to move the needle on its own. Instead, you’ll need to unite with a wide range of voices (both Tesla owners and non-Tesla owners) and, together, make your voices heard. 

While there is power in strategic shopping, we are more than the sum of our consumer choices. The things we buy do not define what we do—or do not—get to be angry about.