"Companies will put aside commercial differences when it comes to tackling the harmful use of alcohol" - Interview, Henry Ashworth, CEO of the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking - Part I

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Last month, just-drinks sat down with the head of the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking, Henry Ashworth. The trade-funded organisation poached Ashworth from UK drinks industry watchdog The Portman Group in January. Here, in part one of a two-part interview, Ashworth explains what IARD does, what its ambition is and why its members are forsaking the quest for competitive advantage in the responsible drinking area.

Henry Ashworth joined the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking as CEO in January

Henry Ashworth joined the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking as CEO in January

just-drinks: Can you set out IARD's structure and purpose?

Henry Ashworth: The organisation was founded in Washington, although this was more an accident of birth. We now have an office in London as well as in Washington. It's funded by 11 companies [Anheuser-Busch InBev, Asahi, Bacardi, Beam Suntory, Brown-Forman, Carlsberg, Diageo, Heineken, Kirin, Molson Coors and Pernod Ricard] and the board comprises the corporate affairs directors of those companies.

Our purpose is the collective action of the leading beers, wines and spirits producers to tackle the abuse of alcohol and promote moderate drinking amongst those people who choose to drink. Our role is to convene both with the global chief executives and to reach out to the corners of their organisations on their behalf, with this really clear core purpose of being on the front foot in tackling the harmful use of alcohol.

We also convene our Partnership Council, made up of trade associations and social organisations around the world, so they know how IARD's members are working together and how they can interact and join up as well with us.

Any membership organisation is always interested to have a conversation with somebody who wants to join. If companies want to join IARD, it's because they want to make a real difference and work with other global producers.

j-d: You joined IARD at the start of this year. What appealed to you about the position and the organisation?

Prior to joining IARD this year, Henry Ashworth headed up the Portman Group in the UK

HA: My time at The Portman Group showed me that when the drinks industry pulls together, it can make a real difference. We can take a lot of the principles from the UK and we can extrapolate them. Every different country has a different context, you have a different set of sort of social, cultural, economic contexts at play in every place. I think the industry is very well-placed to understand customers and communities and societies, and has an ability then to make a real difference.

Taking on this role gives me the ability to take some of that learning in terms of why the industry is such a good partner for government. In this case, it's the World Health Organisation and the United Nations, but the principles are the same.

j-d: Does the breadth of different countries and different contexts make your job that much harder?

HA: We can't apply a 'one-size-fits-all' solution to everything. We have a moment in time right now, with new leadership at the World Health Organisation. There's a real recognition that we have to move away from this silo mentality, that we need to have all hands on deck. That means the whole of society, the whole of government, NGO's and the drinks industry finding the common ground and finding ways to work together. We're not going to solve the big challenges in society without everybody playing their part.

It starts off with IARD saying: "Here are some principles that the global leaders of the biggest producers in this industry have said they want to achieve". Then, we have to be humble enough to listen to the experts in countries around the world who know how those standards can apply in their place of expertise.

You can see parallels in the application of campaigns or opportunities, but they don't always translate. You need to have somebody on the ground in a country who really knows how a campaign will be affected.

How many UK companies have you seen take their business to the US and fail miserably? It's always because they haven't grasped the local context. In some respects, public health is no different. Just because something has worked in one country, it won't work necessarily somewhere else. You can't just cut and paste.

j-d: Ultimately, your member companies are in competition with each other. Do you get the sense that they sometimes play their cards a little close to their chests?

HA: I think they're all stronger if they pull together and around the corporate responsibility agenda, particularly related to the harmful use of alcohol. When the global CEOs came together earlier this year, they were absolutely adamant they will work together. They will put aside their commercial differences when it comes to tackling the harmful use of alcohol, they are completely committed to working together.

Competition and the fragmentation of efforts on the basis of competitive advantage doesn't serve anybody when it comes to this agenda.

j-d: What's IARD's definition of success?

HAA reduction in the harmful use of alcohol. I would say that's number one. More people drinking moderately, fewer people drinking in patterns that are harmful to them or to others. These are pretty obvious as to our accomplishments.

In the nearer term, I'd like us to start getting recognised as being really committed partners who are able to do things that governments can't do and who are able to work with governments and other stakeholders. I'd like us to be an industry sector that the World Health Organisation or the United Nations points to as having understood the role of the private sector.

An example of this is digital marketing. It's incredibly difficult to regulate at a national level because it cuts across national boundaries. For the global drinks producers to agree to set up new standards is a really good example of when governments know they're struggling and we can step up and say: "This is what committed partners can do in this space."

In part two, which can be accessed here, Ashworth details IARD's relationship with the World Health Organisation, debates the role of pricing in the responsible drinking mix and gives us the inside track on when the CEOs of 11 multinational drinks companies met for lunch in Denmark.

Click here for IARD's monthly digest of responsible drinking issues from around the world

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