What is sustainability?
“In the long run we are all dead.” John Maynard Keynes’ famous quotation was intended as a wakeup call to politicians in the 1920s who placed a Panglossian faith in supposed long-term, automatic corrective mechanisms in the economy, urging them to take positive action during the storm, rather than simply waiting for the supposedly natural and therefore best possible equilibrium that follows it. Keynes’ message is also salutary for modern-day economic actors and policy makers, but for a quite different reason, as it points to the limits of the current focus, at least in progressive circles, on sustainable economic practices, and especially to the utopian notion of permanent conservation that popular definitions of sustainability tend to foster. Keynes reminds us that nothing that is created lasts forever, and thereby points us back to the fundamental truth, also embodied in wine, that all things are in flux, and that no thing remains unchanged.
If we define sustainability as permanence, the logical endpoint of this idea, at least in our particular universe, is maximum entropy, as this is the only point at which physical systems cease to change. However, this endpoint is also death. In other words, mutability not only is inherent in life but is also its essential precondition, and it must therefore constitute a positive element of any life-affirming philosophy. Sustainability theorists would of course argue that they do not conceptualise sustainability in eternalizing and thus quasi-religious terms. However, this fundamental mindset is deeply anchored in Western thought, and sustainability discourse, especially in popular and social media, is often infused with it. One specific expression of this tendency is the focus on “conservation”, and especially the conservation of “iconic” species in which humans have a large emotional investment. This can lead to the application of huge amounts of resources to the preservation of one element of a larger ecosystem but a neglect of the ecosystem as a whole. Melinda Benson and Robin Craig also provide a critique of such notions when they argue that the reality of rapid, non-linear, and irreversible change in the Anthropocene requires us to abandon unattainable and indeed undefinable “sustainability” goals and to focus our energies on building resilience in the increasingly volatile and unpredictable systems and networks that we are embedded in. Benson and Craig are undoubtedly justified in urging us to renounce targets in those cases where they are both impossible to reliably quantify and already irretrievably out of reach, and at the same time to accept the unavoidable reality of change and the disruption and uncertainty that it brings. However, the notion of resilience, with its focus on the best possible management of local systems in a chaotic global context, can easily lead to a drawbridge mentality that produces competition and exclusion, rather than cooperation and connection. Furthermore, its tendency to relative short-sightedness, in geographical, political, and chronological terms, puts the supposedly resilient local system at risk of falling victim to larger, more global volatilities that could perhaps in fact have been sufficiently dampened with a broader definition of resilience and a more wide-ranging approach to its realization.
We therefore need to move away from transcendentalising or simply unrealistic notions of sustainability without slipping into a parochial resilience mindset. We are part of a limited and ultimately temporary planetary system, but this does not give us licence to think only in terms of our immediate environment and our short lifespans. Rather, we need to find a mode of living, whether we call it sustainability or resilience, in which local systems not only flourish but also, where possible, contribute to, and at the least do not significantly diminish, the well-being of the larger networks on which these smaller entities depend. The good news is that the model for this mode of living already exists, in natural systems that possess the ability to sustain themselves over relatively long periods of time in a dynamic equilibrium through the self-regulation of the flow of energy and materials both inside the system and between the system and its external environment. The technical term for this dynamic equilibrium is homeostasis, and it is a fundamental, evolved characteristic of both biological organisms and the ecosystems that they inhabit. In other words, sustainability, when it is understood as homeostasis, is not an impossible utopia, but rather quite literally the natural state of things. Indeed, the long-term sustainability of the planetary ecosystem is probably not fundamentally challenged by the Anthropocene. Massive planetary disruptions and their accompanying mass extinctions have occurred on at least five previous occasions in the earth’s history, and on each occasion the biosphere recovered from these setbacks. This knowledge provides at least some comfort for those who suffer from feelings of grief and loss in the current environmental crisis. Homo sapiens might have no long-term future on Earth, but other species almost certainly do, and the biosphere as a whole will be in far better health when humans either no longer exist or have made the painful transition to sharing the planet responsibly with other lifeforms.
