Ethical consumerism is on the rise, and in wine the organic movement is currently making the running. Will other ethical and sustainable trends catch on?
Of the handful of global social trends of the 21st century, ethical consumerism appears to be gaining momentum. Whether it’s renewable energy, sustainable water usage, electric cars, or energy saving lightbulbs, it is increasingly mainstream behaviour. Some of the power of the trend comes from governments making life difficult for the less-than-ethical. In other cases, it is grassroots demand that is driving change.
Amid this macro trend, the wine industry is shaping itself for an increasingly ethical future, driven in part by the supply chain itself (which wants to show its ethical credentials), plus a growing consumer expectation that wine, given its artisanal-agricultural image, ought to be doing its bit for the world’s wellbeing. Yet, as our Global Index of these so-called SOLA wines (Sustainable, Organic, Low alcohol and Alternative) reveals, consumer attitudes – and product opportunities – are not consistent across the board, with some sectors clearly resonating with consumers far more than others.
Wine Intelligence’s SOLA research project surveyed 12,000 consumers in 15 of the world’s key wine markets in 2019, with the sample representing around 250m regular wine drinkers. Taking into account each market’s influence and potential, the SOLA model created a weighted Opportunity Index for each alternative wine style.
The 13 sub-genres measured included ‘green’ or ‘ethical’ styles such as organic, biodynamic and Fairtrade; free-from categories such as vegan or low-alcohol, and more esoteric options such as preservative- or sulphite-free and orange wine.
The data was first compared with a previous wave of data collected 12 months earlier to see if there had been any overall change in interest in ethical wine products. The short answer: yes. Every alternative wine category apart from Fairtrade showed a higher Opportunity Index score for 2019 than in 2018.
What is driving the change? The answer appears to be younger consumers. Consistently across the participating countries, drinkers under the age of 35 showed an openness and interest in alternative wine styles, while older (over 55) drinkers were less receptive. It turns out that younger drinkers are particularly attracted to products that are seen as ‘healthier’, good for the environment, or both.
However, the success of the ethical movement in wine is far from universal. For instance, vegan and vegetarian might be big food and lifestyle trends but they are proving slow to translate into wine. Of the 13 alternative wine styles, they scored lowest in the Opportunity Index, suggesting either confusion or an unwillingness to relate the concept of a vegetarian or vegan product to what is in their wine glass.
Secondly, while the no- and low-alcohol movement is making spectacular gains in beer and – latterly – spirits, it has not translated into the world of wine – yet. While it showed a big increase in the Opportunity Index compared to 2018, and scored well in New Zealand and Singapore, its rating of 31 only put it eighth, marginally ahead of the hipster sommeliers’ favourite, orange wines. Most trade experts agree that low and no alcohol wine’s time will come, but only after there are more technological breakthroughs that improve the way that de-alcoholised wine tastes.
It turns out that, in the alternative wine style fashion Oscars, there is one clear winner. Organic wine was a top-three response in 12 out of the 15 countries surveyed, its weighted Opportunity Index score of 48 comfortably ahead of Sustainably Produced Wine in second and a long way (7 points) ahead of Fairtrade Wine in third.
Organic Wine’s pole position is based on its growing recognition and affinity on the part of the wine drinking public. Consumer awareness of organic wine was up over three points on the previous year, to a rating on the Awareness Index of 51.9. This was over ten points more than for any other SOLA wine category.
As one Australian retailer put it, ‘I think the greatest opportunity in wine emphatically will be through the lens of organic, biodynamic and sustainable products. Consumers are increasingly aligning their consumption of other products i.e. fruit, vegetables, etc, with their other decision-making processes. I think the next logical step for wine and other beverages, particularly alcohols, will be to fit into this sort of decision making.’
The opportunity is at its strongest in Finland, Sweden and the US, which came top in the survey, with Opportunity Index scores over 50.
As with ethical matters in general, younger consumers are the biggest cheerleaders for organic wine. Some 21% of regular wine drinkers in the US aged 21-34, for instance, had bought a bottle of organic wine in the last six months. Over the age of 55, this figure tumbled to 6%. In Australia, the figures were 16% and 4% respectively. Environmental friendliness and health are key drivers for this age group, and both factors coalesce in organic wine.
That said, in almost half of the 15 markets surveyed – the US, Ireland, Australia, Singapore, Canada, Australia and the UK – the most commonly selected descriptor statement regarding organic wine did not reference any benefits, but that it was ‘more expensive’ than regular wine. The consistent increases in organic wine’s score on the Opportunity Index, however, suggest that this is not necessarily a barrier to purchase. The feelgood factor trumps price considerations – or perhaps the price acts as a reassurance that the wine inside has been properly cared for.
Of more immediate concern could be the inconsistency surrounding the regulation of the category. There are over 300 certifying bodies for organic wine globally, all of which have different interpretations of what is permissible under the term ‘organic’. The US alone has three separate categories for organic wine: ‘Made with organic grapes’, ‘Ingredients: organic grapes’ and ‘Organic wine’.
In other words, it seems to be a category where consumers are responding to emotional cues rather than actual hard information. Confusion and ignorance are still widespread but seem not to be a barrier to purchase. As one US wine brand owner put it, ‘A lot of consumers assume wine is organic. How could it not be? It comes from the ground and comes from grapes.’
Indeed, if there is any caution surrounding the continued success of the SOLA sector, it is – somewhat ironically – that the growth of ethical and environmental consumer behaviour could lead some producers to act in an unethical way. Unscrupulous operators could exploit consumer confusion and legislative inconsistencies to pass off non-compliant products as compliant.
Barring credibility-shredding scandals, however, this is a trend that is going only in one direction. Rather like green energy, it seems that, for wine, SOLA is the future.