Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Innovation Report: The glass debate

Published:  10 May, 2022

Is glass creating a bottleneck in the drive to greater sustainability and can we change consumer perception of it as a strong indicator of quality? Andrew Catchpole reports back from Harpers’ recent Sustainability of Glass webinar.

Set against the necessity of fast lowering its carbon footprint, the drinks trade has been looking hard at its addiction to the glass bottle. Hugely energy- intensive to manufacture, plus to ship and recycle, the environmental impact left in its wake certainly makes for sobering reflection.

Research from the international Wineries for Climate Action group suggests that wine bottles, their closures and labels, plus the transportation of said goods, accounts for a third of total winery emissions, with this split fairly evenly between the packaging and shipping of wine. And the problem doesn’t stop there.

In the UK alone, Sustainable Wine Solutions, which has led the way on more sustainable options including refillable glass and alternative packaging, calculates that the 1.3 billion bottles of wine sold in the UK annually contribute 625 million kg of CO2 emissions, this after the wine inside is drunk.

It’s against this backdrop that Harpers partnered with North South Wines, signed on as a Sustainability Champion for our recently launched Sustainability Charter initiative, to stage the recent webinar ‘Sustainability of Glass: Consumer perceptions and buying habits’.

The aim was to assess the pros and cons of glass in terms of sustainability, address the issue of (heavy) glass bottles being an embedded signifier of quality with consumers and then consider which alternatives would most likely gain traction.

From the outset, the panel – comprising Kim Wilson of North South Wines, Sarah Benson of the Co-op, Virgin Wines’ Jessica Anderson and Rowena Curlewis of Denomination – agreed that this was a complex and multi-nuanced debate, and nowhere near as simple as ‘alternative packaging good, glass bad’.

Wilson described glass as being “hugely important from a wine trade point of view”, drawing general agreement that as yet nothing has been found that offers anything like the same levels of protection and safety in terms of shipment, while also extending the lifespan of the wine inside.

Benson concurred, adding that glass is “definitely the most understood packaging format from a customer perspective – it’s uniform, it’s inert, it doesn’t have the challenges of shorter life like wine in cans or bag-in-box, for example, [and] it’s also very easy for customers to understand its recyclability”.

This last comment cut to the heart of the issues for the trade in moving away from glass, even at the lower-priced end of the market. The glass bottle is still strongly associated with quality – a perception that the trade itself has tacitly encouraged over a lifetime. Even a move to lighter glass bottles is difficult, because consumers’ perception is that a deep punt and thick bottle are aligned to the quality of the liquid inside.

Weighing up options

Then there is the debate surrounding recycling, with consumers having at least a notion that much glass – in fact, around 70% – is recycled in the UK, compared with some estimates of plastic recycling being below 10%. Plastic is used in some form on much alternative packaging.

All agreed that much work is needed to be done collectively by the trade to educate consumers as to the benefits of both lighter glass and alternatives. Part of the problem identified, though, is that there is no clear-cut message in the sense that while alternative packaging does typically have a far lower carbon footprint, it still has an environmental impact and the issue with use of plastic – now seen as public enemy number one.

For Benson, a “sort of traffic-light system for all packaging types”, allowing consumers to rank differing types of packaging according to carbon footprint and recyclability, could be an answer, but this would be incredibly difficult and costly to implement.

Anderson touched on another hurdle for a green-minded trade, namely that lower carbon alternatives are “something consumers say they want, but not what they actually do” when it comes to making purchasing decisions.

“These great new packaging formats don’t necessarily sell, which is really hard,” she added.

However, Benson did add that in a recent review of Co-op members: “While 55% still thought of a deep punt and weight of bottle as an indicator of quality, whenever we have gone and reduced glass and glass bottle weights, we’ve not seen a drop back in sales, so perhaps that is changing.”

Another stumbling block Anderson highlighted is that while the capacity in the UK for alternative formats such as bag-in-box, pouches and cans has fast grown, run rates are quite high, meaning that smaller production and potentially higher quality wines – of the type that can help shift consumer perception – can be costly and/or prohibitively voluminous. And, for wineries that insist on bottling at source, installing alternative packaging equipment is a non-starter for all but the most financially well-endowed.

Despite all these challenges, Wilson remained upbeat about glass’s future, saying: “Glass is here to stay. It’s about making glass better.”

She highlighted how UK in-market bottlers are increasingly using renewable energy, plus ways in which shippers and domestic suppliers are looking for green solutions all along the transportation chain.

Wilson proposed that glass bottles for wine could be standardised, both levelling the playing field for lighter bottles in terms of quality perception and also allowing for greater reuse, rather than carbon- producing glass recycling, in the future.

With regard to both alternative packaging and wines shipped in bulk to be (glass) bottled in-market – a big carbon saver – Wilson suggested that the trade should communicate that “these are ways of getting more premium products across to customers that can be sold at a slightly cheaper price, because of the way [the wine] is transported and packed”.

Curlewis also made the point that perception of screwcaps really changed “once luxury brands came on board” such as Penfolds, adding that “you really need heroes to change to lighter-weight glass and other formats, because it’s only once [high-end producers] start doing that, that consumers will come along on the journey”.

A final word came from Wilson: “There’s a lot that we need to do as producers, as shareholders, as distributors and supermarkets – we all need to get together and that’s the only way we’re going to win through.”


“We have a collective power as an industry that consumes glass to look at how we can work together, to talk to glass manufacturers about using alternative energy sources, to increase recycled content and to create a more cohesive national approach to recycling so that you can recycle alternative formats across the nation.”

Sarah Benson, wine buyer, The Co-op

“I think it’s about being honest with consumers and opening a conversation with them. Explain the reasons why you were choosing lighter bottles, that alternative formats are better, why we’re doing bulk shipping. And use more premium packaging, explain that alternatives and bulk shipping is cheaper, which means buying better quality for the same money.”

Jessica Anderson, head of strategic change and governance, Virgin Wines 

“It’s about sharing and discussing and brainstorming ideas collectively, to do something better. And I think it’s through these conversations, to put added pressure on to the trade and to help educate consumers, that we can start a movement.”

Rowena Curlewis, founding partner, Denomination 

“You have to force the change, like what’s happened with plastic, and nobody quibbles with that now. It has to be a big change across the piece.”

Kim Wilson, MD, North South Wines