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July 1, 2008

Green Wine Without Greenwashing?

Wines and Vines
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Until now, the sustainable winegrowing programs of which I am aware have been dedicated to education and self improvement, with regions and states coming together to develop programs to help themselves move along the sustainable farming continuum. One aspect of sustainable winegrowing is only now beginning to emerge, and that is marketing winegrapes and wines produced using sustainable practices. It is an essential aspect of sustainable winegrowing for the simple reason that if one cannot sell his wines in sufficient amounts, the vineyard and winery will go out of business--in other words, they will not be sustainable.

While marketing is essential to a sustainable business, the process can have a very different feel to it than the process of self-improvement in vineyard and winery management. The goal of sustainable winegrowing is to leave a smaller environmental footprint and contribute in a positive way to the local community. The goal of marketing is to add value to and sell more winegrapes and wine. While there is no code of ethics for marketing, in my opinion the wine industry should market sustainability based on facts, and resist the temptation to overstate the virtues of one green strategy or another. Moreover, the fact that sustainable winegrowing is such an all-encompassing paradigm provides significant challenges to developing a simple yet meaningful marketing message. Many fear that greenwashing is a real threat.

What is greenwashing? I cannot believe that in the process of writing this column I have referred to Wikipedia for a second time in my life. The website defines it as "a term that is used to describe the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service" (wikipedia.com). It goes on to report that "greenwashing" was coined by suburban New York environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, in an essay regarding the hotel industry's practice of placing green placards in each room, promoting reuse of guest-towels, ostensibly to "save the environment."

He noted that in most cases little or no effort toward waste recycling was being implemented by these hotels and concluded that the actual objective of this "green campaign" on the part of many hoteliers was, in fact, profit increase. Hence, this and other outwardly environmentally conscientious acts that have a greater, underlying purpose of profit increase was "greenwashing" in his estimation.

If I am interpreting this correctly, Westerveld seemed to feel connecting profit with environmental good deeds is bad. I do not agree with that. In fact, I think practicing sustainability is good business, and if it increases profitability, then adoption will come even faster.

Green Wine Without Greenwashing
Although the New York Guide to Sustainable Viticulture Practices was just published this year, the state's Four Chimneys, founded in 1980, claims to be America's first organic winery.

Making a complicated topic simple

It is clear that consumers are paying more attention to sustainable marketing messages, even though many are confused about what the term "sustainable" means. As mentioned above, the temptation for marketing might be to focus on one aspect of sustainability instead of the complete picture.

Packaging is one example. There are wine-in-a-box/Tetra packs versus glass bottles versus PET bottles; synthetic closures versus cork; recyclable packaging and so forth. From an energy standpoint, the argument for producing boxed wines or wine in plastic bottles is compelling. Glass is heavy, and you have to burn a lot of carbon-based fuel to move it around, so if you put wine in a box or a PET bottle, you are leaving a much smaller carbon footprint from transportation. Furthermore, producing glass creates about 45% of the carbon dioxide produced in the winemaking process, which includes transporting the grapes and the bottles to the winery, according to Dr. Roger Boulton at the University of California, Davis.

While very important and useful, the carbon footprint concept is complex and should be dealt with as such. It is an extremely popular topic at the moment, given the attention that climate change has attracted and, on the surface, it appears to be something that can be discussed in simple terms.

However, there is more to it than meets the eye. For example, some have asserted that the greatest climate impact from the wine supply chain comes from transportation. On the other hand, Boulton reports that transportation accounts for less than 20% of the CO2 production in the winemaking process, versus the 45% from glass manufacturing cited above.

Moreover, greenhouse gas emissions per bottle of wine shipped depend on how it is shipped, and for how many miles. The most efficient form of shipping, in relation to fuel consumption, is by boat, and the least is by truck, differing by a factor of more than 700. Rail is also much more efficient than trucking. Is buying wine from New Zealand in a PET bottle more sustainable than buying wine in a glass bottle from someplace in the United States? This is a complicated issue.

While the carbon footprint is a great yardstick and deceptively easy to talk about, it is only a portion of the complete sustainability picture. Greenhouse gas production does not give us a measure of a company's commitment to things such as landscape planning, human resources, water-use efficiency, water quality, air quality, or wildlife habitat enhancem ent.

While on the topic of carbon footprints, if a company claims it is carbon neutral, the only way this can be possible is if it purchases carbon credits or has a solar array that produces as much energy as is consumed in the process of wine production, from growing the grapes to the final delivery of the bottle to the retailer.

Green Wine Without Greenwashing
A growing number of vineyards and wineries are promoting company-wide efforts to reduce their environmental footprints.

If anyone says his company is carbon neutral in part because its vineyards are sequestering carbon, it turns out that not enough is known yet about the magnitude of carbon sequestration by vineyards to make this claim--so being carbon neutral may not be a good measure of a company's carbon footprint if it is achieved mainly through purchasing carbon credits. It is important to look at a company's carbon budget and to see how it achieved carbon neutrality, not just look at the bottom line.

Summing up sustainability

So what is a good way to market sustainability? As I already mentioned, sustainability is complex and does not lend itself well to sound bites. However, if the term sustainability is to survive as a meaningful label in the marketplace, we must try to craft a simple message that is an accurate representation of what it really means. Otherwise, the word will simply become one that companies can use to signify whatever they choose.

One of the simplest yet most powerful descriptions of sustainable winegrowing is the three E's, also known as the triple bottom line. It is growing winegrapes and making wine that is Environmentally sound, socially Equitable and Economically viable. An even simpler expression is the three P's: People, Profit, Plant.

This triple bottom line is also what makes sustainability unique among other farming paradigms. Therefore, it makes sense to use this uniqueness in marketing sustainability. Rather than focus on one aspect of the sustainable production of wine, a good sustainable marketing program should focus on all aspects.

But how many companies can develop the ultimate sustainable program? I don't expect any company to have the perfect sustainable program, because it is not possible to grow grapes and make wine to sell without leaving an environmental footprint. I think we all should come to grips with this fact, and realize that the goal is continual improvement. The goal is to move as far along the sustainability continuum as we are able, and tell our customers the story of how we are doing that, rather than try to market the notion that we have achieved complete sustainability--which is impossible--or touting one program at the expense of another.