The green tipping point

20 August, 2010

When Malcolm Gladwell published The Tipping Point in 2000, the book was an instant success. It wasn’t so much that the author had come up with a revolutionary new idea, it was more that he gave us a way of thinking about how society changes. New ideas and ways of seeing the world, he said, have to achieve a certain critical mass before they reach the tipping point – the level at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable.

Given the buzz in the wine trade surrounding environmental issues, it might be fair to ask whether we’ve reached a tipping point in terms of the “greening” of the wine industry. It’s become the norm for growers to talk about minimal – if any – use of pesticides and herbicides at the very least, while the most forward-thinking producers are investigating ways of reusing their waste water and installing solar panels or windmills to power their wineries. But despite such efforts, wine’s biggest impact on the environment comes post-production. As a result, the twin issues of packaging and transport are becoming the key focus in the fight to make the wine trade more sustainable.

High carbon emissions“The main source of carbon emissions for New World producers is transport,” says Américo Hernández Peragallo, Viña Ventisquero’s UK sales director. “Between 60% and 70% of our emissions are down to transporting our wines around the world. Every container shipped between Chile and Europe produces two tonnes of CO2 on average.”?With figures like these it’s inevitable that, for many, the first step in reducing their carbon footprint comes with rethinking the way wine is transported between producer and retailer. One company to take full advantage of the reduction in emissions which comes with bottling at destination is Constellation Europe. With the opening of Constellation Park in Avonmouth, near Bristol, last year, the company now ships most of its New World wines to the UK in bulk containers.

“It’s the centre for our bottling and packaging operations in Europe, particularly for our higher-volume lines,” says Keith McIlwaine, Constellation Europe’s vice-president of business planning.

“The process of packaging on site has reduced our emissions by 35%.”?Such savings in emissions are to be applauded, of course, but cynics might say it’s no coincidence that companies began to look seriously at reducing their carbon footprint at a time when the global economy was facing its worst crisis in decades.

“A lot of environmental solutions also have a cost benefit,” points out Nicola Jenkin, drinks specialist at the Waste & Resources Action Programme. “Bulk importation can reduce shipping costs by 30% to 40%. I certainly think these reductions in cost are the main drivers – particularly for the larger brands.”?“There is a cost reduction associated with some of the environmental initiatives,” agrees Andrew Gale, Tesco’s BWS category technical manager, “but it’s also the right thing to do from a moral and ethical standpoint, so we’ve made a commitment to lead on these issues.”?Finding a solutionAlthough bulk importation can certainly help to reduce a company’s carbon footprint, it isn’t necessarily an appropriate solution for everyone.

“I’m dead against bottling at the point of consumption,” says Wines of South Africa’s Su Birch. “There are certain countries where carbon footprint isn’t of primary importance. For South Africa to be exporting jobs to UK bottling plants is criminal. Our industry body reckons that for every 10 million litres exported in bulk, we lose more than 107 jobs.”?While potential job losses at wineries and bottling plants are a significant concern in South Africa and in some parts of South America, in Australia issues revolve around the glass manufacturing industry.

oss of market share in a sector that currently supplies huge volumes of glass to the Australian wine industry would have significant implications for the local economy.

Many in the industry are also wary of the idea of bottling at destination, believing it to have a negative impact on the quality of the wine. But, as WRAP’s Jenkin points out: “A lot of research has gone into improving the technology of bulk shipping – quality is no longer an issue.”?Logical logisticsOnce you’ve got your wine to the UK, whether in bulk or in bottle, you still have to get it to the point of sale, which may still be some distance away. Although transport over relatively short distances within the UK or Europe has less of an impact than long-haul shipping, reducing emissions is still vital. Companies are exploring various ways of doing so.

The PLB Group is working to improve the logistics of its delivery network. “We have to ensure we don’t have a full truck going one way and coming back empty,” says managing director Peter Darbyshire. “Managing a database in such a way as to maximise the load carried for each journey is well within the scope of a logistics company – and there’s obviously a saving for them, too, in achieving such efficiencies.”?Torres, like a number of other companies, is exploring the rail network as a way of transporting wine across Europe, and is also reducing its carbon footprint in terms of local deliveries.

