The SWA has set up a long-term environmental strategy

The SWA has set up a long-term environmental strategy

In its Environmental Strategy Report 2010, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) provides what it believes to be ‘the most detailed dataset’ of environmental impacts of any industry. In an exclusive interview with just-drinks, Julie Hesketh-Laird, the SWA's operational and technical affairs director, spoke with Ben Cooper about what has happened since the strategy was launched 18 months ago.

The Scotch whisky industry prides itself on looking long-term. So, the long-range view which characterises the Scotch Whisky Association’s (SWA) Environmental Strategy can be seen to be in tune with a patient industry that looks decades ahead.

“This is Year One of a 40-year strategy,” Julie Hesketh-Laird, the SWA's operational and technical affairs director, explains. “We’re off the starting blocks. Companies are really making great progress but this is a marathon not a sprint.”

That progress is underlined by the numerous case studies in the SWA’s Environmental Strategy Report 2010, which also sets out ambitious commitments in areas such as carbon emissions, packaging and waste, while providing a comprehensive account of the industry’s baseline position on environmental impacts which puts those commitments fully in context.

Hesketh-Laird says that, during the 18 months since the strategy was launched, the SWA has undertaken “a very, very detailed, comprehensive data collection exercise”, adding that the member companies “have done a fantastic job in responding to that despite all their other day to day pressures”.

This certainly puts the SWA in the vanguard among drinks sectors. Indeed, the SWA has had “lots of positive feedback” and a “huge amount of interest” from other parts of the wine and spirits industry. “I’m fairly confident that we’re ahead of the game on this,” Hesketh-Laird adds.

One of the strategy’s commitments is to report annually on progress and perhaps the report may disappoint some who were looking for a qualitative measure of progress on commitments already outlined in 2009. But Hesketh-Laird stresses that empirical tracking of progress will follow in future reports. However, the data collection process had been “an enormous task” with industry members providing “thousands of pieces of very detailed data from across their operations”.

She continues: “We’re now at the stage of regrouping, looking at the data that we’ve collated, trying to identify where the priorities are now for collective action.”

But even within the 18-month period, Hesketh-Laird believes there has been progress. “I think we have made enormous progress in terms of aligning the industry’s focus on the environment. Aligning the industry around the five target areas has been a big step.” 

But, the change has not only been in behaviour. The level of investment being made in environmental innovation, such as the bioenergy facility at Diageo's new Roseisle distillery, is “going to make a significant contribution to the non-fossil fuel target”. Hesketh Laird says she is “confident that by the time we report next time those GBP120m-odd investments will be translated into some impressive figures.”

The generation of bio-fuel from by-products is a “key” element in the strategy, Hesketh-Laird says, but she points out that the industry has a good record on sustainable use of its by-products which have historically gone to make products such as animal feed. 

Now that carbon emissions are the priority, the challenge is to adapt that sustainable use to one which helps reduce emissions, particularly given that distilling is by its nature an energy-intensive process. “We’re not just looking at eking out small energy efficiencies. We’re looking at a completely different mindset about how we generate the energy that we use.” The SWA has pledged that by 2020 it will ensure that 20% of the industry’s primary energy requirements will be derived from non-fossil fuel sources, with a target of 80% by 2050.

Across all areas of concern from emissions to packaging and waste to water use, Hesketh-Laird stresses that information-sharing is a key pillar of the strategy, notably through the working groups that have been established for each of the target areas. Such information-sharing, she believes, gives the industry the best chance of translating the technologies being used in high-volume grain distilleries into smaller-scale operations. “The big challenge for us now is to try and ensure that technologies are available for the smaller distilleries. All of our companies from the biggest to the smallest have been very, very open about the technologies and the strategies that they employ on-site.”

Julie Hesketh-Laird, director of operational and technical affairs at the SWA

Clearly, the scope of the data collection exercise has been daunting and the SWA is not committing to producing detailed data on progress in its next report. “We were surprised at the resource required to undertake that.” One task over the next year, Hesketh-Laird adds, will be to rationalise the data collection process. 

“The idea would be to put some data out next year but we’re rather dependent on our ability to collect that data and manage it. Yes we’re committed to making a report next year and yes we’re committed to reporting more data but we need to do that over a timescale that’s manageable.”

Another possible criticism from more sceptical onlookers is that the data has not been verified by a third party. However, Hesketh-Laird says the process was conducted in a way that would allow for that in the future, using methodologies that are consistent with existing third-party schemes such as the Carbon Trust. “We’d like very much to have third-party verification and I think the way we’ve designed the scheme to date will allow us to do that.”

While there may not be third-party verification of data, the SWA’s Environmental Strategy has not been short of third-party endorsement.

Richard Lochhead MSP, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment, provides the Foreword for the new report. Hesketh-Laird also points to collaboration with organisations such as the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), Scottish National Heritage, the WWF, WRAP and the Knowledge Transfer Partnership in developing and executing the strategy.

In a sense, it is not a surprise to find that Scotch whisky has arguably the most developed environmental strategy of any drinks sector. Distilling uses a lot of energy, the bottled-in-Scotland proposition involves its own costs and while there has been progress on reducing bottle weight there is still an association between the weight of the bottle and quality among many Scotch whisky consumers. So Scotch whisky needs a good environmental platform. 

But more than that, Scotch whisky marketing has traditionally played on the natural environment.  Whether it is the pureness of its water or images – hackneyed perhaps but somehow emblematic – of heather-clad moors and stags at bay, Scotland’s distillers have always presented themselves as being at one with nature. Responsible environmental stewardship is a perfect fit with Scotch whisky’s abiding public image and we can expect that synergy to be developed further as the industry’s environmental strategy unfolds.