Sustainability thus requires an holistic perspective that takes into account not only the narrow sphere of activity of a specific person, company, or community, but also the much wider natural and social network in which these entities are embedded. Furthermore, the pursuit of sustainability is not only a conservative process, but also a creative one, in the sense of both innovation and the active recovery of previous states. The latter is especially important in modern societies, marked as they are by widespread environmental and also social degradation. However, restoration is to a significant extent dependent on the preservation of the memory of what has been lost. Without this cultural record, the degraded condition, in spite of its inferior ability to support both humans and other species, is perceived as normal and might even be assigned a positive value as a sustainable benchmark against which future changes should be measured. This type of benchmarking is in fact very common, for example in the populations of fish species, where definitions of sustainable numbers are often based on the already massively depleted stock levels in the second half of the twentieth century. Such levels might indeed be sustainable, in the sense that they are sufficient to ensure the survival of the populations, but they are a very long way below the richness of life that the sea once supported. Their elevation to a positive benchmark in fact represents an unreasonably anthropocentric view of sustainability, according to which humans not only take precedence in the appropriation of resources from the ecosystem, but also claim the right to a massively lopsided share of those resources, thereby impoverishing the system as a whole.
Sustainability thus involves looking both forwards and backwards, and it is therefore deeply connected with tradition. However, this connection should come as no surprise, as our oldest traditions are the ones that coevolved in a dynamic balance with the flora and fauna of the regions that we inhabited. In these ancient cultures, representatives of which can still be found in indigenous peoples such as the Australian aborigines and the Southern African San, but also in agricultural societies such as that of the Ladakhi in the Himalayas, human populations lived for hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of years in a dynamic balance with their natural environment. The secret to their success was and still is the acceptance of the environmental constraints with which they are faced, a focus on the well-being of the social group, and a lack or even conscious renunciation of technologies capable of introducing enough volatility into the ecosystem that they inhabit to push it out of equilibrium and ultimately cause it to either collapse or reset at a degraded level.
Modern societies have forgotten these lessons, and as a result the systems that we are living in are very far from equilibrium and spiralling further out of control. Through our individualistic and technological hubris, we have turned the ecological and social systems that support us into adversaries to be overcome. The result of this egocentric and materialistic model of personal and cultural development is a civilizational crisis whose negative effects on the vast majority of humankind will be severe and possibly also very swift. The urgent responsibility of all human actors, and especially those in positions of privilege, is thus to do everything in their power to dampen the inevitable shock of adjustment and to map a path for the following period. This path will be based on the acceptance of planetary limits, the renewed cultivation of a relationship of reverence and gratitude towards Mother Nature and her gifts, and a radical commitment to social justice. It will thus in important ways be a return to a worldview that we have largely forgotten, and a key element in this rediscovery will be the agricultural practices that we adopt. In this respect far-sighted winemakers can and indeed already do play a pioneering role. Our aim is to participate in and promote this return to a flourishing dynamic equilibrium, by sourcing wines that are made with humility towards and respect for the environment and our fellow humans, and by embedding this same respect in all of our company’s activities.
Sustainability in business
Sustainability therefore requires the acceptance of a very wide range of responsibilities and associated practices, and businesses, with their traditional focus on the narrow path of their own future development, have been historically ill-equipped to respond adequately to this challenge. However, in recent years a number of approaches to solving this problem have been developed. One of these is the so-called Triple Bottom Line (TBL) of profit, people, and planet, which is derived from the three-pillar model of economic, social, and environmental sustainability. This model is typically represented by the following Venn diagram, which posits sustainability as only arising when all the requirements of all three pillars of sustainability are fulfilled.
The aim of the TBL is to provide companies with a framework to define, describe, and thereby manage the economic, social, and environmental impact of their activities. According to the TBL, a company should generate not only economic value through the creation of marketable goods and/or services, but also social and environmental value, in the sense of a positive contribution to the well-being of the human communities and of the natural environment with which it interacts. Various accounting metrics have been developed to quantify these three dimensions, the most important of which are the standards elaborated by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).
