Climate change talks highlight drinks industry's cooperation efforts - Sustainability Spotlight

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As world leaders convene in Paris this week for the COP 21 climate change conference, the value of consensus, cooperation and collaboration in the face of the climate change challenge - and the threats posed if they are lacking - come into sharp relief. Cooperation and partnership are certainly required between companies and, in this regard, the drinks sector has a good story to tell.

The Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable, rather aptly known by the acronym BIER, is now entering its tenth year, and can demonstrate a substantial body of work over its first nine years and a significant contribution towards quantifying and addressing the environmental impacts of beverage production.

That this technical coalition groups together the four beverage sectors – beer, spirits, wine and soft drinks – is significant for two primary reasons. The four sectors may have substantial common ground and many shared challenges, but there are some pronounced differences too. Information-sharing and learning from the experience of other companies is a vital component in the development of sustainable business models and best practice. The fact that BIER facilitates cross-fertilisation between the four sectors, then, is of huge value.

Secondly, it speaks to the strong spirit of consensus-building and partnership in the drinks industry, attributes that cast it in a positive light when in discussions with governments and policymakers, whether regarding the environment or on other issues. Both the soft drinks sector, largely because of the current debates over obesity, and the alcohol industry, owing to other health and social concerns, are constantly in discussions and negotiations with governments about policy which could impact on their businesses. Having a positive record of engagement at the industry level on environmental stewardship does the likes of Coca-Cola, Diageo and Heineken no harm whatsoever. 

In that context, BIER's recently-published 'Joint Commitment on Climate Change' is worthy of note.

BIER estimates that the global beverage sector accounts for around 0.4% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In its Joint Commitment, BIER members state that they recognise climate change as "one of the greatest challenges facing the continued prosperity of society, particularly to those in emerging markets". The signatories "commit to continuing to do our part to reduce GHG emissions, not only across our own operations, but also by driving action through their supply chains". In addition, they pledge their support for "an international framework of national GHG reduction targets and commitments to invest in adaptation".

While demonstrating that they are "part of the solution" is an important element in industry advocacy, BIER director Tod Christenson does not believe that in publishing the Commitment, BIER is moving away from its established function as a technical coalition. 

"I wouldn't say we're moving to advocacy," Christenson tells just-drinks, adding that publication of the Commitment relates more to meeting the demands of the new national carbon reduction targets across the many countries in which BIER companies operate over the coming years. "We're trying to be recognised as leaders, understand and do our part, and now we're looking at what we can do to help our members meet these new commitments," Christenson says. BIER will remain a technical coalition, focused on "developing tools and sharing technological experience… to help accelerate the sector's capability to meet future carbon reduction expectations".

To this end, from 2016, BIER will begin a benchmarking process on carbon emissions across its membership. It has already been benchmarking energy efficiency for some years and doing the same with carbon emissions is "a natural extension".

Indeed, benchmarking water and energy efficiency have been among BIER's principal activities to date, with the organisation releasing its most recent 2014 Water & Energy Use Benchmarking Study in February. BIER estimates that its members have realised an 11% improvement in energy intensity over the last four years, along with a "significant improvement in GHG intensity".

However, Christenson stresses that BIER's focus is firmly on the future. Last year saw Fetzer Vineyards, Keurig Green Mountain and Constellation Brands join the coalition and Jackson Family Wines has just become its newest member. Christenson says BIER is always open to new members, adding that companies are joining because they are looking for what will be "the next generation in sustainability strategy, the next opportunity" in order to "take their programmes to the next level".

And, while the coalition includes the largest multinational players across the beverage sectors operating globally, most are based in the US or Europe, so there is scope to expand geographically. A burgeoning involvement by Suntory through its ownership of Beam – representatives from the Japanese giant attended BIER's most recent twice-yearly meeting, held last month at Coca-Cola's HQ in Atlanta – offers the possibility of extending BIER's membership in the Asia Pacific region.

It will always be larger companies that have the resources to participate in coalitions and initiatives, but a key feature of BIER, and one which underlines its commitment to take the entire drinks sector forward, is that all the reports, guidance and toolkits it has produced are available to any company whether they are members or not.

BIER said its meeting in Atlanta last month was to prepare for its tenth year "and beyond" and, with new members on board, BIER is clearly looking ahead.

"We're growing every year and we're expanding our purview, and moving outside the four walls," says Christenson. The latter point underlines how BIER's work is evolving in line with the general trend in sustainability to look at impacts along the entire value chain. In this regard, three areas of particular focus in the near term will be packaging and recycling, Scope 3 carbon emissions, with a particular focus on refrigeration, and sustainable agriculture.

So, while the demonstration of engagement, cooperation and leadership on sustainability that BIER embodies is a benefit in terms of industry advocacy, BIER looks set to remain a technical coalition primarily focused on enhancing action - by members and non-members alike - to mitigate environmental impacts within and beyond the walls of winery, brewery or bottling plant.

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