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Harpers Sustainability Charter Spotlight: Chris Millson, Direct Wines

Published:  24 January, 2023

As 2023’s first new signatory to Harpers Sustainability Charter, Direct Wines’ head of sustainability Chris Millson talks Andrew Catchpole through the necessity of progress.

Why should businesses act?

For most businesses, there’s been a realisation during the past decade that the whole sustainability issue is no longer a ‘nice to have’, but that it’s a ‘must have’, and that it will fall to businesses to act. And whereas, for a long time, people have been listening to scary predictions from the scientists, climate change is happening, right now. It’s not a future risk, but something that we need to deal with. Businesses have woken up to this, and it’s not just because of consumer pressure.

My job, and that of others like me in a similar position, has been made quite a bit simpler as we’re pushing on doors which seem a little bit easier to open. Internally within businesses, boardrooms are talking about it – they want sustainability metrics and monthly board packs, which is just fantastic. And they want to think about sustainability in the day-to-day and month-to-month, year-to-year decision making, in their short, medium and long-term planning. I think this is very much a cause for optimism and hope.

Businesses that are family owned, like Direct Wines, get it because they’ve got this longer-term, multi-generational view, which is really important for sustainability thinking, rather than thinking only about this quarterly report or these monthly results. And then, on top of that, for us – even though we’re an online retailer – I think by virtue of the product that we sell, we have this connection to the land and the soil and farmers. They always have one hand in the soil and one eye on the clouds to see what’s going on, so they get it too.

Does that connection, from soil to glass, place the wine trade in a more actionable position when it comes to communicating the urgency for greater sustainability?

It’s a good question. And I think it’s something that, as a sector, we have yet to fully think through, and take advantage of that connection to the land, which we can create in the minds and hearts of our customers, the consumers of the bottle of wine. To bring them to the environment through these products.

We should probably do more to think about how to create leaders, not only in our supply chain, but also among our customers, maybe getting them to have an appreciation for all the various efforts in terms of environmental stewardship from vineyard through the supply chain.

But the other point is it’s not just about vineyards and painting that rosy picture. The reality – and we are transparent in opening with this in our statement for your Sustainability Charter – is that 98% of our emissions come from our supply chain, with a lot of that sitting in glass, manufacture and transport of goods around the world. And our little contribution that comes from commuting and having the lights on at the office and the warehouse, etc, is relatively small. It’s good that we start with that, of course, because we can’t go to our suppliers and expect them to become net zero if we’re not making ambitious steps of our own. But there’s a lot that needs to be done.

How does signing up to initiatives such as the Harpers Sustainability Charter help with that commitment?

It is important – one of the reasons why we decided to go public in the way that we have is that the Charter provides an opportunity for us to do that in a way that makes it easy for anyone who’s interested to see what we’re doing and how that might compare with others in the sector. Because it’s always good to compare businesses from similar parts of the sector, or whatever their activities might be. Targets might seem very impressive, but are [operators] really doing so much more, or just pledging to do so much more? I think the transparency story is very important.

One business is not going to change the world, so it becomes essential for businesses to realise that, and that’s why transparency opens that whole conversation up around collaboration and other people who are looking for common ground, looking for like minds you can work with. And minds that are not like-minded can be changed or inspired to do more. Or, if they are doing more than you, that’s a good thing as we can welcome challenge and inspiration from others.

There’s a balance between approaching it with humility, knowing that we have a long way to go, but also looking for opportunities to say ‘come on everyone’. It’s really important that we’re moving in the same direction and, from this year going forward, there are going to be good examples of companies that are competitors that are actually seeing the benefits of working together on certain projects – say, bottle weights, for example.

If we, as suppliers, all move the same way, then that just makes it a lot easier for the consumer to have a choice and to change perceptions.