2012 Ford Focus Electric launch, New York City, January 2011 - Bill Ford Jr.

2012 Ford Focus Electric launch, New York City, January 2011 - Bill Ford Jr.

Increasingly, in production electric vehicles such as the 2012 Ford Focus Electric and 2011 Nissan Leaf, automakers are turning to recycled and repurposed materials.

But the rest of a modern car—even an ol' fossil-fuel burner—is no longer just sheetmetal, alloy, and plastics; extruded, cast, welded, and injection-molded. When it comes to the delicate sensors and microprocessors used so frequently in new vehicles, certain rare minerals, like cassiterite and coltan, need to be procured. And in an era of global sourcing, it can be difficult for a company to determine exactly how a raw material was mined, produced, or harvested.

According to Ford VP for sustainability, environment and safety engineering, Sue Cischke, the company keeps to its code of working conditions all the way down the tiers of suppliers. "We monitor, we inspect, and we hold them accountable to that."

Cischke says that there are times when the company looks down its supply chain and finds something objectionable. "As soon as we find it, then we'll report it but we do have a process to manage that, and it's true from a sustainability standpoint and, more importantly from the start, the code of working conditions."

"We think that the next standpoint is to look where these conflict minerals are coming from," explained Cischke. "Because the electronics are requiring that some things come from the Congo and other areas, and the supply base doesn't even know a lot of the detail of where their stuff is coming from."

In the Congo in particular, slave labor and miners' conditions have been among many concerns.

The era of global sourcing, electronics, and many more levels of the supply chain demands an even higher level of corporate responsibility, Cischke suggested. "It's a pretty wide net that we need to cast, but we stand up for that requirement and have processes, on the ground, in these other countries, to make sure that we're sourcing correctly."

Full disclosure: Green Car Reports accepted travel and accommodation expenses from Ford Motor Company.