Kate Dingwall | Apr 22, 2020

As consumers become increasingly conscious of what they put in their bodies and the environmental impact their tread has, brands are starting to react, pivoting marketing and production efforts to embrace sustainable practices.

But what makes a booze brand sustainable? Is it where they source their raw materials from? Is it the worker’s quality of life? Employee partnerships? Environmentally-friendly supply chains, at all levels? Recycling?

“We think about sustainability as a multi-layered issue,” says Neil Grosscup, CEO and Master Blender of Tanteo Tequila, a Juanacatlan-based brand that produces a line of spiced tequilas, as well as a stellar blanco, “but it is economic stability in particular that lives at our foundation. If we don’t compensate our employees fairly, if we don’t pay farmers a fair price for agave and if we don’t charge a fair price for our tequila, the company and its stakeholders will be tempted to take shortcuts. Those shortcuts would have a much bigger effect on the world than the pennies saved would have on our bank account.”

The weight of the world’s environmental woes is enough reason for businesses to have a vested interest in lessening their environmental footprint, but as studies have revealed, consumers are increasingly adamant about buying products from eco-cognizant companies—81% of global respondents to a 2018 Nielsen survey feel companies should help improve the environment. 

The International Wine and Spirits Commission recently set a standard a brand must meet to be considered sustainable. This encompasses repurposing efforts (including recycling casks, sourcing alternative energy, reducing plastics), supporting local economy, and conscious ingredient sourcing and use.

As a category that is inherently not good for you, how does an alcohol brand do good?

“It’s about using local Mexican glass instead of a lower-priced Chinese glass to reduce freight transportation and its carbon impact,” explains Grosscup, leader of a vertically-integrated, cooperatively-owned distillery. “It’s about investing in a treatment facility at the distillery to be sure that we are properly disposing of the by-products created during the distilling process, instead of sending them off sight and out of mind. It’s about reusing the fibers of our agave to build local bricks and other building materials.  It’s about being patient and not treating our agaves with unnatural fertilizers or chemicals to get a higher yield.”

Some distilleries are reinventing the distillation process entirely to make room for zero-waste materials. England’s Black Cow Vodka and Canada’s Dairy Distillery make vodka from whey leftover from local cheesemakers. San Diego’s Misadventure Vodka makes vodka from day-old pastries from local bakeries. Hyke Gin redirects 1.4 million punnets of surplus grapes, repurposing them into gin.

One facet of building a sustainable brand is lessening the environmental impact of production facilities. Ketel One’s distillery is powered by a traditional Dutch windmill and supplemented by solar panels and electric bikes. Excess power is sold back to the grid.

Novo Fogo Cachaca’s distillery in the heart of the Brazilian rainforest sits on a slope, allowing the liquid in the distillation process to flow from step to step naturally. The remainder of the distillation process relies on heat transfer to keep energy use to a minimum.

But these efforts should be reflected across the business. Grosscup’s sales team drives energy-efficient vehicles, they maintain a paperless office and use video calls over travel. Novo Fogo Cachaca funnels profits into preserving native Brazilian trees that surround the distillery, and the brand mirrors the sustainability efforts at its distillery by offering health & wellness programs for bartenders and drinkers around the world.

Pernod Ricard recently implemented a four-tiered plan for more holistic sustainability across its portfolio, including valuing people, circular making, nurturing terroir and responsible hosting. At its core, the spirits giant’s commitment to commit to 100% renewable energy by 2025. 

Eco-friendly production initiatives are a cornerstone for a brand’s environmental impact, but a crucial part in a brand’s holistic environmental footprint is employee welfare.

“If we can have happy and flourishing employees, it makes it much easier for us to have happy customers,” explains Grosscup. “However, if customers come before our employees, we can build a toxic company culture that ends up injuring both parties.”

Sustainable treatment of employees includes paying workers living wages, maintaining suitable working conditions, benefits, and going above and beyond to support employees.

“We want to give our employees to think creatively, give them room to grow as professionals. Sometimes these tasks are very much about professional growth, like giving an unproven salesperson a larger territory and anticipating some on the job training for them to grow. Other times it’s giving a flexible work schedule in Mexico for a young mother on the bottling line that needs to be home at lunch to feed her children.” 85% of Tanteo’s co-op is made of women, many of whom have risen to senior positions through their tenure with the brand. The brand offers English lessons after hours and childcare is offered on-site (they’re in the process of turning old tequila tanks into a playground).

Of course, sustainability can go far beyond integrating sustainability in your supply chain, it can include using your brand as a platform.

Pernod Ricard has embarked on campaigns to shine a light on underage drinking, and speaking out against the relationship between sexual assault and alcohol. Ilegal Mezcal protests anti-immigration policies and advocates for LGBTQ+ rights while Prairie Organic Spirits invests in teaching the next generation of farmers to use organic practices.

How do you pivot a brand that isn’t currently operating with sustainable practices? “Don’t race to the bottom,” advises Grosscup. “If you don’t charge a fair price for your product or service, you’ll be tempted to cut corners somewhere along the line to improve your margin, which often hurts the environment or yields other harmful side-effects. A fair price does not need to be an extravagant price; there are plenty of brands that overcharge and are wasteful in their marketing initiatives in order to justify an unreasonable price.”

Grosscup also recommends recognizing who your real stakeholders are, and caring about them. “Solely focusing on what’s best for your investors won’t always steer you towards what’s right for the business’s larger community.” Grosscup is conscious that all decisions made will be felt by all people involved in the company, from the women chopping peppers to go in the brand’s spice-infused tequilas to the person mixing up a margarita with the bottle.

Ultimately, its this consumer who will fuel a greater industry shift towards sustainability is the consumer. As drinkers start to count brand transparency as a purchase motivator (and that’s happening—a recent report from Beverage Industry showed that 62% of US consumers sought natural beverage options) brands will allocate more funds and efforts to shifting to more purpose-driven methods.

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