An increasing number of companies apply the principles of TBL in their business activities and communicate their progress in this area in the form of sustainability reporting. However, there are also a large number of companies who practise “greenwashing”, in the sense that they recognise the need to appear concerned about social and environmental issues, but are primarily interested in their financial bottom line, and only engage in activities with a positive social and environmental impact to the extent that these contribute to the maximization of shareholder value. This philosophy of “profit first” can easily lead to a PR-based, minimum-cost approach to social and environmental sustainability, whereby the focus is placed on the impression made on stakeholders by the sustainability report, rather than on the real social and environmental impact of the company’s business activities.
Furthermore, even when companies do not overstate their sustainability efforts in their reporting, if their primary emphasis remains on financial success, they are in effect pursuing the narrow demand of economic resilience, rather than the broad requirement of systemic sustainability. This approach undoubtedly appeals to investors, including many who would consider themselves to be guided by sustainability criteria in their investment decisions, but in fact these companies are falling a long way short of what they need to achieve if humanity is to move towards a truly sustainable future. Companies can significantly improve their social and environmental impact, but still be responsible on a global scale for more damage than benefits. Better is not necessarily good, and companies that are only going this far thereby continue to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. This negativity is compounded when companies remain subject to the growth imperative of modern capitalism. If we continue on this path, our social and environmental systems are heading for catastrophic failure, in which case the economic sustainability of even the most resilient company will also be at extreme risk. For these and other reasons, John Elkington, who first formulated the TBL, has called for a rethink of the concept. According to Elkington himself, “the TBL concept has been captured and diluted by accountants and reporting consultants. […] Whereas CEOs, CFOs, and other corporate leaders move heaven and earth to ensure that they hit their profit targets, the same is very rarely true of their people and planet targets. Clearly, the Triple Bottom Line has failed to bury the single bottom line paradigm.”
The most obvious problem with the “profit first” approach to sustainability is that it inverts the logical hierarchy of the categories “profit”, “people”, and “planet”. A natural environment can exist with no human society, but not vice versa, and a society can exist without a specific company, but the opposite is not the case. In other words, companies can only survive in the long-term if the societies in which they operate also continue to thrive, and societies can only continue to thrive if the natural environment that they depend on remains intact. This hierarchy is reflected in the nested dependencies model of sustainability. In this model, the economy is embedded in society, and society is embedded in the environment.
As the basis for both society and the economy, the environment is assigned the highest value in this paradigm. Society is then accorded the second rank, while the economy, as the sphere with the greatest dependency, is rated the lowest. The implication of this hierarchy is that people should first of all consider the environmental consequences of their actions, secondly their social impact, and only thirdly their economic effects. However, this is not to say that immediate environmental benefits should always be maximized at the expense of social and economic interests. Rather, responsible individuals and organizations must consider not only their own goals, but also the possible collateral impacts of their options for action. The decisions that arise from this deliberative process thus necessarily possess a pragmatic aspect. If, for example, environmental legislation causes social unrest that in turn paves the way for an environmentally unfriendly government, this legislation might need to be amended or at least promoted in a different way. Similarly, a specific environmental or social reform might have a negative economic impact that affects either people in powerful positions, who might then act to ensure that the reform fails or is not extended in the future, or people who are already in a precarious economic position and who might then be forced into poverty and/or use their power, for example at the ballot box, to ensure that such reforms are not pursued by a future government. In both cases the risk of a populist backlash is obvious, one that combines the forces of less powerful citizens who are aggrieved at the reform process and more powerful citizens who see their personal interests threatened by it. In other words, a reform process could lead to the opposite of what the reform intended to achieve, and a similar dilemma arises in the business context, where a company might transform its operations to become more socially just and environmentally friendly, but in doing so go out of business, thereby surrendering its market share to even less sustainable operators. As such, the total negative impact of this business sector on society and the environment would in fact increase.
