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15 April 2023

Sustainable Wine

Tag(s): Sustainability, Business
I'm a member of The Wine Society, a fine organisation that was founded nearly 150 years ago and continues to source excellent wines at reasonable prices for its extensive membership. In the latest issue of its periodic newsletter it reports on The Society’s carbon footprint and its plans to achieve its climate goals. It believes that any company serious about tackling climate change needs to calculate its total carbon footprint across its business and supply chain. Once acquired the data act as a benchmark against which carbon reduction targets can be measured. The Society has done that, and has set an ambitious goal of cutting their total carbon emissions by 50% by 2032, on the road to being net zero across their business and supply chain by 2040.This is quite an undertaking particularly in a complex business like wine with its long supply chains. The definition of net zero is that any emissions across its business are balanced by taking the same amount of carbon out of the atmosphere through another part of their business and supply chain such as capturing carbon into the soil in vineyards. Working with a leading environmental consultancy they measured their 2021 carbon footprint and assessed this at 16,488 tCO2e - tonnes of carbon dioxide. That level is colossal as it is approximately equivalent to driving a medium sized petrol car for 150 million miles. To put it another way each bottle of wine supplied by the society has an average carbon footprint of 1.35 kg tCO2e, a weight of carbon dioxide that is roughly equivalent to the weight of the bottle of wine itself.

Unsurprisingly glass is top of the list of where their emissions come from. While infinitely recyclable, glass is very energy intensive to produce - not to mention heavy to transport. No less than 31% of their total emissions come from glass. Next on the list is transporting wine from around the world from wineries to their warehouses and then to members’ doors. These two together account for 21% of emissions. Grape growing and wine making are next at 17%. While each producer does things differently, these emissions come from activities such as fertilisers sprayed on the vines, use of farm machinery, energy to the winery and water use. Other packaging such as cardboard, cork, screw caps, and plastic wrap account for 11%. Operations such as their vans, lorry and electricity they purchase account for 6%. Printed materials sent to members account for 5% and goods and services to run their business, for example IT, count for the remaining 9%.

To lower the emissions from growing grapes and making wine they plan to implement a new supplier code of conduct that sets out their expectations for suppliers to have plans in place to achieve net zero by 2040 or earlier. They're creating an online forum where their 1,000 suppliers can share advice on reducing emissions, improving biodiversity and sequester more carbon. And they're launching a supplier fund from 2024 to help growers reduce emissions, become more resilient to climate change and obtain a credible sustainability certification.

To use lower emission packaging they are working to ‘right-weight’ their glass bottles. Every 20 gramme reduction across their range saves 150 tonnes of carbon per year. They have already reduced most of their Society range wines to under 420 grammes per bottle. This year they'll set bottle weight reduction targets for their whole range. And they will put more wine in packaging formats that produce less emissions, such as bag in box, recycled flat plastic bottles and cans. But there are a number of difficulties in this particular area. The standard 560 gram glass bottle is ideal for long term ageing and it's likely to be recycled. However, it is heavy to transport and has a high carbon footprint. The bag in the box can stay fresh for up to six weeks and has the lowest carbon footprint of all formats but it is unsuitable for long term ageing and the packaging elements must be recycled separately which consumers may find complex. While most of us are probably not used to drinking wine out of a can it is actually quite convenient, infinitely recyclable and good protection against oxygen, but it's not available in larger sizes and it has a limited shelf life and of course is entirely inappropriate for those wines that need long term ageing. The flatter plastic bottle has a low carbon footprint, needs reduced shipping space and is made of 100% recycled material but its flat shape is an issue for bottlers. The lightweight glass bottle weighing 420 grammes is ideal for long term ageing, quite likely to be recycled and has a lower carbon footprint than a standard glass bottle but it has a higher breakage rate, is currently hard to source and its carbon footprint is still relatively high. There is even a paper bottle which has a low carbon footprint and is compatible with most bottling lines but it's clearly unsuitable for long term ageing and again its packaging elements must be recycled separately.

15% of their emissions come from moving wine around the world and so they will be aiming to move all their vans from diesel to zero emissions by 2028 providing the right EV technology is available. But I have a problem with these kinds of comparisons as I've written before in these pages. The electric vehicle only produces less emissions from the vehicle itself but if the source of electricity is coal or gas then all you have done is to move the pollution and done nothing whatsoever towards some impact on the climate. Furthermore there were clearly carbon emissions in the production of the vehicle which are just as great as those of a petrol driven vehicle and it will take a very long time before these become carbon neutral and thirdly the electric battery means the vehicle can be two or even three times as heavy as a standard petrol vehicle and will do a great deal of damage to our roads already suffering from the biggest pothole crisis in Europe .They may also cause serious problems in older multi-storey car parks that were built to withstand the weight of  much lighter vehicles than today.

The Society plans to run its own operation as far as possible on renewable energy and currently produces 23% of its electricity needed to run their office and warehouses from solar panels and plans to increase that to 55% in the coming few years and since September 2022 the rest of the electricity has come from renewable sources saving 240 tCO2e  (tonnes of carbon equivalent) per year.

Printed materials accounted for 5% of their total emissions and they will ensure that anything they send out is FRC certified, 100% recyclable, and printed with more sustainable inks.

The Wine Society should be congratulated for this ambitious plan and for the comprehensive way in which they are looking right across their supply chain. And it should not be assumed that the carbon footprint has to do with distance. It may well be that a lorry transporting wine from Bordeaux to England will have a heavier carbon footprint then a ship bringing similar wines from Australia. But I also sincerely hope that their efforts are genuine, and this is not just another example of greenwashing.



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