Wine packaging contributes most heavily to the carbon footprint of wine and single-use glass, which accounts for 85% of wine packaging, generates the highest level of emissions relative to other wine packaging types. The packaging format with the lowest level of carbon emissions is bag-in-box, or box wine. Its market share in the United States is less than 10%.
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from greenhouse gas emissions reached 419.39 ppm last year, and the production and distribution of wine represents approximately 1% percent of that total. The United States is also one of the world’s largest emitters of CO2, second only to China.
Global initiatives to reach net-zero emissions no later than 2050 are imperative. More than 300 businesses, including Google, McDonalds and Walmart, are pushing the Biden administration to nearly double the United States’ target for cuts to planet-warming emissions ahead of an April 22, 2021 global summit on climate change.
Science is clear. If we fail to meet these goals, the disruption to economies and societies caused by COVID-19 will pale in comparison to what climate change has in store. Given the wine industry’s reliance on agriculture, taking every step possible to reduce carbon emissions is both practical and pragmatic.
With glass production accounting for approximately 46% of emissions in the life cycle of wine production, utilizing alternatives to glass bottles would profoundly reduce carbon emissions. This quote from the New York Times aptly sums up the potential impact: Switching to a wine in a box for 97% of wines that are made to be consumed within a year would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 2 million tons, or the equivalent of retiring 400,000 cars.
Given its environmental friendliness, why is box wine such a minority in the US marketplace?
One reason can be attributed to a misunderstanding of how to evaluate factors that contribute to environmental impact. Glass’ recyclability is often the primary reason for concluding that glass is environmentally friendly. This rationale does not account for the fact that recyclability is but one small piece in the eco-friendly puzzle.
Glass is incredibly energy intensive to produce and heavy to transport. These negative attributes outweigh the benefits of its recyclability from a carbon emissions standpoint, but these facts are not well understood. Further, recycling policies vary by municipality, thereby creating a complex web of diverse recycling behaviors in the US. Just because a material is recyclable does not mean it winds up being recycled.
A second reason is insufficient education, awareness and promotion of box wine as eco-friendly packaging. A 2020 study conducted by New York University found that products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than those that were not. In more than 90% of the consumer-packaged goods categories, sustainability-marketed products grew faster than their conventional counterparts. Education and marketing campaigns that embellish the positive environmental credentials of box wine have the potential to attract eco-conscious consumers that are a growing market.
A third, more discouraging reason, is the posh image of glass relative to eco-friendlier wine packaging alternatives. Glass equals ‘class’ whereas box wine bears a cheap image. Is the experience of pouring from a glass bottle really more important than the environmental benefit that box wine delivers? Given that glass remains the status quo for wine packaging, it appears to be the case.
Despite a staunch commitment to glass, the industry demonstrates sustainability initiatives on many different levels. Organic practices in the vineyard, solar energy, electric tractors, and technological developments to re-capture CO2 are examples. Though these actions are critically important, they require a high level of investment that not all producers can afford to make.
Allocating a percentage of wine produced for everyday consumption to an environmentally friendly packaging type is an affordable shift that can be more easily deployed.
Given that the majority of retail wine purchases are consumed on the day of purchase and are not intended for the long term aging that glass affords, box wine as the format for this style of wine is painfully logical.
Benefits of box wine are not limited to the environment. The larger format (3L box wine is the equivalent of 4 bottles of wine) is a great example of packaging reduction and is the most resource efficient. Consisting of only cardboard and a bag, the package is very lightweight, which enables considerable transport and storage savings. The bag format minimizes oxygen ingress after opening and results in a shelf life of at least one month, further reducing waste. Across the board reduction in raw materials and weight translates to lower cost, which means a wine of higher quality for less money than an equivalent wine packaged in 750ml glass.
Andrew Winston, one of the most widely read writers on sustainable business in the world, coined the term “heretical innovation”. In the context of a resource-constrained planet, Winston implores us to make large changes to “business as usual”, requiring radically new ways of thinking. For the wine industry, this means acceptance of box wine in place of glass for every day wines.
Yet, in order for consumers to have broader access to quality wine in eco-friendly packaging, it must be produced and made available to the market through distribution channels. With coordination across the supply chain, the wine industry has the power to elevate the image of wines packaged in boxes through the style and quality of wine that it produces and promotes in this format.
With all of the practical and economic benefits of box wine, wider-spread adoption of the format is crucial if the industry wants to be proactive in reducing its emissions. To achieve this requires a shift in mindset and the pursuit of “heretical innovation”.
As Albert Einstein wisely noted, “[t]he world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking”. The wine industry has a social responsibility to reduce its emissions and can do so dramatically by reimagining box wine as chic rather than cheap.
An Article by Melissa Saunders MW:
CEO of Communal Brands