Regional sustainability through the lens of adapting packaging to the 21st century

By Tim Nowell-Usticke, director of WineWorks NZ

Sustainability, sustainability, sustainability – it’s all anyone ever talks about these days.                                                       

But, don’t we all know in the back of our mind that this could be the one thing that comes along in our lifetime that we can actually do something about… and that really means something.

Yes, our team is important. Yes, profit is important. Yes, market share is important.

But, as the panic-merchants of the climate change argument say, sustainability actually could affect ecosystems dying, people dying and animals dying. In the face of these dramatic statements, you’d think that the theme of PACKWINE 2021 – “Adapting packaging to the 21st century” – would be a sideshow. But you’d be wrong. I’ll tell you why.

The focus of my presentation, “Regional sustainability”, is a great example of the ‘think global – act local’ mantra that we have all thought about – our actions down the back of the winery and between the vineyard rows and packaging our beautiful product actually do make a difference. The problem is these things happen over the long term, which means we (humans who are so good at reacting to problems and opportunities in the here and now) lose interest half way through, and say to ourselves, “I’ll just do something that makes a difference now”.

But the long term has been ignored for too long, and we’re beginning to realise the consequences of our inaction – aren’t we?

As a contract wine packer who learnt his commercial chops in the ‘80s, I’m used running things through the economic lens: Does it stack up financially?

But of course these days, when we strive to be sustainable in the wine world, we’re generally trying to meet more than just the financial bottom line – it’s all about the triple bottom line, of “People, Planet & Profit”. The focus of the 21st century is continuing to look for positive effects on…

1. The global or local environment.

2. The community that the business operates in (this is often not just the vineyard area, but also the markets they sell in); and this has a special emphasis on your community of employees

3. And last, but not least, a business that makes enough margin to satisfy the demands that its shareholders, suppliers and team members place on it. (i.e. it can pay its bills and have enough left over to continue to meet its goals).

I’m going to discuss how a local contract packer can provide the economies of scale that hit these three bottom lines, and make it possible for a region to become ‘regionally sustainable’.

Often our clients want the three essential elements of sustainability, the environmental benefits, and the social and corporate responsibility, but they don’t know what it means – sustainability is a very complex area, and the market is looking for a trusted voice to not necessarily explain the math, but to believe that the story being told is actually correct.

I’ll talk about how to come up with something that customers can trust. And if there is a cost, it has to be for reasons that we care about.

And I’ll get two thing out of the way first: it’s not about food-miles!

Figure 1 shows you that it is far more efficient to transport via ship than it is by truck – so those French wines in California have a transport footprint five times that of an Australian or NZ wine.

But it is about the package: this, not freight, is the single biggest contributor to CO₂e footprint that wine has – somewhere between 40-70% depending. That’s glass, aluminium, paper products and bottling operations. Don’t think that bottling operations don’t matter – we have recently measured our own contribution to the pack as 100 grams of CO₂, not counting the glass, etc. So, the switch to light-weight glass for your commercial SKUs is a no-brainer. There is of course more that you can do, but a regional bottler that is supplying economies of scale to its local wineries is a great start. And the more wineries in the local area switch to a single bottle type, the lower the price the glass company will offer.

The first thing in regional sustainability is creating trust

This means creating a consensus in your community – get alongside the local leaders – leaders in your team, and leaders in your community, who can help smooth the path, and who are ready to create the path themselves. The main goal here is to establish yourself as the real deal, and not a ‘greenwasher’. Merely recycling your plastic and putting a solar panel on the roof are not going to cut it.

One of the starting discussions should be whether your goal is a recycling and waste reduction goal, or a carbon reduction goal. They are obviously different things, you could do both simultaneously, but be careful of making things too complex from the start.

Then set some targets. This means creating some KPIs. Peter Drucker (the well-known management thinker) said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it”. Examples of these sustainability KPIs might be:

a) measuring the number of bins that you empty each year into the skip or local rubbish collection service. It doesn’t even need to be too hard, partner with someone who provides reporting alongside the services for recycling (and any dumping you still have to do). They are going to be invoicing for some of the activities anyway, so they are already measuring it; or

b) employing an environmental consultancy to determine your tons of CO₂ emitted per year; or

c) starting a non-GMO movement in your region.

Then share it and make it visual, use representations that resonate with people (like a rubbish bins around the site pictorial chart, or how many houses worth of power being used, swimming pools full of water; whatever as applicable). Infographics are shown to be much better than text or graphs for making data understood.

There’s also the effect that a good local policy can have on behaviours – while both Australia and New Zealand have their SWA and SWNZ organisations, the sustainable winegrowing movement really gained momentum when a requirement was set that no wine could win a medal at the local wine show without being sustainably-grown. And it started by defining what sustainably-grown meant – it was not organic, but it was close. And this is one way that a region can set its own agenda – by creating a ‘club’ that like-minded people can join. This ties in with the need to have it led by organisations that are keen to make a difference and be involved.

