Sustainability: a pre-requirement or a victim of Greenwashing?

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Ways wineries can be sustainable and communicate their environmentally friendly production without being taken for granted or falling victim to Greenwashing.

Sustainability is becoming an increasingly contentious issue: there are those who consider it a mainstream issue – a dominant trend – as if it were something that is now taken for granted and expected; those who exploit the popularity reserved for eco-sustainable products by devising purpose-driven marketing strategies focused on sustainability, without really doing anything to decrease the carbon footprint; and those who, finally, put in place genuinely viable options for reducing the environmental impact. 

Among those who argue that sustainability in the wine world is no longer such an attractive issue for consumers is Joanna Sciarrino – Editor in Chief of Vinepair. 

Sciarrino, during the last wine2wine, gave a talk titled “Readers don’t care about sustainability.” 

Quite a blow to all those wine companies that are investing (rightly) in sustainability. 

In fact, Sciarrino specified that Vinepair’s readers, who number in the millions (as many as 35.2 million readers per month!), now consider sustainability to be a kind of pre-requirement, an element that is expected to be a feature of wineries’ production practices, but which they no longer reserve much interest in because they take it, precisely, for granted, and therefore do not find it to be an interesting issue from a communication point of view. Kind of like saying you need grapes to make wine. 

“For wine consumers, sustainability is an important issue,” Sciarrino said, “but that doesn’t mean they are then interested in communications from companies that emphasize their investments on this front. 

But the head of Vinepair did not stop there, stating that sustainable production certifications are also not that important to her readers/consumers. 

So, the question arises: if among wine consumers’ criteria of choice is sustainability, how do they buy products with these characteristics if they are not interested in either communication about it or in its certification?

Can we assume that all wine consumers, starting with those interested in sustainable wines in all their different forms (organic, biodynamic, natural, etc.), are already aware of how many companies produce wines with those characteristics and therefore do not need any other kind of information? 

Joanna unfortunately did not provide any answers on this issue, and which is rather unfortunate since Vinepair certainly represents a very interesting observatory to delve into such important issues such as sustainability communication  (and beyond). 

There is, however, one underlying reflection that Sciarrino’s albeit superficial analysis leaves us with and that is the fact that sustainability, to date, has not only been communicated very poorly by the wine world but has certainly also generated a communication overdose with all the ensuing damage. 

Therefore, today, wineries are compelled to convey a topic that, in my opinion, remains decisive, namely sustainability, with a much more pragmatic and “demonstrative” approach, definitively abandoning all abstract claims that almost always reek of greenwashing, in other words, of pretend environmentalism. 

The term greenwashing defines a phenomenon whereby more time and money is invested in marketing a company’s image so that it is sustainable, rather than actually minimizing its environmental impact. 

This is a dishonest marketing ploy that tricks customers into buying a product that appears sustainable only at communication level, exploiting consumers’ demonstrated preference for buying goods and services from eco-friendly brands. 

As we wish to draw a line that restores the balance between these two ends – for it is known: balance lies in the middle – we offer two interesting examples of how to deal with the topic of sustainability, both in terms of communication and practice. 

An article in Meininger’s International listed the 5 tips proposed by Michael Bernecker – CEO of the German Institute for Marketing in Cologne and member of the board of YouMagnus AG – for credible sustainable communication: 

  1. Communicating sustainability will be critical. Businesses that do not properly report their efforts toward sustainable production will be treated by consumers in the same way as producers who take no steps to reduce their environmental impact. 
  1. Sustainable communication starts from within. A successful approach to directing a sustainable production strategy starts with an internal project that allows employees to share ideas and viewpoints for reducing or offsetting emissions. 
  1. Bottle seals promote the perception of sustainability. It is mistaken to assume that organic, eco-friendly seals represent the only environmentally friendly element of a company, but studies have shown how these are an incentive for consumers to buy. 
  1. No Greenwashing. Sustainable communication that is merely superficial can be accused of greenwashing. Simple, superficial marketing strategies are to be avoided; ideally, you should actively work to reduce your environmental impact and communicate your commitment to doing so. 
  1. Multi-level eco-friendly communication. Wine companies today have a wide and varied range of communication channels: reports on sustainable initiatives should be usable from multiple angles: company websites, newsletters, and social channels.  

A 2020 study conducted by the California Wine Institute then analyzed the production practices, related to the world of wine, that show the most room for improvement in reducing the environmental footprint.

Source: https://www.sustainablewinegrowing.org/docs/California_Wine_Executive_Summary.pdf 

The graph clearly shows that glass bottles account for 29 % of the carbon footprint released by wine production, while bottle transportation accounts for 13 %. 

Finally, the study reported some practical steps that wineries could take to become genuinely sustainable: 

Packaging: lighter glass bottles and alternative packaging such as bag-in-box, cans, plastic bottles 

Emissions: streamline the management plan for nitrogen emissions 

Energy: inspections of energy used in the vineyard and/or winery, implement efficient energy measures, install renewable energy tools 

Distribution: streamline the distribution network, increase the percentage of rail transportation, opt for low-emission transportation, evaluate-with their distributors-options that reduce the carbon footprint.  

Sources:  

https://www.winemeridian.com/ambiente-e-sostenibilita/sostenibilita-pre-requisito-o-vittima-del-greenwashing/ 

https://www.winemeridian.com/news/cucu_la_sostenibilita_non_interessa_piu/