The first goal of any company is thus in fact economic sustainability, or resilience, but this aim comes with four important caveats. The first is that the company is engaged in an activity that is in itself ethically acceptable. This is certainly a relevant question for wine producers and resellers, as companies that produce and sell alcoholic drinks are often classified with tobacco, gambling, and weapons companies as “sin stocks”. The second caveat is that a company’s economic raison d’être is only given if it makes a larger contribution than its direct competitors to the socio-ecological system in which it is embedded. The third is that this justification ceases to exist as soon as a different type of organization can realise the company’s mission in a more sustainable way. For example, if individual wine producers were able to organise their direct sales in a way that benefited them, added environmental value, and provided at least the same Total Quality Experience to the end-consumers as that created in the producer-reseller system, this market disruption would remove the rationale for the continued existence of the reseller. The fourth requirement is that the company permanently strives to maximise its socio-ecological contribution, rather than its financial performance.
Therefore, the longer-term goal of any company that is serious about sustainability must be to survive economically (and this is no mean feat in the current capitalist system) while making as positive an impact as possible in social and environmental terms. As such, the company should strive not merely to do more good than harm, as put forward in another sustainability-oriented business model called Net Positive, but to do as much good as it possibly can, what might be called Maximum Net Positive. This is a radical extension of the Net Positive model, because it requires that the stakeholders who are able to extract resources from the company, whether they be financiers, shareholders, managers, or employees, take only as much as is needed to contribute to their attainment of a modest level of material affluence. The rest will be put towards the higher goals of creating social and environmental value, whether through the products offered by the company or the investment of profits in external social and ecological projects. Maximum Net Positive insists that it is not enough for the beneficiaries of the current economic system to return a portion of their gains to the pot that they drew them from. As Ricardo Semmler says, “if you’re giving back, you took too much”. A much more radical approach is needed if we are to develop sustainable societies, one that entails a move towards an economy based on low material consumption, high circularity, low income inequality, and probably a post-growth orientation. However, this shift also offers potentially massive increases in overall human well-being. These are the broader implications of a Maximum Net Positive strategy. It might indeed be utopian in global terms, given the strength of the destructive dynamics of our current capitalist system, but it can nevertheless be realised on the level of individual companies – as a model for others to follow, a shout of defiance, and an expression of hope. This is our goal.
Our sustainability commitment
Our approach to social sustainability, including the ethical status of the production and sale of wine, is described in the separate section on Equitability. The paragraphs below thus address the areas of economic and environmental sustainability.
Following the logic of the text above, we do not presume that our company will always have a role to play in the wine value chain. As long as we do, however, we seek to ensure our economic sustainability through the following strategies:
- Products with high intrinsic and extrinsic quality, including the environmental and social quality that consumers increasingly demand.
- A focus on regional producers, and thus resilience against supply-chain shocks, without excluding the possibility of mutually beneficial and environmentally and socially responsible relationships with producers in distant regions.
- Strong and durable relationships with our suppliers.
- Fair prices.
- Excellent service in both online and offline customer interactions.
- High levels of fulfilment for our employees in order to ensure their motivation and performance.
- Efficient processes that do not compromise our social and environmental values.
- A strong commitment to and steady progress along the sustainability journey through both the implementation of sustainability strategies and the constant acquisition of knowledge.
- Effective marketing of our company culture and our products.
As noted above, we are in the middle of a multifaceted environmental crisis that threatens the long-term survival of every society on our planet. It is thus not enough to identify and address local, private areas of ecological interest, just as it is pointless to spray one’s own apartment with a garden hose when the whole housing block is on fire. In this emergency situation, we simply have to do as much as we can to repair the damage that has already been done, and to prevent further damage in the future.
