Love a good wine? Get tickled by a gorgeous tasting champagne?
If you’re a responsible, caring world citizen, then I know you’ll love it even better when it your fav wine, gin or whiskey is doing less to harm the world than its counterparts.
The truth is that the global alcohol industry is a significant contributor to emissions, with food and drink manufacturers responsible for 5.8% of the worlds industrial global energy usage. A standard 750ml bottle of alcohol is said to produce around 6.5 pounds of carbon dioxide. While this is due to many factors, the most intensive process is distillation. Fermented ingredients are heated until the alcohol evaporates, where it is extracted, cooled and returned to liquid form. As a general rule, the higher the alcohol content the higher the footprint.
So, how does alcohol production impact the environment?
Just like food, alcohol brands can commit to regenerative, organic, local, non-GMO and sustainable farming practices. Huge industrial monocultures are destructive whether it’s for food or grain, so finding brands using regional products, organic practices, small supply chains and prioritising soil health will make a huge difference to products and planetary health.
Packaging is unavoidable in the alcohol industry. While many drinks come in glass rather than plastic, a British report looking at packaging in the beverage industry found only 50% of glass containers were being recycled. Plus, a recent life cycle assessment found the footprint of glass vodka bottles to be 27% higher than PET (switching to a more sustainable lightweight glass is now becoming increasingly popular). Beyond the bottle, more brands are now opting for corks made from organic, recycled and biodegradable materials, printing labels on FSC certified paper and using organic inks/paints. While all of these details are small, en masse they add up to larger change.
Distillation creates large amounts of waste in the form of leftover mashed grain. Food waste is a major global issue, with 1.3bn tonnes of food wasted annually. The alcohol industry creates 42 million tonnes of spent grain each year, while distilleries can produce 12 times as much wastewater as the amount of alcohol produced.
What can you do to make sure your pick of alcohol – whether it’s gin, wine or whiskey – tastes better, and yet is also better for the planet?
There are a few questions you can ask to make sure your favourite drop is leaving the world a better place:
- Does it carry an eco label?
Eco-certifications exist to guarantee that a producer meets a set of criteria of sustainable practices. Each certification follows different standards. Ecolabels can emphasize a sustainable supply chain, ethical human labor conditions, or environmentally-friendly viticulture.
According to IWSR, the demand for certified organic and biodynamic wines is set to grow from 2.7% in 2020 to 3.4% by 2022. These wines represent rigorous certification processes that require more time, expertise and investment from producers. It’s the commitment to sustainability and responsibly made wines from these winemakers that attracts wine consumers worldwide.
An ecolabel can be issued by a government or another third-party organization. They’re often small and hidden on the back of the bottle, and can tell you a lot about the wine. Here’s a guide to decrypt some of the most prominent ecolabels found on wines so you can know what to expect when you open a certified wine.
- Demeter Biodynamic
Because of its rigorous certification process, Demeter is the holy grail in ecolabel certification. Demeter International was founded in 1928 using Rudolf Steiner’s framework for biodynamics to create the first certification for organic foods. The name is an homage to the Greek goddess of fertility and grain, Demeter. Biodynamic certification is rigorous and requires annual renewal. Biodynamic farms don’t use synthetic chemical pesticides or fertilizers and opt for natural solutions to manage pest control and soil fertility. Farmers are also required to dedicate a minimum of 10% of acreage to biodiversity. Biodynamic treatments include a mix of fermented cow manure, compost and various herbal sprays to enhance soil fertility and prevent disease.
With a Demeter Biodynamic certified alcohol brand, you can count on drinking a alcohol brand made very responsibly following stringent guidelines, with virtually no synthetic inputs to the land. Biodynamics is not an easy endeavor and is costly. It’s also limited mostly to wine brands.
- Fairtrade International
The Fairtrade Foundation created a label to let you know the people involved in producing your goods are treated ethically and paid fairly. While it’s not the most common ecolabel for gin, it does exist. Fairtrade certification is more commonly used for products like coffees, teas and chocolate produced in developing world regions such as Africa, Asia and South America, where workers’ rights are less regulated.
Founded in 1995 by a group of winemakers in Alsace, Biodyvin is another certification for biodynamic practices. It now includes 150 growers across France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland. Growers are certified by a third-party inspector, Ecocert Sas France. Biodyvin is more a membership in a community of like-minded biodynamic winemakers, and producers may already have certifications from another agency such as Demeter.
