The second part of this month's management briefing, which looks at environmental sustainability in the global wine category, sees Ben Cooper turn the spotlight on South Africa and its environmental efforts.

National and regional generic organisations the world over have played a role in advancing environmental sustainability in wine production, but arguably no country has gone further in terms of developing a concerted industry-wide sustainability programme than South Africa.

Underlining how critical partnerships are in driving progress on environmental sustainability, South Africa's platform for sustainable wine production has not been developed by the country's generic body, Wines of South Africa, alone.

Sustainable Wine South Africa (SWSA) is an alliance between the Wine and Spirit Board (WSB), the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) scheme, the Biodiversity & Wine Initiative (BWI) and Wines of South Africa (WOSA). And, the combination of these pre-existing, established entities arguably lends a certain robustness to this ground-breaking sustainability certification scheme.

The SWSA Sustainability Seal was launched for the 2010 vintage. It is now carried by around 95% of the bottled wine produced in South Africa. The seal certifies that the wine meets the environmental criteria set out under the IPW scheme. It also guarantees other basic criteria such as vintage, variety and traceability to point of origin. 

Set up in 1998 with an overall aim "to greatly reduce the impact that the South African wine industry has on the natural environment in which it operates", the IPW scheme covers a raft of environmental criteria including:

  • minimum withholding periods of agrochemicals
  • the use of a specified list of chemicals
  • aiming to reduce the use of chemicals and the introduction of natural predators
  • no harmful residues present in grapes
  • cultivation of virgin soil and the protection of biodiversity and maintaining corridors of natural habitat between the vineyards
  • recording water use and introducing targets for reduction, the safe disposal of and treatment of all effluent water
  • additional criteria relating to the health and safety of workers, and
  • the handling, storage and disposal of agrochemicals and containers.

Su Birch, the outgoing CEO of Wines of South Africa, believes the SWSA scheme has placed the country in the vanguard of sustainability certification for wine. "I think that in many ways we are leaders," she tells just-drinks. "We were the first to introduce an industry-wide seal with complete traceability back to the vineyard."

She also claims that wine is "by far" the most sustainably-produced agricultural commodity in South Africa. However, she believes that the wine industry sometimes does not get the credit it deserves from the South African government because of the presence of a strong anti-alcohol lobby.

Birch adds that, in terms of the protection of biodiversity, South Africa is "very far ahead" of other countries thanks to the Biodiversity & Wine Initiative (BWI).

"We are growing our wine in the Cape Floral Kingdom, one of the most special bio-diverse places in the world, so that's brought with it a special set of responsibilities," she says. "So, over and above the idea that we want to produce wines sustainably it goes intertwined with this responsibility to preserve some aspects of the Cape Floral Kingdom and certainly the BWI initiative has been uniquely successful." 

The Cape Floral Kingdom (CFK) has been recognised as a global biodiversity hotspot and is South Africa's newest World Heritage Site. As 80% of the area is under private ownership, landowner participation in conservation efforts has been seen as essential, and wine farmers would have to be a critical constituency in any coordinated effort between business and conservation as 90% of South Africa's wine production occurs within the CFK.

The BWI was set up as a partnership between industry and conservation in November 2004 and now comes under the auspices of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). "The BWI is one of their showpieces. It's an incredible achievement," says Birch. "WWF consider it a model business-environmental partnership. It really has been phenomenally successful."

The principal aims of the BWI are:

  • to prevent further loss of habitat in critical conservation priority sites
  • to increase the total area set aside as natural habitat in contractual protected areas
  • to promote changes in farming practices that enhance the suitability of vineyards as habitat for biodiversity, and
  • to reduce farming practices that have negative impacts on biodiversity, both in the vineyard and in surrounding natural habitat, through the sound management of all natural resources and maintenance of functioning ecosystems.

Wine's closeness to nature has always featured in the way wine companies communicate with consumers about their products, long before environmental sustainability became a buzzword. One need only to look at the reams of material the French wine industry has disseminated on the concept of 'terroir' over generations to appreciate this. As sustainability has grown in the public consciousness, this aspect of wine marketing is again coming to the fore. 

In addition to making a substantial contribution to nature conservancy in South Africa, Birch says the biodiversity piece adds a further particularly interesting dimension to the sustainability narrative for consumers. "What we have found which is interesting is that when we tell the stories about conservation, the consumer gets very interested in that and finds that very exciting."

Moreover, WWF's involvement in the BWI means that the South African wine sector's sustainability programme benefits from the presence of a "credible third-party" as a partner, Birch adds.

WWF, meanwhile, has said it believes the approach the South African wine industry has taken to sustainability, culminating in the Sustainability Seal, to be "amongst the best". WWF adds that the seal not only successfully integrates the different needs of the social and natural environment, but also "raises the bar of industry self-regulation in agricultural production. It is also a refreshingly appropriate and informative label to use on a bottle seal".

As to whether the South African approach could become a model for other countries or wine regions, Birch says there have been conversations with other organisations keen to learn from the experience in South Africa. 

However, she also points out that a critical feature of SWSA programme is that the sustainability guarantee system benefits from an extensive bureaucratic structure put in place many years before. The actual certification comes from the Wine & Spirit Board, which is appointed by the South African Department of Agriculture, so it is linked to the country's Wine of Origin Scheme which dates back to 1974. "I think they would battle to create a system as rigorous as this one," says Birch. "I can't imagine trying to introduce it now."

South Africa is not resting on its laurels in its sustainability drive. Looking ahead, WOSA has stated that it aims to integrate ethical accreditation into the Sustainability Seal programme. South Africa already accounts for two-thirds of the Fairtrade wine sold in the world. 

Birch says WOSA is aiming for 100% of South African wine production to be certified as ethically produced by independent accreditation organisations such as Fairtrade or the South African multi-stakeholder initiative, the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA). She believes this also puts South Africa in the vanguard. "I can't think of an another agricultural industry in the world that has stood up and said we are going to try and ethically accredit our whole industry."

In addition to the traditionally close links between agriculture and processing that have always existed in the wine sector, another feature that differentiates the wine industry from other alcohol categories is the presence of an established and growing organic sector. The third section of this briefing looks at the growth of the organic wine market and the impact its development has had on environmental sustainability in mainstream viticulture.

For part three, click here. For full details on this briefing, click here.