The first environmental commitment of every company must therefore be to be at least carbon neutral in its activities, and preferably carbon negative. Our aim in this respect is to minimise our emissions footprint in our own activities, to promote emissions-reducing policies among our partners and providers, and to offset at least twice the emissions that every bottle of wine we sell produces along the entire value chain. These emissions are not easy to calculate, and different studies have produced figures from around 1 kg to around 3 kg of CO2 equivalent per 750ml bottle. We therefore take the middle term of 2 kg and double it, giving a compensation of 4 kg CO2 equivalent per 750ml bottle. The amount of CO2 equivalent associated with our activities in the previous half year can be found on the homepage of this website, as can the certificates for the CO2 equivalent that we have compensated. However, as many readers will be aware, the voluntary carbon offset sector has been severely criticised in recent times for poor quality control in the projects that they certify. In other words, it is likely that many certificates, including ones from supposedly reputable organisations, provide no real offsets, and are thus in effect worthless. It is therefore imperative that companies who buy offsets make an extra effort to identify high-quality projects, whether through reference to third-party audits or their own research efforts. We are currently reviewing our offsets purchasing policy, and we will report on the results of this review. Our aim is to identify projects that generate both environmental and social value, and that place a particular emphasis on the long-term security of their offsets. We also intend to support several projects in order to reduce the risk to our offset strategy from projects that ultimately fail to live up to their promises. In this way, we hope that our customers will be able to be confident that they are in fact purchasing a carbon negative product when they buy from us.
In addition to ensuring carbon negativity through offsets, we are committed to actively working with our producers and partners to reduce the emissions footprint of our value chain. The production of wine, and especially low-input organic wine, is not emissions intensive in relative terms. However, there are always opportunities for improvement, and we are working together with our producers towards this end. Furthermore, the wine industry as a whole has a problem connected with packaging, and specifically with bottles, the use of which accounts for around 40% of the entire carbon footprint in the wine value chain, and for an even higher percentage where properties have a smaller than average footprint in the vineyard and the winery, as is often the case with organic producers. This is therefore the most important emissions issue to address in the industry, and it is much more important than that of the CO2 produced by fermentation, even if the latter is also worth working on. Our aim is to collaborate with our partners to minimise this problem, firstly through the use of low-resource packaging, where this is feasible and advisable, and secondly through the establishment of bottle reuse programmes. With regard to the latter, what is ultimately needed is a deposit system such as is already in place in Germany for mineral water and beer bottles. Currently the political will for this step, and the willingness in the industry to adopt it, is unfortunately not present. However, we are hopeful that it will come, and we are confident that such a system will ultimately be beneficial to the wine industry as a whole. In the meantime, a major priority of our company is to establish a bottle return system for our customers. We will report on progress in this area in our monthly newsletters.
Our efforts to reduce emissions also involve our secondary suppliers. Thanks to our IT providers, Homepage Hexxer and Infomaniak, we can be reasonably confident that we have a negative IT carbon footprint, and we further reduce it by purchasing only refurbished electronic devices for the business and by keeping our printing activities at the lowest possible level. Our banks, the GLS in Bochum and the the Freie Gemeinschaftsbank in Basel, are leaders in both environmental and social sustainability in their sector. Where we still have a lot of work to do is in the area of packaging and transport. We are therefore addressing emissions challenges with our partners in this field, and we will report on our progress in this field as well.
The second aspect of environmental sustainability that obviously arises in the wine industry is connected with biodiversity and the quality of soil, air, and water that this largely depends on. Most of our producers are certified organic and/or biodynamic, or they are in the process of certification. The rest work according to organic principles. Customers who prefer only to purchase certified wines can use the filter function in our web shop to include only certified producers. However, organic production methods do not eliminate all negative environmental impacts, for example through the use of copper sulphate in the vineyards, or in the environmental opportunity costs represented by the cultivation of vineyards in general. In this respect, we seek dialogue with our producers and collaboration towards long-term improvements in their ecological impacts beyond the requirements imposed by organic and biodynamic regulations.
The final aspect of environmental sustainability concerns the ecological impacts of the activities along the rest of the value chain apart from greenhouse gas emissions. Once again, the aim is to identify, quantify, and reduce or even eliminate negative effects, especially in the areas of packaging and logistics, where the most work needs to be done. As with the collaboration with our producers, we are at the beginning of a long process, but we are equally confident that in this area significant improvements can be made. We are also committed to reporting our progress in this area.