A few decades ago, in a whole different world, many people regarded the folks at Fetzer Vineyards as a group of way-out hippies, extolling far-fetched ideas like “sustainability” and “environmental responsibility.” But things change. The world changes.
These days, Fetzer is a respected industry leader and a superstar in the realm of conscious business. It was one of only five wine companies in the world — and the only one in the United States — to be invited by the United Nations to present at COP21, the Sustainable Innovation Forum on climate change in Paris, at the end of last year.
When founder Barney Fetzer started making wine in 1968, he already had an earth-friendly philosophy and many of his practices didn’t align with “business as usual,” says Josh Prigge, director of regenerative development at Fetzer. “I’m sure some people thought they were a bunch of crazy hippies,” he says, but adds they took pride in their reputation as rebels and just kept doing what they were doing. “Things worked out well. Sustainability is in our DNA,” he says.
Prigge spoke at the business forum of the COP21 conference and shared some techniques and ideas behind Fetzer’s many environmental successes, addressing topics including zero-waste business practices, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the winery’s efforts toward net-positive operations. The panel also included Valentina Lira from Concha y Toro, Jean-Guillaume Prats of Moët Chandon Estates & Wines, Alice Tourbier of Château Smith Haut Lafitte and Robert Eden of Chateau Maris.
According to Prigge, the first step a business needs to take to become more environmentally and socially responsible is to measure everything and get a baseline of what’s going on in the company. “You pay attention to what gets measured, so begin by measuring everything you want to pay attention to,” he says.
Fetzer has been measuring its carbon footprint for years and was the first wine company to publicly report greenhouse gas emissions with the Climate Registry in 2005. Since that time, the company has reduced emissions by 50%, with a goal of becoming carbon neutral in 2016 and net positive by 2030. One of the things that help keep its carbon footprint to a minimum, Prigge says, is that its sustainable farming methods eliminate the need for fossil-fuel-based synthetic chemicals. For example, grazing sheep help with weed control and soil fertilization. And a compost added to the soil is made from the leftover grape skins, stems and seeds from the winery; a practice that also reduces waste. Through a variety of composting and recycling efforts, Fetzer has been able to divert 98.5% of all waste from landfill, another of its key environmental successes.
The company has also shifted to 100 percent clean energy, the first winery in California to do so back in 1999. About one-fifth of its energy is produced by the solar panels that cover 75,000 square feet of rooftop space. The rest is purchased through an energy provider that uses wind turbines exclusively.
Prigge says that, in addition to sharing information and learning from each other at COP21, the highlight was “seeing how many young, enthusiastic people were there — and how much they cared. The younger generation realizes this is the world it’s inheriting and is very proactive when it comes to sustainability.”
One of the upshots of being a conscious business, he adds, is that “you have very loyal consumers. Not only do our consumers want a great-tasting wine, but they also care about our business practices. They will go out of their way to find and buy products that match their values.”
As well as growing a loyal customer base, conscious business practices also help companies attract and keep employees, he adds. “People want to work somewhere where they’re doing good in the world, where they’re making a difference,” he says. When a company is truly committed to creating a better world, employees will stick with it through the long haul.
Some of the best innovations at Fetzer, Prigge continues, came from employees. For example, the director of production took it upon himself to reduce waste in his department and keep it out of landfills. He contacted his vendors and figured out ways to return all the boxes and palettes from deliveries so they could be reused. They also figured out which packaging materials could simply be done away with. Another employee did some research and found a cleaning product for the wine tanks, peracetic acid, which requires less rinsing and saves more than 200,000 gallons of water each year. That, in turn, reduces the amount of energy needed to pump water.
“Everyone is involved, everyone is looking for ways to make things better,” Prigge says. “That’s a part of the culture here.” Judging from the enthusiasm around COP21, it’s perhaps becoming, more and more, part of the business culture everywhere. Someday, this may become “business as usual.”