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Spotlighting social sustainability policies

When it comes to green claims, it’s often sustainability factors that are in the spotlight. But what about business policies that affect people, both internally and in supply chains?

The UN defines social sustainability as “identifying and managing business impacts on people”

*This feature was first published in the December issue of The Spirits Business magazine.

Going green is more talked‐about than ever. Big corporations publish annual targets with carbon emissions and wateruse metrics, and are relatively transparent about progress. And this is critical. Climate breakdown is real, it’s happening, and spirits makers have a responsibility to address this. But sustainability isn’t a single‐issue journey.

Ask the same businesses questions on social sustainability beyond the fluffy feel‐good, and it’s much trickier to get meaningful answers.

Has the spirits industry overlooked its social sustainability obligations? Let’s start by defining ‘social sustainability’.

According to the UN, it’s about “identifying and managing business impacts, both positive and negative, on people”. Alongside environmental performance, it’s a core pillar of B Corp certification.

And the very concept of ‘sustainability’ is widely considered to have three parts: economic, environmental, and social. For businesses to be truly sustainable, social must be held in equal regard.

“We believe in co‐operation between actors and collective strength to address these challenges,” says Fanny Chtromberg, international director at Cointreau.

“Our approach involves our entire house, as well as our stakeholders, customers, suppliers and consumers.”

Whose role is it anyway?

Yet, despite its significance, social sustainability remains overlooked.

“I don’t think that the sustainability message, or the sustainability narrative that plays out in the public press, really touches on people at all,” acknowledges Bruichladdich CEO Douglas Taylor.

“It comes under mental health. It comes under health and wellbeing. But I don’t think people see it as sustainability.” For others, there’s a debate over whether companies should have a role to play at all.

“I think it would be a good thing if all businesses did give back… but there’s no law that says they have to,” muses Annabel Thomas, CEO and founder at Scotland’s Nc’nean Distillery. “Also, that is kind of the job of the government.”

She makes the case that for big players, paying taxes is their way of providing sustainably.

“I think on a smaller scale, like where we are, you can’t really operate in a small community without giving back and being involved in it as a business. It just doesn’t work.”

Taylor, however, has a different view.

“One of the things that I’ve started to understand more and more over the past six or seven years is there’s a genuine feeling out there from consumers that brands can do more, and will do more than governments to cause social and environmental change.”

Wellbeing at work

Tapping into Taylor’s theory, let’s start with wellbeing and mental health.

Most spirits companies in this feature offer employees flexible working and access to private healthcare as standard.

What that looks like in practice depends on the role in the business (as noted by some, if you work in distilling, it’s very difficult to just leave mid-run).

Geography also plays a role: the need for healthcare as a benefit is more urgent in countries such as the US than the UK. Paying a living wage should also be a given.

“All Edrington employees in the UK are paid above living wage, including interns, apprentices, members of our graduate schemes, and temporary employees,” states corporate affairs director Lindsay McGarvie, adding that no employees are on zero‐hour contracts.

After lockdowns, when working from home became the default for many, Irish Distillers gathered feedback on how employees wanted to operate.

The ‘Smarter Working’ hybrid policy was born.

“This model allows us to reimagine when, where, and how we work, with resources aimed at empowering our people to work smarter,” explains Tamsin Trevarthen, head of culture and capability.

A big part of this is providing ‘digital wellbeing’ workshops to help staff develop more positive ‘tech habits’. Many others have hosted similar sessions, and provided access to activities such as yoga.

But others are going beyond. Bruichladdich’s Taylor gives examples of the business ensuring struggling employees had access to professional mental health support by directly funding it.

The company also introduced an annual £3,000 (US$3,572) allowance for Islay‐based employees, an acknowledgement of not just the cost‐of-living crisis, but also that life is just more expensive in rural communities.

LVMH, parent group of Moët Hennessy, has put €30 million (US$31m) into a global assistance programme.

“The mental and physical health of our employees is crucial,” says Sandrine Sommer, chief sustainability officer at Moët Hennessy.

“The mission of the programme is to help them cope with both critical personal situations and other everyday issues.”

