Where to start with sustainability guidance

Drinks brands and retailers are faced with a bewildering amount of green advice and initiatives. Sustainability expert Paul Foulkes-Arellano beats a path through the forest 

Green legislation and guidance is coming thick and fast. We’ve had the Competition & Markets Authority’s (CMA) Green Claims Code, the Institute of Grocery Distribution’s goals to halve environmental impact by 2030, Scotland’s delayed Deposit Return Scheme and the broader Extended Producer Responsibility policy approach. 

The situation in the UK is further complicated by separate regimes for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each at a diff erent stage and with their own goals. Scotland and Wales – which published its circular economy plan months before the European Commission updated its own in March – are leading. And even though the UK has left the EU, European legislation still has an impact in this area because of the role of overseas producers, especially in wine.

All this often leaves suppliers and retailers wondering how to do the right thing. There are so many different bodies to turn to, and each has a different opinion or approach. There are specialist bodies providing free advice, producer associations, retail organisations and environmental charities all with their own take. 

The Environment Agency has come up with yet another initiative, Seebeyond, to standardise environmental metrics in the food and drinks industries, though the execution and roll out has not yet been funded. 

There are also many certifications to consider. One key, much respected goal is to achieve B Corp certification. Waitrose showcased its range of B Corp products across 187 stores in March of this year, having begun with an online B Corp aisle in 2019. The very process of being certified is worth its weight in gold. 

Companies need to consider commercial judgements as well as compliance ones in deciding their own approach. Smart ones are setting up an environmental committee, or appointing someone to look at sustainability as part of their role. Many are even appointing a chief sustainability officer. Whether you have 23 employees or 23,000, this is a smart move, both in terms of commerce and compliance. 

It’s one thing to be seen to be doing the right thing, but actually doing so is far more important when social media allows people to ask tough questions. Savvy shoppers are on the lookout for greenwashing. It was hardly a thing just a few years ago, but social media commentators now circle around any brand that finds itself labelled with the term. 

The ASA has already taken action in this area – notably against Innocent Drinks and Tesco – and the CMA is keeping a close eye on brand claims too. 

SUSTAINABILITY STRATEGY 

Many brands and industry bodies are putting most effort into carbon accounting and reducing the impact of emissions. 

The Scotch whisky industry launched a sustainability strategy in 2021 that commits the industry to reaching net-zero emissions by 2040. There has already been remarkable work by many whisky brands on this and a considerable number are set to reach the target between 2025 and 2030, 10 or 15 years ahead of schedule. 

Many big and small brewers are ahead of the rest of the food and drink industry when it comes to removing carbon. Toast Ale has an impact report that is something to behold. The equivalent of 48 tonnes of CO2 emissions avoided and 303,660 litres of water saved since 2016, plus many other achievements besides. 

We’re now moving into the next phase in lowering the drinks trade’s impact on the planet – the circular economy. It’s a bit too early to talk about genuine circularity, but there are dozens of large-scale pilots happening, and government funds are being invested in new models. 

But while brands and retailers are shouting about their latest green initiatives, they have to be careful to keep their eye on the bigger picture. The EU is firmly advocating reuse, packaging-free and waste reduction steps, and Scotland and Wales are already on that track, with England and Northern Ireland set to follow. 

There is nothing complicated to understand in this area. All companies and brands need to do is ask themselves whether packaging is being recycled or refilled, or if products are packaging-free. If the answer to any of those is “no”, then it’s a fail. 

Whether a producer’s business is brewing, distilling, vinifying, diluting or ageing, the processes need to be zero-emission, with transport running on renewables and the packaging practically invisible or infinitely reusable. This will cause considerable disruption for many, but we have already seen a tremendous amount of sustainable innovation, even during lockdown. We are about to witness a circular revolution in drinks retailing. 

Paul Foulkes-Arellano is a circularity educator at Circuthon Consulting, founder of the Circular Drinks Initiative and an investor in tree-free packaging and textiles.

 

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