Consumers in the wine category appear motivated by stories of wine producers doing the right thing by the environment

Increasingly, the airwaves – both verbal and electronic – are awash with a growing lexicon describing health-related and ethical attributes of wine and the wider food / drink categories. Organic, bio-dynamic, natural, vegetarian vegan, plant-based, Fairtrade, sustainability are all words that generate reactions and opinions, but only one or two now seem to directly translate into actions.

My experiences in a recent series of UK interviews with both consumers and leading wine industry professionals brought into sharp focus the ongoing debate about how this whole range of words and expressions translate into conclusions and, most importantly, choosing and buying decisions. The results indicate a shifting towards a clearer health / ethical-related attribute decision roadmap that is beginning to emerge and may well figure more clearly in 2019 and beyond.

‘Sustainable’ is an interesting word as it is widely used, proudly promoted, globally-supported, but yet unspecific. We could ask a hundred consumers or wine industry professionals to express the word in one sentence, and there would be close to a hundred different answers. Each of those answers would have a positive connotation, though, and it is likely to become even more important in many categories of products and services, especially as a choosing cue.

Sustainability seems to succeed as a concept because its meaning is very flexible, and tends to provoke a positive emotive response. Another way of looking at it: who would deliberately choose an ‘unsustainable’ product? Sustainability could be a farm or food product that is preserving the countryside for future generations to enjoy. It could be a water company that is delivers fresh clean water without threatening the future of rivers and lakes and discharges waste water without impacting the future environment. In wine, it could be vineyards that can positively, clearly and honestly talk in consumer language about managing the balance between the vines, other plants, birds and insects, and doing all of this without pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Sustainability could also be a winery that recycles all its water usage into the fresh water ecosystem and is only using wood from oak sources that are fully replaced.

The Achilles’ heel of sustainability is its potential to be abused by corporate propaganda machines. Without a regulatory body or technical definition, some producers might be tempted to tout ethical credentials that are exaggerated or made up completely. Fortunately, the highly wired and sceptical world we now inhabit tends to expose such scams quite quickly, and, if exposed, organisations can have their reputations shredded within hours.

In conclusion, the take-away foresight for 2019 to wine producers and brand owners is: focus on sustainability in all its manifestations, so long as your position is defendable (and, better yet, distinctive as well). Can you demonstrate sustainability in farming and wine production? What about in your supply chain? Can your communications about your sustainability strike a good balance between honest description and smug virtue-signalling? Potentially, ‘sustainability’ offers more profound and enduring benefits to all levels of the wine industry and supply chain than the other words and expressions associated with goodness in wine. ‘Sustainability’, if correctly deployed, can offer sustainable benefits to all responsible wine producers.

 

Author: Brian Howard

 

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