Seeing green: Looking past the label to separate sustainable from superficial

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green•wash (grēn’wŏsh’, -wôsh’) — The act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service. When a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be “green” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact.

You’re standing in the liquor store, staring at a wall of beer. You like to do your part to help the planet by making smart buying decisions, supporting the companies that make a concerted effort to reduce / reuse / recycle / renew. Two six-packs stand out by having a “green Earth-type” logo plastered on the front and you grab them, figuring you’ve done your part.

Actually, you’ve been had. Greenwashed.

Companies have been trying to enhance their image by marketing “green” since the 1970s. Their hope is to appeal to environmentally engaged customers, stand apart from other similar products, and, in some cases, be able to charge a premium for their products. As a result of “green” initiatives, there are essentially two kinds of companies: those that actually produce goods and services in an environmentally sustainable manner, and those that claim to do so.

I don’t know about you, but I really despise shams, scams, and attempted punks. Take for example Keurig Green Mountain, producer of “K-Cups.” Keurig touted in their 2014 sustainability report they recovered 4.3 million K-Cups. What they failed to mention is that they sold 8.3 billion units during that time—meaning they recovered a mere .05%. That’s both misleading and a real failure in terms of being an environmental steward.

I’m especially disappointed when I see greenwashing in the brewing industry. “Our brewery is 100% wind-powered!” What does that really mean? Do they own and operate an on-site wind generator? Or do they buy RECs (Renewable Energy Credits) from a wind farm? What about their gas-fired steam generator? What energy source was used to produce the glass for their bottles? 100%? Really?

I view this from a unique perspective. We built Dave’s BrewFarm from the ground up in 2008 with renewables and a high-performance building design at the core. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on renewable equipment: a 20kW wind generator, geothermal heating and cooling, pre-plumbed (but never installed) solar thermal, and an energy saving building design.

Daves-BrewFarm-Photo-by-Aaron-Davidson

Dave’s BrewFarm // Photo by Aaron Davidson

The concept for the BrewFarm was based on conservation, sustainability, and the three “P”s (planet, people, and profit). We wanted to lead by example and demonstrate what could be accomplished with research, planning, and a bit of foresight. We brew beer and provide a convivial social experience, minimize our impact on the planet, and make a profit. Seven years in, we’ve proven it can be done.

In my mind, the preeminent brewery who has invested the most in sustainable practices is Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. They hold an organic certification through Oregon Tilth, which requires companies go through an 8–12 week process including inspection, review, resolution, and certification. They also have a zero waste certification for their Chico, California, brewery through the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council—a third-party auditor that has a set of standards and rigorous criteria that need to be met yearly, with recertification every three years.

I contacted Cheri Chastain, Sierra Nevada’s sustainability manager for the last 10 years, and asked how they use those certifications in their branding. “Our sustainability efforts are not something we put a lot of marketing efforts into,” she replied, “largely because we do them because they either make sense to do or are the right thing to do. We are transparent about everything that we are doing and hope that it inspires other people to work on similar projects.”

Chastain believes Sierra Nevada’s approach, or lack thereof, to marketing their sustainable efforts makes a bigger statement to consumers than if the brewery were to shout it from the mountain tops. “[I]n my experience, once consumers learn what we put into our operations, they are always surprised and, in most cases, it makes them want to purchase our beers even more,” she explains. I found the same to be true with my BrewFarm customers, where I’ve taken a similar “lead by example, not through marketing philosophy.”

Next page: How you can avoid being greenwashed

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