This club might be a ‘winery waste group’ to start with – it meets regularly to discuss the areas and issues and how they could be solved through collaborative effort.

The second thing is to increase your regional sustainability by walking the talk

Then you turn around and say ‘we are going to reduce each of these goals by a percentage’. Again, I’m not going to tell you what these targets should be – that is part of your journey to engage with your local community. Remember this is not about you, it’s about the people that drive past your vineyards and see burnt-off strips of Roundupped sward, or flying bits of plastic from your winery, and how it makes them feel about their region and your company.

And sometimes it’s the club that will do the work – the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu has a well-known saying that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”. But if Lao Tzu had a great-great-grandchild living in Riverlands today working in the industry, he would say ‘you still need a roadmap!’ This map can first be thrashed out by this club – and often local contractors are the ones who can provide a large part of the drive. The labour supplier who buys a fleet of electric vehicles to get your workers to the vineyard, the contract bottler who takes on a sustainability manager, or who offers to act as a drop-off point for recycled plastics. These service contractors are often the key – if enough local vineyards or wineries say ‘this is important to us, and we would like you to be the facilitator’, this can be enough pull demand to kick things off.

This club which will help you facilitate regional sustainability, is likely to be the one that can hold the first few talks, maybe led by a local consultant. One that made a difference for me was teaching about the difference between the linear economy and the circular economy, and the difference there between recycling technical materials and biological materials. Here comes the one-minute version:    

There are two ways to get to sustainability heaven – to be pushed or to be pulled (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2

Push: Regulation, compliance, consumer demand

Pull: Competitive advantage, cost savings, staff satisfaction and brand protection.

And it is more satisfying to be the architect of your own satisfaction than to have yet another piece of over-regulation to complain about.

In our own case in New Zealand, there are many examples of how a regional sustainability initiative started local, and went national:

AgRecovery is New Zealand’s rural recycling solution for the safe disposal of unwanted agrichemicals, and the recycling of empty containers, drums and IBCs. It’s a safe and sustainable alternative to burning or dumping these items, a practice now actively discouraged due to proven impacts on health and the environment.

A vineyard initiative for the collection, storage and disposal of arsenic-treated posts.

A local contract bottler offered to act as the collection point of EPS polystyrene to stop it being dumped in the local landfill.

Many of these initiatives are led by local organisations that are keen to make a difference and be involved.

The final thing about regional sustainability is to start thinking about the market

In the wine industry, the romance, the history and the sociology has trained our consumers over hundreds of years, but at the end of the day, the all-powerful consumer decisions of price, brand, and ‘will I like the wine’ still trumps sustainability as a purchasing decision driver. Research conducted by Waitrose in the UK says that when consumers are buying wine, they’re in an indulgent mindset – they’re not necessarily thinking about ‘being good’. The only thing being recognised by consumers is the word organic. That shows that as in everything to do with sustainability, the size of the task is huge.

But I know what you’re thinking – All of this costs money!

Well, I’m here to tell you that in the early stages it actually saves you money. Whether you have set a waste-reduction or a carbon-reduction goal, many of the steps will be all about reducing over-consumption and targeting where effort and energy are applied to your process so that it is more effective. Here’s a couple of real-world examples:

i) Installing a nitrogen generator or bulk CO₂ tank for your bottling operations – this highly energy-intensive process is made worse by the packaging and delivery by truck of dozens of small cylinders. Bulk on-site manufacture and storage totally removes this wasteful practice. And there are new technologies here that pay for themselves quickly if you replace your current ones.

ii) Setting up of recycling systems in your local region stops these materials (either biological or technical) then going to landfill, which reduces dumping charges.

iii) Actually knowing about your power source, and learning how it flows through your operations –install a number of meters in your operations so that you know, for example, that 45% of your power is spent in a particular sector, therefore that’s the one to start with. Thus reducing costs. Or you might remove power as a greenhouse contributor totally by switching to a carbon-neutral power source.

iv) Asking your local bottler to go carbon-zero, which then means that once you have your vineyards and winery sorted, your whole supply chain is a long way towards being able to truthfully answer that you sell a carbon-zero product.

It’s going to be a long journey, but Mother Nature is playing the long game as well – and it’s time we started playing with her rather than against her.

From 2021 PACKWINE Speaker Tim Nowell-Usticke

What does it mean for the grape and wine sector to be sustainable on a regional level? And how can a wine business embrace sustainable practices to build a stronger industry? As a wine packer who ‘learnt his commercial chops’ in the ‘80s, Tim says the main motivating factor behind business decisions used to be the financial bottom line. However, when businesses today strive to be sustainable in the wine world, the focus now is on the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit.