I was following an interesting Twitter feed the other day with a group of wine merchants. They were talking about the pros and cons of various types of transit packaging and it broadened into a more general discussion about what they should be doing as businesses, to address current concerns about the environment.
I have to hold my hand up here.
I’ve never really used Twitter. A younger member of the team suggested I look at it, before patiently showing me how to log on! I took two important points from the discussions. They chime with what we at WBC have been trying to do for some time now. Firstly, how do we educate ourselves, and particularly our customers, about how and what our products are made from? Secondly, once armed with that information, what do you do with it from an environmental perspective?
How do we educate ourselves and our customers?
Take shipping, for example. There’s an argument that it’s up to the wine merchant to select the best transit packaging for their bottles. Even if it’s not the most environmentally friendly. One twitter user reasoned that the most important thing was for bottles to arrive safely. What could be worse to the environment than going to all that effort of making wine, only for it to arrive broken on the last leg of its journey?
Another described his experience of having had negative feedback from a customer about the excessive plastic waste accompanying their delivery. “Could they not find anything better to send their bottles out in?”. A graphic was then posted posing the question “Should the supplier or the customer drive environmental improvements in a business?”. And that neatly brings me back to the point.
Should we as a business offer customers a wide range of options from “not great for the environment (but a great product!)” through to “very eco-friendly”, then let them decide? Or, should we be making the decisions for them; only offering what we thought best.
Do customers care about the environment?
Do customers care about the environment or are they more concerned about the functionality? Are they more concerned with price, the ease of use, the storage requirements etc? Should good old fashioned principles of supply and demand apply? If sales of environmentally friendly products increases and the less environmental ones decline, then those products will gradually die out? If none of our customers wants the Rolls Royce of transit packaging (ie Polysafe polystyrene packaging) in a few years’ time and has all swapped across to Pulpsafe or a 100% cardboard alternative, then the decision is easy and our customers have voted with their feet.
As you will know from previous articles, we have been working on minimising and offsetting our environmental impact for over 10 years now. It started with our tree planting programme. And it’s worked its way to reducing plastic, where we can, throughout our product range.
We try not to preach about this and, regardless of the environmental benefits, some of the changes have made good commercial sense. Whilst you can employ external consultants to help, we have always tried to do things ourselves in a very “hands-on” fashion.
Our latest project was inspired by our friends at Liberty Wines and involves trying to become “Carbon Neutral”. It’s a process Liberty has successfully been through themselves and now accredited. Liberty put us in touch with an external consultant. This led to a basic calculation of our own carbon footprint and then considering options on how to reduce and offset it.
The Trouble with carbon neutrality…
At this point, a major issue arose. As part of our tree planting project, we purchased land in France and have planted over 28,000 trees in the last ten years. However, these could not be included in any offsetting because our forest was not an “accredited plantation”.
We were not keen to start all over again so decided to take a more pragmatic approach and work out our carbon footprint and how to offset it ourselves. We call it our ‘back of a fag packet’ calculation. The truth is though, it was based on a lot of research and discussions with suppliers and shippers. We are not scientists and our calculations might be challenged but we think we are moving in the right direction.
|Sea and Airfreight||= 371 tonnes of carbon|
|UK Deliveries, office & warehouse||= 43 tonnes of carbon|
|Miscellaneous||= 21 tonnes|
|Total Estimated Carbon Footprint||= 435 tonnes|
Depending on what data you choose to use, our trees might absorb an average of 21.7kg of Carbon per year throughout their lifetime. Whilst we have planted over 28,000 trees we have thinned them out every five years to give the strongest space to flourish. We think we now have around 17,000 trees left.
Calculating our footprint
So 16,800 x 21.7kg = 364 tonnes of Carbon being captured each year – 71 tonnes short of being Carbon Neutral (we think!).
We want to ensure we comfortably cover our carbon obligation, and are there or thereabouts for 2018. We continue to explore options on increasing our offset ability using our DIY approach. It does mean we will not be allowed to use one of those fancy recognised logos out there to promote the fact.
I have concerns about the whole “carbon neutral” badge anyway. In effect it could be argued we’re still producing carbon, just making ourselves feel better by offsetting it. The writer George Monbiot famously compares carbon offsets with the ancient Catholic church’s practice of selling indulgences: absolution from sins and reduced time in purgatory in return for financial donations to the church. We take these criticisms on board but still feel it has to be better to try to do as many things as possible.
Offering transparency in the way you do business
I also believe there’s another benefit in doing these things ourselves. We have absolute visibility and control of the project. I know we’ve planted 28,000+ trees, I can go and see them anytime I want. I can talk to the “foresters” managing the plantations for us. We can see the use useful effect of thinning (removing weaker trees to give space for stronger). And its outcome (ie producing pallets!). I can watch the remaining trees flourish. More importantly, I can show this to my customer. We can give them updates, show them the pictures and video footage.
The whole environmental discussion can be exhausting at times. As a large producer and supplier of packaging, we feel obliged to pursue all sensible environmental initiatives open to us. It’s important that we keep developing environmental alternatives to offer our customers.
With this in mind, we’d love to be a part of any round table discussion someday. It would be great to be part of a forum that discusses these issues in details, finding concrete ideas, practices (and products) that we can all act upon.
Perhaps it will help us find better ways to make informed choices and ways to communicate that message to our customers.