The Basics Tips & Tricks

3 Ways to Tell if a Booze Company Is Greenwashing

What does sustainability mean for liquor brands? And why is everyone claiming it?

Illustration of a greenwashing liquor distillery / Sofia Varano

Absinthe and Chartreuse aside, going green has been one of the more notable recent trends for the liquor industry. Sustainability is more than a buzzword these days, with consumers demanding transparency and more environmental initiative from the businesses they support. In just a few short years, this has shifted the marketplace to one in which eco-friendly programs are all but expected from brands.

But what does sustainability actually mean? The Nielsen Company, in its 2018 report on the evolution of the sustainability mindset, describes it as “a broad all-encompassing term” adding that “it’s often difficult to know where to start” when defining it. The report found that “81% of global respondents feel strongly that companies should help improve the environment,” with little variation across gender lines or generational ones (though millennials and Gen Z are the most adamant about buying from eco-focused companies). 

Given the breadth of our environmental woes in 2020, it’s important that consumers know how and where their dollars are being spent. And if nothing else, the Nielsen report highlights another issue: Businesses now have a vested interest in appealing to this growing audience.

Enter greenwashing, a marketing tactic in which businesses trick audiences into believing that they are more environmentally conscious than they actually are. A notable example comes from Volkswagen’s 2015 emissions-cheating scandal in which they launched a huge “clean diesel” marketing campaign, then subsequently admitted to rigging 11 million cars with devices installed to cheat emissions tests in the United States. 

Greenwashing isn’t always so clear-cut. In the booze world, it can be even harder to tell when brands are faking their commitment to the planet. There isn’t nearly as much environmental oversight in the liquor industry as there is with automobile production. And with almost infinite ways to address wastefulness along the supply chain, it’s likely that some businesses engaging in greenwashing are unaware that they’re not doing as much for the environment as their marketing suggests. 

Until a trusted, comprehensive certification program is created to easily identify truly sustainable distilleries, consumers will be faced with making these determinations on their own. So what should you look for when aiming to support a sustainable liquor brand? Here are three things.

1. Distilleries Working with Their Surroundings

You can’t produce alcohol without impacting the environment in some way. Some brands are taking on this challenge by looking at their immediate surroundings to fuel sustainability innovation. “Like all distilleries, we use a fair bit of energy to heat our stills,” says Peter Hunt, the president and master distiller of Victoria Distillers, the maker of the popular Empress 1908 gin. 

Victoria, British Columbia, is a popular seaside destination, so Hunt relocated his young distillery next to the water, investing in a unique ocean-based geothermal energy system for cooling during distillation. Instead of dumping the resulting hot water, it’s transferred to a neighboring hotel, which extracts the heat for year-round use before sending the cooled water back to the distillery. 

Innovation doesn’t always come in the form of new technology, however. In a remote part of the Central American country of Belize, the Copal Tree Distillery, maker of Copalli rum, is using old techniques to address modern problems. “Being remote forces us to make the most of what's available and not to be wasteful,” says Anya Fernald, the co-founder of Copalli and CEO of meat brand Belcampo

The distillery receives upwards of 180 inches of rain per year in southern Belize, allowing it to rely on captured rainwater rather than groundwater. And it avoids the use of pesticides by allowing the surrounding jungle to exist naturally: The birds of prey and snakes that live there keep the cane fields free of rodents and other pests. 

2. Certifications and Awards

“There is no certifying agency for sustainability,” says Fernald. “But being certified organic can give you confidence that chemical fertilizers are not being used.” Trusted agencies in various aspects of the sustainability industry can indicate that a brand is walking the walk, so to speak, rather than using green marketing to grow their bottom line. 

Awards similarly can inspire confidence. Victoria Distillers’ aforementioned water process saves Vancouver Island roughly 375,000 gallons of water each year, which recently earned the distillery an EcoStar award for water stewardship. Patrón Spirits was founded with a sustainable mindset, and its investments in sustainable practices have earned it ‘“Clean Industry” and ISO 14001 certifications (standards related to environmental management), as well as recognitions by Conagua (the Mexican federal water authority) and Semadet (the Jalisco state environmental agency) as an industry leader in helping the environment in Mexico, according to the tequila brand’s director of production, Antonio Rodriguez.

3. Hiring for a Healthy Planet

Ultimately, it’s the allocation of money that proves any business’ investment in the environment. Seeing who is hiring or building teams to address these issues can be helpful in identifying sustainable brands. Pernod Ricard, which has one of the most comprehensive portfolios in the industry, has hired John Tran to be the director of sustainability and responsibility. “Where the ingredients come from matter, and everything that goes into the ingredients matter,” he says, adding that sustainability isn’t just about the planet but about people. “When we see the impact of environmental sustainability, it cascades to other things, including the social impact.” This is why Pernod Ricard advocates on issues from equality for all people to more balanced lifestyles for its employees. And in a rare move for a spirits brand, Pernod’s sustainability plan includes addressing responsible drinking. 

“We want to create a world that’s more convivial, and a world without excess, from drinking to excess, but also from a sustainability standpoint,” says Tran. “We don’t want to be wasting things. It’s part of this whole idea of what we are doing together in shared prosperity.”

Even as a smaller brand, Victoria Distillers has assembled a Green Team that meets monthly to discuss ways to further reduce its impact on the environment, while in Kentucky, established bourbon brand Maker’s Mark is taking the call to sustainable action seriously. In hiring wildlife biologist Jason Nally to serve as environmental champion for the brand, the company has invested in revamping the distillation process. “A healthy wildlife community is a spoke in the wheel of a healthy watershed,” says Nally, adding that innovating on a brand from 1953 takes thoughtful work to “not mess up the liquid.”

While these examples are by no means exhaustive, they provide a good starting point for consumers to begin thinking critically about what they drink and how it is marketed. And as the industry continues to hold each other accountable, the bar for everyone will be raised.