Distillers setting a path towards greater sustainability.

Ever since co-authoring an environmental manifesto (the ‘GreenPrint’) many years ago, I’ve been fascinated with sustainability and the environment. Have I been a glowing example of good practice? Well, that’s a different story, but as another marketing initiative from my print and agency days remind me; to do “One Green Thing” is a step in the right direction.

However, as time passes on, and documentaries such as Netflix’s ‘Seaspiracy’ scare the life out of me, I do ask is ‘One Green Thing’ enough? Short answer, is no – it isn’t.

What does give me encouragement is how an industry I admire and love, is making some bold and interesting steps. And in an industry which is has high visibility, high sales – and millions of brand ‘fans’, that’s only a good thing. What’s more, is that the long-established and traditional distilleries are making waves – not just the more agile start-ups.

Take for example Bowmore Distillery on the Hebridean island of Islay. Established in 1779, this traditional whitewashed establishment lies central to a community which was built around it. You’d be mistaken for thinking they’re too long in the tooth to change. Not at all. Since 1983 they’ve used ‘waste’ heat from the distilling process to heat their building too, but even better than that, since 1991 it’s heated the community swimming pool which sits next door. As distillery manager David Turner tells me – ‘Community on a small island is everything’. Great sentiment and great story to begin with, however it will be interesting to see what they do next, considering neighbouring distillery Bruichladdich has just achieved B Corporation certification. (You see, the ‘big’ ‘traditional’ companies CAN do it ..!).

Staying in Scotland, but towards one of the newer players on the scene, Nc’nean. Distilling since 2017, CEO Annabel Thomas has built Nc’nean on firm foundations of her sustainability ethos and embrace many aspects of it – such as with renewable energy, organic and local ingredients, water conservation and recycling and sound waste management practices. It’s no surprise to see their products regularly making shortlists in the broadsheets and specialist media. And for good reason too.

In England, Cooper King Distillery near York are cut from a similar cloth. Green energy, recycled glass, home-grown botanicals, refill schemes and carbon offsetting (with 1% For The Planet) has resulted in England’s first carbon negative gin. Owners Abbie and Chris (who built the distillery from ground up), were determined to create a sustainable business without compromising on quality, and vice-versa. The result – terms such as ‘A green pioneer’ is attributed to them as often as plaudits about the quality of their product.

And it’s not just the distillers. BrewDog immediately come to mind with great beer and great marketing which engages – and helps plants trees. Loads of them.

But what about other elements of what sustainability means?

In rural Scottish communities, the distillery is often a key employer. If not always directly, they certainly make a huge impact on the tourism bottom line. But being truly sustainable considers more elements too. If we look further afield starting with Mexico where a number of Tequila producers are investing in initiatives which protect the land and the raw materials (agave plant and water) to ensure sustainable farming practices. Nicaraguan rum brand Flor de Caña are Fair Trade certified and since 2005 have planted 50,000 trees every year and many, many others across all continents are introducing schemes, changes, initiatives and innovation that consider all aspects of the product from the soil and rain it starts with, to what happens next with the empty bottle at the end – and of course, everything in between.

But as money rules, the onus also on us, the consumers, to get on board and support these and prove them commercially worthwhile too? Otherwise will these great initiatives fail? Can they afford to fail?

Great encouragement comes from the fact that many producers are taking sustainability seriously, not for marketing plus points, but because they really genuinely care. Consumer feedback is good (with many distilleries I have spoken with they certainly support this) and unlike in the earlier days of some ‘environmentally conscious’ or sustainable products – there’s absolutely no compromise in terms of the quality of the end product. So much so that some businesses have equally compelling stories to tell – either;

We are passionate about creating a sustainable business. (By the way, we actually make great products too).

And / or;

We are passionate about creating amazing whisky. (By the way, we operate a really sustainable business too).

With drinks providers scoring a disappointing average of 4.8 out of 10 in the first Drinks Industry Sustainability Index – Trends Report 2020it’s clear that the drinks industry is ‘considerably behind’ others and there’s lots of work to be done.

What’s encouraging is that changes are happening and although some is undoubtedly just part of the marketing mix, many more producers are investing time and money into making more sustainable drinks.

It would be great that the sustainability part becomes the standard, and not the exception. But for a good few steps in the right direction, I’ll certainly raise a (recycled) glass to this.

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