Why craft brewers must turn up their ethical volume

Craft brewers are far from immune from the challenging conditions in the US beer sector. Strong sustainability credentials might be expected to bolster craft brewers but, Ben Cooper writes, craft brewers are underplaying their sustainability profile.

The merger of Boston Beer Co and fellow craft brewer Dogfish Head Brewery in May proved a compelling subject of discussion in the drinks industry. The $300m all-paper deal may be small beer in multinational terms but, for the craft sector, it is hefty, uniting the second and thirteenth-largest US craft brewers.

However, in a way that mirrors what the craft sector has consistently done over the years, this deal punches above its weight in its broader significance, speaking to trends affecting both the craft and mainstream US beer markets as well as brewers large and small.

As successful as craft brewers have been, the need for Boston Beer, one of the pioneers of the craft beer movement, to seek this merger underlines that they are not immune from the challenging conditions in the US beer market. While this is a pragmatic response to some tough commercial realities, Jim Koch and Sam Calagione, the respective founders and leaders of the two companies, speak effusively of shared "passion", and of standing "shoulder to shoulder" for many years in their concerted efforts to establish the craft sector. When announcing a merger, companies often speak of shared values. This is what people expect to hear and hope to be true. In craft beer, such sentiment is likely to be founded in reality and intrinsic to the deal.

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.

Craft brewing sowed the seeds for conscious consumerism

On one level, underplaying a key strength might be seen as a charming foible. In today's world of fake news, spin and PR, where the people and the companies making the most noise tend to get the most attention - even if undeserved - this apparent modesty and ideological integrity should be loudly applauded.

However, in such straitened times, it may increasingly be seen as a failing and a luxury the sector can no longer afford. A key point of difference is being under-exploited and an opportunity to communicate an inherent difference between craft brewers and the mainstream is being squandered.

As consumers of all ages are setting more store by sustainability, this is no time to be a shrinking violet

In common with the growth of Fairtrade and organic produce, the expansion of the craft brewing sector can be seen as sowing the seeds for the pronounced trend towards conscious consumerism being seen today. Most certainly ahead of the curve, the likes of Boston Beer and Dogfish Head, founded in 1984 and 1994 respectively, had been producing the beers millennial consumers would want to drink long before they were legally allowed to do so.

As the youngest of the millennial generation reach legal drinking age, craft beers should be well placed. Of course, millennials are drinking less alcohol than previous generations, but the "drinking less than our parents, but better" mindset also plays well for craft brewers.

As consumers of all ages - and consequently brands - are setting more store by sustainability, this is no time to be a shrinking violet.

This article originally appeared on just-drinks.

Share this article