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Can Eco-friendly Packaging Solve the Spirit Industry’s Sustainability Problem?

The floor was packed at BarConvent Brooklyn, a spirits industry trade show, but no one stopped at the ecoSPIRITS booth. I stood off to the side and watched a constant flow of bartenders, sales reps and journalists glance and then walk past the rectangular metal containers, no match for the seductive flavors within the bottles, bottles everywhere—the very vessels ecoSPIRITS seeks to replace with refillable containers that hold the equivalent of several bottles.

The spirits industry has a sustainability problem. While so many brands earnestly preach the virtues of supporting the environment by reducing waste, the spirits industry is among the worst in providing anything resembling ecofriendly packaging.

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Compared to the lightweight cans of the beer industry and recyclable glass and natural cork employed by winemakers, spirits producers seem to revel in extraneous packaging. This is emphasized for me regularly, every time I open a package that resembles a set of eco-hostile nested dolls: say, a giant box containing a load of non-recyclable Styrofoam packing peanuts, a heavy, fabric-lined wooden box nestled within, enclosing a doorstopper of a whiskey bottle topped with a decorative metal closure that could double as a blunt weapon.

On average, 20–40% of a spirit’s carbon footprint is attributed to its packaging, according to data collected by the International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC), a U.K.-based group that includes an “eco-friendly” category in its annual design awards—although in 2022, the judges deemed the pool of entrants in that category to be “disappointingly small.” (The winner: canned sangria from Spain’s Pulpoloco.)

“Within the spirits industry in particular, there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” IWSC judge Sarah Miller wrote in a recent brief. Further, “there is a risk some less scrupulous producers may play into consumer confusion in an attempt to greenwash the liquid within their bottles.”

What are the roadblocks? H. Joseph Ehrmann, proprietor of San Francisco’s Elixir, which in 2006 became the first certified green bar in America, blames archaic regulations left over from Prohibition. “Our system is very complicated,” he says. For example, Ehrmann is an early adopter of ecoSPIRITS, but notes that U.S. liquor laws restrict the container size to 1.75 liters, while containers can be much larger in other countries. “But at least we’re moving in the right direction.”

Another hurdle: Consumers—and retailers—love those fancy gift boxes. Particularly for high-end spirits, “the packaging is part of the product,” says Andy Battjes, Director of Global Environmental Sustainability for Brown-Forman. “Consumers have an expectation that the packaging reflects the premium price.”

But perhaps the biggest challenge: It’s not fun. For an industry built around partying, relaxing and entertaining, talking about sustainability still feels like persuading kids to eat their vegetables.

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That said, there are some glimmers of hope in the industry: advances in paper bottles (see: Distillery 98’s Half Shell Vodka, in a bottle made from recycled paperboard), recycled glass bottles (a personal favorite: La Gritona Tequila, in flasks hand-blown from recycled Mexican Coke bottles), lighter metal containers (credit to Stillhouse, and its corn whiskey in bright-red stainless steel cans) and even the occasional bag-in-box situation for spirits (B Square Vodka) and RTD cocktails.

But the scene at BCB proves a point: Sustainable packaging isn’t as alluring as making or consuming drinks. Until better-for-the-environment packaging options become easy—and maybe even fun—to use, everyone’s just going to keep right on walking by.

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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