The most radical wellbeing support example I found came from outside spirits.

Last year, advertising behemoth Publicis Groupe, through its Égalité LGBTQIA+ network, introduced a set of Transition & Employee Support Guidelines for trans and non‐binary employees.

Policies included providing access to healthcare for transitioning staff.

It is worth noting that UK NHS waiting times for a first consultation with a gender specialist are close to 10 years.

Affirming minority groups

“Creating a fully inclusive and diverse workplace means initiating conversations, advocating for awareness and being an ally on topics that may sometimes feel challenging for us,” Irish Distillers’ Trevarthen asserts.

And it’s true: inclusion is at the heart of every social sustainability policy I read when researching this piece. What is inconsistent is how ‘inclusion’ is interpreted – and who is often excluded.

At Diageo, where inclusion and diversity is overseen by global director Caroline Rhodes, employee resource groups, or ERGs, are active in the 200 markets Diageo is present in.

These in‐house organisations include the Rainbow Network for LGBTQIA+ folks, We Are Able, which advocates for people with disabilities, and Ahead, an acronym for African Heritage Employees at Diageo.

Nc’nean: giving back to community

“We’re committed to creating the most inclusive and diverse culture, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because we believe this commitment allows us to recruit and retain the best employees, achieve better business performance, and have a greater impact on society,” says Rhodes.

“Progress requires both ambition and action, which is why we’ve set bold inclusion and diversity representation goals for female leaders, and those from ethnically diverse backgrounds.”

Today, 45% of the board are ethnically diverse, and 64% are women.

Pernod Ricard is also looking inward to affirm minority groups. In February, the business launched an initiative called Fluid.

“It’s an ongoing platform to educate teams about the gender spectrum, and provide a safe space,” says Sandrine Ricard, deputy director of sustainability and responsibility, Pernod Ricard in the UK.

“We also launched the Chivas Brothers Diversity & Inclusion Council to help us address this topic even more effectively.”

And support for parents – such as Edrington’s six‐month, fully paid parental leave, and Bruichladdich’s coaching programme for parents returning to work – have a vital part to play in enabling women to progress in their careers.

In the same way, unconscious bias training, often cited in these interviews, and taking names off CVs when recruiting, will ultimately result in more diverse teams.

But much more needs to be done to support minority groups into workplaces, and affirm them once they are there. Having policies that only extend to women isn’t enough.

With 10 years in hospitality under his belt, Liam Holyoak‐Rackal is now a mentor through Be Inclusive Hospitality, a non‐profit working to accelerate race equity in the industry.

He’s not the only one that’s identified mentorship as a meaningful way to promote a more diverse sector.

Becky Paskin founded the Our Whisky Foundation in March 2022 to promote gender equality in the whisky workforce. Part of that activity is a mentorship scheme for women.

“We’ve had plenty of applicants who are Millennials and above,” she says. “They all say a similar thing, which is they’re not quite sure what the next step is.

“They don’t know what careers are available in the industry, they’re not confident to find out that kind of information, and they don’t know what to do next.”

By connecting applicants with mentors, the vision is that women and non‐binary folks will thrive.

“It’s supporting them in growing their confidence, finding their voice and being able to pursue a career they ultimately love.”

Pernod Ricard has launched Fluid, a platform to educate teams about the gender spectrum

What will be your core sustainable focus in 2023 and why?

Mauricio Solórzano – senior ambassador, Flor de Caña “On one hand, we will continue working with our partners, like Bonsucro, Fair Trade USA, and the Carbon Trust, to maximise our sustainability efforts throughout our entire production chain, fromfield to bottle. On the other hand, we will expand our programmes to support the global trade and the bartending community in adopting meaningful sustainable practices in their everyday operations.”

Chiara Pennacchio – global marketing director, Ron Barceló “By the nature of our agriculturally based products, the careful stewardship of the environment and natural resources is essential for the distilled spirits industry. Sustainable environmental practices are critical to the continual production of high‐quality products that spirits consumers enjoy.

