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Sustainability

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 goes on 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 is maximum entropy, as this is the only point at which physical systems cease to change. However, this endpoint is also death, which is obviously not a condition that living things want to be in. In other words, mutability not only is inherent in life but is also one of its essential preconditions, and it must therefore constitute a positive element of any life-affirming philosophy. Sustainability theorists would of course argue that they do not conceptualize 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 dynamic 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 thus need to move away from transcendentalizing 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 flourishing local systems contribute to 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 external and internal flows of energy and materials. 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 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 fairly with other life forms.

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 a highly 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 or even thousands of years in a dynamic balance with their natural environment. The secret to their success was the acceptance of the environmental constraints with which they were 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 inhabited 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, and we still dream of victory in this struggle, with our fantasies of private residences on Mars and eternal life. However, for the vast majority of humankind, the negative effects of ecosystem degradation 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 and the renewed cultivation of a relationship of reverence and gratitude towards Mother Nature and her gifts. A key element in this rediscovery will be the agricultural practices that we adopt, and 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 and respect for the whole Earth system, 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. TBL provides 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, a large number of these companies in fact practise ‘greenwashing’, in the sense that they recognize 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 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 harm than good. They thereby continue to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, and this negativity is compounded when companies remain subjected to the growth imperative of modern capitalism. If we continue on this path, also known as ‘business as usual’, our social and environmental systems are headed for catastrophic failure, in which case the economic sustainability of even the most resilient company will also be at extreme risk.

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 for their basic material resources 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.

Nested dependencies model

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 weigh both their priorities and the 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. Here the question also arises as to the social fairness of environmental sustainability measures. Those in power typically to protect their own interests and those of their supporters, and this situation can easily lead to a situation where those who would most easily be able to pay the price of environmental sustainability in fact pay far less of their share, and often make no meaningful sacrifices at all. In a business context, a company might have an overall negative impact on the environment, but nevertheless a better ecological bottom line than other companies in the same sector. If that company were to transform its operations to become more environmentally friendly, but in doing so go out of business, it would surrender its market share to even less sustainable operators, whereby the total negative impact of the economic sector on the environment would in fact increase.

Economic sustainability, or resilience, can thus be described as the first goal of any company, but with three important caveats. The first is that its economic raison d’être is only given if it makes a larger contribution than its direct competitors to the social-ecological system in which it is embedded. The second is that this justification ceases to exist as soon as a different type of organization can realize the company’s mission in a more sustainable way. For example, if individual wine producers were able to organize their direct sales in a way that provided at least the same Total Quality Experience to the end-consumers as that created in the producer-reseller system, and with a greater level of sustainability, this market disruption would remove the rationale for the continued existence of the reseller. The third condition is that the company permanently strives to further increase its socio-ecological contribution, and not only as far as is necessary for the realization of a certain economic resilience.

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 must not only do more good than harm, as put forward in another sustainability-oriented business model called Net Positive, but do as much good as it possibly can, what might be called Maximum Net Positive. This is a radical extension of the model, as it means that the stakeholders who are able to extract resources from the company, whether they be financiers, shareholders, managers, or employees, will only take 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. 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 a post-growth orientation, but also towards potentially massive increases in overall human well-being. This is the broader implication 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 realized 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 is described in the separate section on equitability. The paragraphs below thus address the areas of economic and environmental sustainability.

Economic 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:

1. Products with high intrinsic and extrinsic quality, including the environmental and social quality that consumers increasingly demand

2. 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 countries

3. Strong and durable relationships with our suppliers

4. Fair prices

5. Excellent service

6. High levels of fulfilment for our employees in order to ensure their motivation and performance

7. Efficient processes that do not compromise our social and environmental values

8. A strong commitment to and steady progress along the sustainability journey through both the implementation of sustainability strategies and the constant acquisition of knowledge

9. Effective marketing of our company culture and our products

Environmental Sustainability
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 minimize our emissions footprint in our own activities, to promote emissions-reducing policies among our partners and providers, and to offset at least three times 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 triple it, giving a compensation of 6 kg CO2 equivalent per 750ml bottle. The amount of CO2 equivalent associated with our activities in the year to date can be found on the homepage of this website, as can the certificates for the CO2 equivalent that we have compensated. These certificates are bought from Gold Standard, the leading provider of offsets for individuals and small to medium-sized companies. We choose Gold Standard projects that generate both environmental and social value, we place a particular emphasis on the long-term security of the off-sets, and we purchase off-sets in several projects to reduce the risk to our off-set strategy from failed projects, for example through a forest fire that releases green-houses back into the atmosphere. In this way, our customers can be confident that they are 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 account for around 40% of the entire carbon footprint in the wine value chain, and for an even higher percentage where producers have a smaller than average footprint in the vineyard and the winery. 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 work with our partners to minimize this problem, firstly through the use of low-resource bulk 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 Heroes and Infomaniak, we have a negative IT carbon footprint, and we further minimize it by purchasing no new 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 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 repackaging and transport logistics. Our parcel partners, UPS and Swiss Post, deliver all parcels carbon neutral, but this is only a start. However, we are addressing emissions challenges with our partners in this field, and we will report on our progress in this area 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 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 product list 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 also confident that in this area significant improvements can be made. We are also committed to reporting our progress in this area.

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