Doing the right thing: craft beer’s sustainable foundations
The success of US craft brewers over the last two to three decades has been founded not only on the authenticity and quality of the products, but also the sustainability of how they are produced. However, while craft brewers generally have very strong sustainability credentials, this does not appear to be something they tend to articulate deliberately and specifically in their marketing.
Local sourcing and short supply chains, strong community engagement, along with environmental and social awareness are the hallmarks of a more sustainable business model and can be found in abundance in the craft sector. These are not innovations but integral to how the companies were set up and have grown.
As sustainability has become an increasingly important consumer driver, large corporations have sought to embed the practice widely in their businesses, often promoting the idea that sustainability is "in their DNA". But, however much genuine progress giant corporations are making, this is arguably one of the most dubious claims they can make. By contrast, sustainability attributes do appear to be knitted into the way craft brewers operate, making the DNA metaphor an extremely apt one.
How craft brewers practice and communicate about sustainability was the subject of a paper last year by Professor Ellis Jones, professor of sociology & anthropology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Professor Jones' research bore out the impression that craft brewers understate their performance on sustainability. It found that while craft brewers prioritise sustainability in how they do business, they do not communicate externally about this to anywhere near the same degree as their larger competitors.
"Rather than publicly emphasising (or even overselling) their sustainability behaviours, craft beer producers seem quite satisfied engaging in these actions because they are 'the right thing to do'," Ellis writes.
Craft brewers avoid greenwashing but struggle to sell sustainability
One way that this finding was vividly confirmed is particularly telling. The research found that 'greenwash', where sustainability achievements are misrepresented or exaggerated for reputational advantage, is a problem within the wider brewing sector, but is unheard of in craft brewing.
As Jones found: "It became clear that there were no cases of greenwashing mentioned because, in large part, craft brewers are not actively marketing their sustainability efforts at all. It seems that craft brewers are avoiding the possibility of overselling their efforts in the area of sustainability by not making green claims to begin with."
With a slight air of bemusement, he asks: "What is the opposite of greenwash?"
Avoiding comparisons with their multinational competitors is one of five primary factors discouraging craft brewers from overt communication about sustainability
Professor Jones' research points to a further nuance relating to sustainability reporting trends that may put craft brewers at a disadvantage. As consumers increasingly assess products on sustainability criteria, comparisons can be made between the performance of different companies, but these tend to be more straightforward in relation to established, quantifiable metrics, for example in relation to carbon and water efficiency. These areas, Ellis posits, are where large corporations have some natural advantages, notably in relation to economies of scale. They also tend to be the areas where larger companies have focused their efforts.
By contrast, less easily quantifiable attributes defining how sustainable a company is, tend to be those where craft brewers have natural strengths.
With regard to progress on these quantifiable metrics, "Big Beer may be winning hands down", Ellis writes, but craft brewers "have more to offer" in less easily quantified areas; "things like commitment, creativity, integrity, diversity and other similarly qualitative components". In fact, Professor Jones asserts that avoiding comparisons with their multinational competitors is one of five primary factors discouraging craft brewers from overt communication about sustainability.