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Likely to go the distance

Published:  23 July, 2008

New World producers are becoming increasingly concerned that growing demand for locally produced goods and the raised debate over wine miles will soon hit their exports and presence in the UK? Joe Fattorini explores this new angle to the green agenda and the effect it might have on faraway winemaking regions.

But isn't that just an excuse for organic producers to sit on their hands? Shouldn't being organic sometimes be about leading the way? "We ought to try and lead more, but it's a major investment", he points out. "It's an issue that needs to be led by the bigger players".

But surely these larger players have already led the way? The major multiples have all signed up to the Courtauld Commitment intended to design out packaging waste growth by 2008 and deliver absolute reductions by 2010. "Yes, but they've taken a long time to get their act together," insists Pigott. "They should have acted months, years earlier".

But does the fact that the large players have now "got their act together" mean that the truly environmentally conscious wine buyer now looks to the big players for their wine? It's clear these are the companies with the scale and investment to bring wine into the UK most efficiently.

And when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, efficiency is absolutely essential: efficiency and the ability to invest in new packaging technology.

According to WRAP a move to "best in class" packaging by wine producers offers the greatest reduction in the weight of waste packaging of any product on the supermarket shelf. Better wine packaging would remove 352,000 tonnes of unnecessary packaging from UK shelves.

This is important as the UK is unique in the problems it faces with wine packaging.

The UK is the world's largest importer of wine, yet has few economically viable uses for green glass so we simply throw away a lot of the rather weighty packaging that arrives here.

Working in partnership with WRAP, Constellation and Tesco have both already removed around 3,000 tonnes of wine packaging per year. Laudable certainly, although in effect this means unnecessary wine packaging has been reduced by a mighty 1.7%.

However, both have also moved strongly in favour of bulk shipping and UK bottling too. Constellation is opening a new bottling plant in Avonmouth in 2009 and has been keen to trumpet the environmental benefits it should bring, reducing emissions by 40%. Tesco too is moving its own-brand wines towards bulk-shipping and bottling in the UK.

So perhaps the large volume retailers and importers are the new standard bearers for a cleaner, greener future? The Soil Association is keen to be involved in the debate closely not least because a DEFRA report in 2005 suggested that sometimes improvements in transport efficiency were seen to outweigh the "benefits" of organic production. It implied in effect, that consumers might trade the "benefits" of organic production for the "benefits" of more sustainable transport and packaging.

There is another reason the Soil Association is keen to be involved. Much as a few selective statistics, a snappy headline and a mischief-making journalist might suggest that Tesco is more environmentally friendly than Vintage Roots or "Air-freight debate threatens organic wine", the sheer complexity of carbon emissions, transport and packaging makes it uniquely open to damaging distortion. A report earlier this year in The Times suggested that consumers wanting to reduce their carbon footprint should buy European rather than New Zealand wine. According to New Zealand Winegrowers, chief executive, Philip Gregan, the emphasis on food miles appeared to be "a peculiarly British thing", but it was a potentially dangerous approach.

The approach also leads to weak results. Nigel Greening of Felton Road in New Zealand has carried out detailed calculations on the greenhouse gas emissions associated with growing grapes, producing wine and shipping it to a store in the UK. Working through several pages of calculations Greening has arrived at a figure of 337g of CO2 per bottle of Felton Road wine.

"That means that it is better on C02 miles to buy wine from New Zealand than wine from Southern France, Italy or Spain" he insists. Bordeaux would be about a tie with New Zealand, Burgundy marginally less C02 to transport." As if aware of promoting the merits of another Pinot Noir than his own, Greening then comes up with the suggestion that Burgundy requires more C02 to make.

"All our energy for wine production, heating and cooling comes from electricity, but 100% of our electricity comes from carbon neutral sources - hydro-electric - which isn't the case in Burgundy," he ads.

In New Zealand over 60% of electricity is generated from renewable resources.

Most interestingly, though, Greening has calculated that "driving a car one mile in the UK to buy a bottle of wine uses far more CO2 than the shipping of the wine". The Soil Association points out too that the biggest cause of transport emissions are the miles driven by UK distributors and shoppers.

As economist Tim Harford put it in the Financial Times recently, compared to the UK road miles of distributors and shoppers, "air and sea miles are a rounding error". Whilst distribution networks have improved their loading volumes significantly in recent years, the miles chalked up by shoppers remain by a considerable margin the least efficient part of the whole network. So in fact home-delivery from The Wine Society, Laithwaites, Tesco Direct and Vintage Roots is more environmentally-friendly than popping down to Oddbins or Thresher.

Encouraging consumers to buy online and in cases rather than pop out each time they want a bottle seems to make absolute sense from an environmental point of view, as well as in business terms for companies like Majestic. Yet an insistence on bulk packaging risks marginalising smaller producers, a group strongly represented in the world of organic wine. It may also demonise certain "high emission regions"' which require long overland and sea journeys like inland Argentina, there is the risk of damaging the livelihoods of very vulnerable growers too.

Focusing on simple to understand metrics like food or wine miles or bulk versus bottled imports risks creating a distorted picture that's vulnerable to media mischief making. Rather than being complementary green factors as first imagined, the principles of organics and transport appear to be increasingly in conflict with one another.