I am aging myself here, but when I was in my early 20s, drinking a beer usually meant pallid, dull brews that somehow all tasted the same. Then the microbrewery craze caught on: walk into your nearest Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, or even a Safeway, and you’re inundated with choices, many of them local. Not only does this give consumers better choice and a happier palate, but drinking local brews is good for the economy (dollars stay local) and good for the earth (heavy bottles not hauled as far, hopefully!).
Now, large brewing companies are riding the sustainability bandwagon: Sapporo Breweries started a pilot program that calculates a beer’s carbon footprint on its bottles’ labels, and InBev, which owns Anheuser Busch, has a snazzy CSR report trumpeting the company’s goal to “Become the Best Beer Company in a Better World.” Now Heineken, perhaps mindful of its Wobo bottle legacy (1960s bottles shaped like building blocks), has announced its ambition to become the world’s “greenest” brewer within 10 years.
Heineken’s agenda rests on three core ideas: ameliorating the environmental impact of its products; “empowering” communities in which Heineken operates; and making a positive impact on the role of beer in society.
The company says it will start by becoming a “green brewer.” Heineken claims it will reduce CO2 emissions in complying with international treaties and agreements, and “as far as is possible financially and technically,” will seek by 2012 to have its breweries in water-stressed areas as water-neutral as possible. And by 2010, Heineken will also retrofit at least three of its 40 breweries to become carbon neutral in two years.
Next, Heineken will reduce its carbon footprint: the details are vague, which in perusing its site, made me wonder why Heineken buried the fuzzy details in an appendix. But in fairness, the goals are laudable and will be ironed out (again) by 2012. The firm will create a baseline carbon footprint model (giving it an opportunity to be a leader in the beverage industry), take a look at more efficient packaging (does this mean square bottles?), reducing the energy needed for its cooling systems, and identifying carbon reduction opportunities in its top 20 markets.
The goals will be challenging: like any beverage company, Heineken relies on its distributors, which really do not have any choice but to haul glass bottles and kegs full of heavy liquid—and by the way, if you want a local brew, go for the bottle; if it’s an imported beer, buy it in cans, which are lighter. Then there are the issue over hops, which are grown only in a few areas, mostly Germany and the Pacific Northwest. British Columbia is enjoying a renaissance in organic hops production, but at a very small scale. Greening Heineken’s supply chain will be a challenge, but perhaps method home could give this firm and others a good template from which to start.
Heineken should be given credit for listing the steps it has taken, what it has achieved, and what will occur in the future. At this point, its up to its customers and stakeholders to hold the company accountable. Much of Heineken’s sustainability portal, however, focuses on issues more relevant to employee relations and alcohol consumption. True, employees should be treated well and alcohol abuse should be mitigated, but whether or not a brewery is water- and carbon-neutral has little to do with how a company can make sure its product is enjoyed, not over-indulged. The site and CSR report are both nicely written and are pretty. Nevertheless, more details are needed if the company truly wants to become a “green” company, not just a firm putting its brew in an iconic green bottle.