“We use electric vans for deliveries in central Barcelona, while company representatives use hybrid cars in order to reduce petrol consumption,” says Torres spokeswoman Vinyet Almirall Bertran.

Another way of minimising the impact of transporting wine is carbon offsetting, a measure implemented by Viño Ventisquero. “We started offsetting our transport in 2007,” says Peragallo. “We calculate the number of cases we ship each year, which allows us to project how much carbon we are going to produce, then look for a suitable project that allows us to balance our emissions.”?Hand in hand with various means of mitigating the emissions associated with transport comes the need to explore alternative packaging, such as lightweight glass bottles and PET. Viña Ventisquero has reduced the weight of its entry-level bottles from 480g to 420g, while reserve level wines are down to 480g, from 520g.

“Transporting lightweight bottles is closer to bulk shipping because you’re transporting less glass and can therefore carry more wine in each container,” explains Peragallo. “The other point is there are energy efficiencies involved in the production of each bottle. It takes less heat to produce each bottle, so each bottle produces less CO2. We’re also aiming to work with 80% recycled glass.”?Although the use of recycled glass has clear environmental benefits, consumer acceptance of its associated colour variation has proved a barrier to wider use. Tesco has been involved in developing a range of lightweight bottles with high recycled glass content.

“There’s currently a very rigid set of tolerances for glass colour variation,” says Gale. “We’re trying to extend the tolerance, taking more mixed colour glass for this range than normal. This increases the efficiencies of the furnaces, getting as much glass out of each firing as we can.”?Consumer resistance also applies to lightweight glass. “There’s no quality imperative for using heavy glass as long as you have the UV capacity and other parameters under control, but consumers have been taught that the heavier the glass, the more premium the wine,” says Darbyshire.

“It’s a taught process, so you can teach them something else. Uptake will be fairly slow initially – just think of screwcaps – but I think a 10-year time frame for educating consumers is about right.”?Optimists, however, might want to consider Marks & Spencer’s recent experience with PET bottles. “We launched a range of 21 wines in 25cl bottles made out of PET in April this year,” says M&S winemaker Belinda Kleinig.

“There’s a clear saving in the energy required to produce each bottle, and as you can fit 50% more bottles in a container, we estimate one in three freight journeys will be eliminated. I expected a few complaints about using PET, but we’ve had zero negative response – in fact, sales of these wines have increased.”?That hasn’t been Tesco’s experience, however. Gale admits the company has “struggled” with sales of 75cl PET bottles, although, as he points out: “Consumers are used to buying spirits in PET, so I’m not sure why there’s resistance to its use with wine.” There are other concerns surrounding the use of PET. The material has a short shelf life, and although PET itself can be easily recycled, the barriers that extend its shelf life and the colour used to protect wine from UV light reduces the viability of recycling the bottles.

Other forms of packaging are also being re-evaluated: Tesco is considering extending its range of Tetra Pak wines, having encountered little consumer resistance, while cans may also be making a comeback.

Closures, too, are being examined closely in terms of their green credentials. While cork is a natural product and has a low-energy cost in terms of production, there is no infrastructure to permit recycling. Aluminium, on the other hand, has a high carbon footprint in terms of production, but it is easy to recycle.

“We’ve been talking a lot about closures in recent months. While cork is sustainable and we’re looking at using more recycled material in our screwcaps, we don’t think there’s a huge future in plastic corks,” says Kleinig at M&S.

It’s clear the sustainability of wine production, shipping and packaging is being re-evaluated across the board, although the issue of whether or not we’ve reached the tipping point – the moment at which the wine trade faces up to its environmental responsibilities for the long haul – is open to question. But pragmatics dictate that, however wide-ranging today’s changes may be, the measures currently being implemented may just be the tip of the iceberg.

“Other companies will become increasingly involved in implementing green measures, simply because consumers are becoming more concerned about the environment,” says Torres’ Bertran.

“If you’re not environmentally aware, there will come a time when you simply won’t be able to sell your product.”

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