“Our core sustainable focus in 2023 will be to continue to build on the momentum we’ve created over the past 10 years by elevating the concept of sustainability to its broadest meaning: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

“Sustainability is not just about producing a product that is eco‐friendly. It is also about building a company culture that supports long‐term growth while ensuring the success of all stakeholders involved – employees, shareholders, customers, and the environment.

“Sustainable environmental practices, engaging employees, creating a culture of caring, and using technology wisely; we believe these are all necessary steps in making the business more sustainable and profitable, and in ensuring that our products continue to be sold responsibly around the world.”

Community focus

At the heart of all mentor‐mentee relationships is community – and ultimately, community needs to thrive for social sustainability measures to be successful.

Many spirits producers are located in remote places – and this is something Nc’nean’s Thomas is acutely aware of.

“It’s been part of our aim, from the beginning, to create skilled, sustainable, long‐term jobs in a very remote community,” she says.

The team now stands at 10 full‐time people, in a village with around 50 houses.

As well as driving revenue into the locality – and ensuring younger people don’t leave, meaning there’s demand for schools and other local services – Thomas has been involved in bringing broadband to the community.

“For thefirst year we didn’t have broadband,” she recalls. “We had satellite internet. We couldn’t download updates to Microsoft Windows, because it would use all of our data for the month.”

Now the whole community has access to vastly improved connectivity, which brings all manner of benefits.

Walk the walk: Johnnie Walker owner Diageo has 200 employee resource groups in place

Brighton Gin is another small producer taking its community links seriously.

Founder and managing director Kathy Caton is adamant the distillery must have a positive impact.

“We need to do everything we can to look after our community first,” she explains.

“Our little team actually represents every letter of the LGBTQ acronym.” As such, all profits from the annual Pride Edition go to the city’s Rainbow Fund.

“We have to support them because they’re the grant‐giving organisation that looks after grassroots queer organisations around town,” she affirms. They also partner with local artists on the bottle design.

She also shares her take as a small business that simply doesn’t have that much money to invest in the community.

“There’s also real practical action,” she says. She’s active in the Equal Measures network, which promotes diversity in drinks, and donates time – and her speaking fees – to the Sussex Wildlife Trust. Change can come from invested skills as well as money.

Businesses that can share financial resources can look to Chivas Brothers.

Launched in 2014, Chivas Venture is a global programme that donates “no‐strings attached” cash to small, local social entrepreneurs.

“It has evolved from an annual competition to a platform that supports and champions grassroots community initiatives, run by the go‐getters of the world who are passionate about making positive, lasting social change.” explains Ricard.

So far, more than US$6 million has been awarded to 142 social entrepreneurs whose collective activity is estimated to have reached 3.3 million people globally.

“We’re aiming to triple this by 2030 and change the lives of more than six million people.”

Another firm investing in local artisans is Clase Azul.

Fully Mexican owned and operated, the Tequila maker provides funding and education for young creators through its Fundación con Causa Azul body.

As well as employing them to hand‐make and handpaint decanters, the Fundación provides two meals a day and school tuition fees; 80% of the artisans are women from deprived backgrounds.

Iván Ruezga, Clase Azul’s chief people officer, says the programme has helped revitalise the local economy.

Has the spirits industry forgotten about social sustainability? Ultimately, no – but meaningful progress is slow.

Debates continue around whether so‐called ‘positive discrimination’, such as recruitment quotas, is needed. Others discuss representation in marketing.

What’s certainly required is good‐quality data, investment, and a will from those at the very top of the business to listen and learn.

“Interesting times are upon us all at the moment,” Brighton Gin’s Caton says. “When the going gets tough, which at the moment is pretty much across the board, thefirst casualty is around making change. But I’d like people to see that actually, by valuing diversity and social capital, you make your organisation more resilient.”

An Instagram post that summed it up best on this year’s Trans Day of Remembrance simply read ‘Equal rights for others does not mean less rights for you. It’s not pie.’ This may be only one facet of social sustainability, but it’s a call to action.

Or as Bruichladdich’s Taylor puts it: “We are more than just the makers and sellers of single malt Scotch whisky and premium gin. We stand for something bigger.”

In December, the drinks business published the winners of The Green Awards 2022.

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