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Soapbox: Calling time on sustainability inaction

Published:  10 October, 2023

With emissions targets slipping away, Denomination’s strategy director Mariella Menato urges action across the drinks industry

In August, the drinks industry was issued a stark warning that it was unlikely to hit its greenhouse gas targets for 2030 or 2040. The news was a blunt reminder that the road to a sustainable future is neither straight nor easy. Yet, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention.

Achieving the emissions targets was always going to be a huge challenge, requiring fundamental and systemic changes, going way beyond “business as usual”. The degree of change, disruption and investment needed for new and alternative technologies and infrastructures is huge. They’re likely to impact supply chains, product availability, profit and, in turn, share value. So, until CEOs across all sectors are judged by their ability to reduce emissions over company profits and shareholder dividends, greenhouse gas targets won’t be reduced as urgently as is needed.

Yet, alongside these challenges, numerous actions can be taken. The drinks industry is not alone in facing this problem, but everyone within it must recognise the pressing need to do significantly better. So, how can this be achieved?

Accepting that ‘recyclable’ packaging is not the silver bullet

It is time for businesses to acknowledge that, while recyclability and the use of recycled materials are important, recycling alone will not save us.

In Australia, multi-material beverage cartons carry a recyclable symbol, even though most states lack the infrastructure to recycle that format through curbside recycling schemes. These cartons need to be taken to specialised centres and the emissions generated during those individual journeys render recycling redundant. Businesses need to challenge and work with suppliers to source packaging made from post-consumer waste, and work with government to invest and incentivise recycling infrastructure.

Similarly, businesses cannot rely on carbon credits and offsetting alone. While we must invest in methods to capture and sequester carbon, maintaining or even increasing carbon emissions while relying on offsetting is akin to pouring fuel on a fire while spraying it with a garden hose.

Educating consumers on the ecological value of the vessel

Drinks companies need to work with retailers to increase the accessibility and infrastructure for reuseable packaging, and work with more governments to extend deposit return schemes to glass. How can we make bottles more reusable, rather than needing to be recycled?

The ecological value of the vessel lies in the raw materials; the deforestation and mining required to source virgin stock; the toxicity of the materials after processing and their impact on ecosystems after use; chemical bleaches in paper, toxic bonding agents and micro-plastics in adhesives that leach into water systems or soils when disposed.

Reducing reliance on virgin stock

This means investing in innovative materials solutions that champion agri-waste, rather than virgin or tree-based fibres. This will help reduce emissions and the increasing deforestation driven by our switch from plastic to paper.

This can also create new revenue streams within businesses. Grapes, sugarcane, wheat and barley are all vital components of premium drinks production, each producing waste in the form of skins or husks, which can be used as virgin paper stock with the appropriate technology.

Championing a ‘glo-cal’ approach to business

Taking a global and local approach is an important way to address Scope 3 emissions that occur throughout a company’s supply chain, such as those from packaging manufacturers, refrigeration, shipping and transportation. It’s an opportunity to collaborate with suppliers about their sustainability practices and look at the infrastructure that impacts transportation and other logistics.

By investing in and supporting local production as well as manufacturing of product and packaging, companies can avoid excessive shipping requirements.

Learning from other industries

Other industries and markets are much closer to reaching their targets, so we need to learn from them – particularly in how they’ve tackled the hardest challenges. We need to ask, how can that thinking apply to the drinks industry and individual drinks businesses? There is also a pool of resources that international bodies, such as the UN, created specifically for businesses. It’s important we use them.

None of these actions are easy wins; they will require effort and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, to combat the relative apathy of the past 50 years and the rapidly ticking climate clock that threatens a point of no return, they must be done.

Therefore, collaboration among stakeholders – from suppliers to major retailers to governments – is essential. This will demonstrate that these major changes are not merely about gaining a “competitive advantage”, but about doing what is right.

For those who lead in these efforts, they will secure a place in the hearts and minds of consumers for generations to come.