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NZ: Selling sustainability

Published:  15 March, 2021

Clean and green but far from its markets, New Zealand is pushing for greater understanding around shipping-related emissions, as Andrew Catchpole reports.

New Zealand’s wine industry has collectively made great strides to embrace and further all aspects of sustainability, looking to be a leader among the world’s wine-producing nations. And the progress made is impressive. New Zealand’s producers are set to achieve net zero emissions ahead of a 2050 national regulatory deadline and some 96% of vineyards are now operating under the industry-wide Sustainable Wine Growing New Zealand (SWNZ) programme. All of which certainly paints a (certified) picture of a clean, green and caring wine-producing nation.

From a commercial point of view, such environmental credentials appear to be helping too. New Zealand’s value exports recently hit a record $2bn in 2020 and sustainability has been an increasingly important message in supporting those sales.

But one potential fly in the otherwise environmentally sound ointment is the country’s distance from its primary markets. As anyone who’s staggered off a 24-hour flight from the UK knows, our Kiwi friends are a long way from almost everywhere. And, with both consumers and trade increasingly questioning and expecting transparency over the sustainability or otherwise of a given product, the environmental costs of transport are likely to come under ever greater scrutiny.

Thus the question of balancing sustainability at the production level with the environmental impact of shipping was central to a joint Harpers and New Zealand Winegrowers (NZWG) webinar titled New Zealand Sustainability: Challenging the Myths Around Food Miles.

Lifecycle perspective

Ed Massey, general manager, sustainability, at NZWG, was first to jump in, laying out some facts about the transport element’s contribution to overall emissions in the lifecycle of a bottle of wine.

“At a whole of lifecycle perspective, the emissions associated with transporting wine to market only make up approximately one fifth of the carbon emissions,” said Massey. “The biggest source of emissions in the production of a bottle of wine is those sources around packaging, so the glass and how it is boxed. Also, what happens in the vineyard, and other inputs, such as energy, and where they come from.

“And then also the emissions associated with consumption, in the store where [consumers] get the wine, as well as the end of life, so the disposal, hopefully through recycling, but also maybe landfill.”

This sparked an interesting debate around the complexity of assessing the sustainability of a given production region or country, beginning with the power sources used.

New Zealand’s energy grid, said Massey, is 85% fuelled by renewable energy, which needed to be taken into account in any summary of overall emissions in the lifecycle of a bottle of, say, Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. By the same logic, France’s nuclear dependency is good on carbon emissions, Australia’s brown coal-burning power stations less so.

The panel then swung the focus on to shipping which, Massey said, accounted for just 22% of the emissions associated with getting the wine to a market such as the UK, on the far side of the world.

Sea freight, however, is a far more efficient way of transporting goods than by road or even rail, with air transportation a complete no-no if contemplating and looking to curb food – or wine – miles.

The panel agreed that Massey and New Zealand can and does make a strong case as a leader in the field of sustainable wine production, but that communicating this was the primary challenge.

With so many strands to sustainability (environmental, social, economic), so many facets to consider within each strand, and so many disparate and differing accreditation programmes operating around the world, it can be confusing for both consumer and trade to pick their way through.

“There is a confusion in terms of what sustainability is, for and by the customer. There isn’t a unified definition of what a system [for measuring sustainability] is. This is very different in different parts of the world,” said George Soleas, president of LCBO.

“There are leaders in sustainability, such as New Zealand, but if we want to influence consumers and encourage a culture of sustainability, then we have to do it right,” he added.

Troy Christensen, CEO of Enotria & Coe, went further, suggesting that the problem of a highly fragmented industry operating myriad competing schemes aimed at progressing sustainability, could become counter-productive, to the detriment of the trade.

“One of the challenges we have in the industry is that [sustainability] means a whole bunch of different things to different people. And so, the consumer is getting a bit confused and different people in different countries are on different programmes that could be very relevant locally, but maybe not as much internationally,” he said.

These “inconsistencies”, in turn, could “actually do more damage to ourselves than good and that’s where the industry needs to do more in trying to create some consistency and positive messaging with each other”.

Anne Jones, category manager, wines, beers and spirits at UK supermarket Waitrose, argued that it was up to all in the industry to take the long view, with the benefits of sustainable production coming into ever sharper focus down the line.

“We are at the forefront of something great here, but it’s going to be a long journey, and there aren’t quick fixes – this is something that we all collectively as an industry have to put our shoulder against and push and try to do the best we can to move it forward as effectively as we can.”

Greater coherence

Soleas suggested a set of industry-wide, global KPIs (key performance indicators), to allow consumers to understand the central tenets that typically underpin all sustainability programmes, to bring greater coherence and ease of communication for retailers and suppliers.

All agreed that sustainability would, however, continue to move up the consumer agenda in terms of influencing purchasing decisions.

And that wine – witness the explosive growth of interest in ‘natural’ wines – as an emotive and environmentally sensitive product, should be well-placed to capitalise on such credentials.

“Sustainability, overall, is the right thing to do for our industry, for people, for the planet and for profit, and I think when you look at those things you know that’s the answer to the ‘why?’ question,” said Massey. “What we are grappling with now is the ‘how?’ question – how to communicate all this,” he concluded.

The full version of this webinar appears on Harpers Wine & Spirit’s YouTube channel.