When it comes to drinking, we’re constantly reminded — by the commercials we see and the people we drink with — to “enjoy responsibly.” When it comes to drinking sustainably, enjoying “responsibly” means a lot more than just limiting your in-take; it also means making the best choices for the planet when shopping at the liquor store or ordering at a restaurant or bar.
While there are plenty of ways to minimize your impact when it comes to drinking — such as refusing a straw when you’re out, or recycling your bottles and cans when at home — there’s also a lot that goes into how your favorite wine or beer is made that makes it sustainable or not.
Check out our guide to see what to consider when you’re shopping for wine and beer to know that you’re making the most sustainable choice.
Of course, nearly all alcohol starts with the fermentation of a plant — whether it's a fruit, grain, or something else, but there are few drinks that we associate as closely with its original form as wine. Considering how many grapes need to be harvested when it comes to wine, it’s important to consider the habits the vintner follows when growing the grapes that’ll eventually make its way into your glass.
While sustainable wine production isn’t regulated on a global scale, there are various regional wine groups that offer accreditation to different vineyards based on specific “sustainable” standards that give back to not only the planet, but also the people who help make it happen.
One of the top local groups that monitors sustainable wine production here in the United States is the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance; the areas they address in order to qualify for their “certified sustainable” status as a winemaker in California include “water conservation, energy efficiency, healthy soils, responsible pest management, wildlife habitat protection, solid waste management, strong relationships with employees, neighbors, and communities” and more.
While those are specific to one group in California, all over the world, winemakers are adapting to introduce more sustainable practices. For example, in Bordeaux, France, they’ve introduced bats as a natural way to fight against grape tortix (a moth that promotes the development of rot in grape berries), rather than using pesticides. In Tuscany, Castello Banfi has also utilized practices in their vineyards to make sure they don’t interrupt the natural ecosystem; they’ve since made sure to lower their impact once their product is distributed by introducing a lightweight bottle. By their own estimations, as their website states, “The achieved environmental benefits can be summarized in savings of raw materials amounting to 6,340 tons (6,340,000 kilograms), with savings of energy equivalent to 6,340,000Kgx15MJ/kg = 95,100,000MJ (equal to 26,416,666 KWh). Consequently, the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) decreased.”
Just last year, a study found that the “majority” of beer drinkers were willing to pay more money for sustainable beer — proving to beer makers that even if eco-friendly beer is more expensive to produce, it could pay off in a big way with consumers. And it seems like breweries — both large and small — are taking notice.
While many of the larger companies are introducing efforts to be gentler on the planet (for example, Budweiser now brews with 100 percent wind energy, and Carlsberg introduced a plastic-free six pack), much of the change in the beer industry is coming from small, local breweries.
The Brewers Association works with small, independent craft brewers to make sure they meet certain benchmarks when it comes to sustainability by measuring not only their consumption of resources, but also their impact when it comes to waste, emissions, and more.
One of the ways different beer producers has embraced sustainability is by eliminating food waste; beer is made by extracting the sugars from grain so that yeast can turn it into alcohol and CO2. Many smaller companies have teamed up with local partners in order to turn food that would be wasted into delicious beer.
Kelloggs began giving their “rejected” corn flakes to a local brewery in the United Kingdom so they can make beer, and “Toast Ale” makes their own beer from the rejected crusts and would-be thrown out beer from local bakeries. Doggie Beer Bones takes the opposite approach: They use the excess grain being grown for their beer and create all-natural dog treats.
What you can do when shopping
As with anything, it’s important to do your research before you buy something to make sure you’re buying for a sustainable, ethical brand (though we know it’s tempting to just go with the prettiest or most interesting bottle while perusing the aisles of the liquor store). A quick Google search can show you what your favorite brands are doing to minimize their impact — whether it means installing solar panels, or introducing practices to reduce their water consumption. It’s also important to look at the social impact that the companies have on their community — especially with larger companies, where their actions can have a real impact on the individuals who make their production possible.
While some of the labels and certifications make it easy to find out which brands are more “sustainable” than others, there are a few steps you can take to make sure that your alcohol purchases are generally better for our planet. (While the standards for sustainability are still done on a group-by-group basis, when shopping in the United States, all USDA organic liquor will be marked as such — and the benefits of organic food for the health of both you and the planet are well-documented.)
When possible, buy locally; sure, your favorite beer may be produced states away, and you may have an affinity for French wine — however, transportation and distribution for these products creates significant emissions, which can be avoided if you shop locally for beer and wine. Plus, supporting your local community is always important!
Once you have your alcohol, make sure you recycle or reuse the packaging properly; aluminum beer cans are 100 percent recyclable, and there are tons of ideas on how you can upcycle wine — or any other glass — bottles into interesting decor that decor (that definitely beats the display of empty vodka bottles you used to see at frat parties, I promise). If you’re one to host, you can also make sure you avoid single-use plastic straws and cups when serving.
And remember: Enjoy responsibly — and sustainably!