- European Union Organic
EU organic is similar to its U.S. counterpart, USDA Organic. Criteria completely prohibit using GMOs, as well as hormones and antibiotics unless required for animal health. Limits are set for artificial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Farms undergo a three-year conversion process before earning the EU organic label.
- Agriculture Biologique “AB”
Individual member states in the European Union have their own national organic certification, indicating the product was made in that country. A country’s own label, such as France’s Agriculture Biologique (AB) certification, must also fulfil the EU organic criteria.
- USDA Organic
The USDA Organic certification mainly regulates “allowed and prohibited substances” and prohibits the use of GMOs. Synthetic chemicals are banned, unless explicitly stated. Some ingredients such as copper, newspaper and sulfates are still allowed in the soil. Any yeast added during the alcohol making process must be organic. Like EU Organic, there’s a three-year conversion phase where no prohibited substances can be used. Both the wheat cultivation and gin distilling process must be certified organic. You can generally expect a USDA Organic certified alcohol brand to be made responsibly, containing no GMOs, very few synthetic additives, and using sustainable farming practices in the distillery.
- SIP Certified (Sustainability in Practice)
The SIP certification is based on the philosophy of the three P’s of sustainability: People, Planet, and Prosperity. The certification currently exists only in the U.S. and is found primarily in California wine. There are 43,600 acres of SIP certified vineyards and 43 million bottles produced with this label. SIP’s strict framework includes standards and holistic practices addressing sustainability of habitat, water, energy, soil, recycling, air quality, packaging, pest management, social equity and business management.
- Vegan Certified
This is not the most popular or trendy certification for alcohol brands, but vegan certified alcohol brands do exist. The main qualification is the juices or added sugars are not filtered, defoamed or clarified with animal products which are sometimes used during the filtering and fining processes. Some of these byproducts include blood and bone marrow, milk proteins, fish proteins, shell-food fibers, egg byproducts, fish oil and gelatin. The BevVeg logo is the leading certification in distinguishing alcohol brands that have no trace animal byproducts. In Europe, its vegan certification counterpart is the European Vegetarian Union.
2. Does it have ESG status?
The S&P 500 ESG Index focuses on companies prioritising environmental, social and governance issues (ESG). The index doesn’t discriminate based on the sector or goods or services a company provides. It leans more towards measuring Saxzi’s impact, monitoring how you’re performing and actively making changes to reduce impact or improve outcomes for the greater good and not just the company. So if a wine producer has ESG status, then the company is doing a fairly good job ensuring its environmental goals are met. That said, there’s been chatter around the lack of standardisation of the ESG status so it’s not a hard and fast rule or expectation yet.
3. Is it a B Corp?
B Corps are for-profit companies that look after people and planet while making profits. B Corp certification annually assesses companies against the highest standards of social and environmental performance — indicators that are increasingly sought by investors and consumers. There are 4,600 B Corps globally and counting. To certify, alcohol producers must achieve 80+ points across the five key areas of the B Impact Assessment (BIA): governance, workers, community, environment and customers. If an alcohol brand has B Corp certification, you know they’ve fine tuned their processes and inner workings to ensure they meet the highest levels of sustainability requirements.
4. Has it won any Eco Awards?
Awards are a great way to ensure your tipple is of high quality when it comes to taste. Increasingly too, sustainability awards are another feature of a great brand. The Footprint Drinks Sustainability Awards is the barometer for sustainability and responsible business practice for the drinks industry and represents the annual celebration of businesses and individuals making a difference to sustainability in the on-trade drinks sector and its supply chain. These awards are open to drinks businesses, suppliers and stakeholders of all sizes operating in the hospitality and out of home arena: brand, manufacturer, supply chain, distributor or operator
The way forward
A 2020 report found that the drinks industry scored 4.8/10 for sustainability, with a lot of work still needing to be done. Governments have noticed, with Britain pledging £10 million to help distilleries become more sustainable, including switching to low carbon fuels like hydrogen.
You, as a consumer, could also make sure that next time you’re cruising the wine rack at your local bottle shop, that you pick sustainability and eco labelled drinks. If your favourite brand does not yet carry any of these labels, hit them up on their socials and ask them to consider how they can ensure their footprint is made smaller and more sustainable on our planet.
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