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What you can learn about sustainability from craft breweries

March 14, 2023

Make sustainability part of your DNA like beer brewers do.

The U.S. craft beer industry has blossomed over the last decade-plus, with breweries popping up like dandelions across the country. While the beer undoubtedly plays a central role in their growth, the allure of these breweries goes beyond yeast and hops—character and values make craft beer special for customers. And in many cases, a commitment to sustainability and locality adds to the appeal. 

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Other types of businesses, including those outside the food and beverage industry, can take a page from craft breweries and learn how sustainability can promote: 

• Cost savings 
• High-quality products and services 
• Strong employee and customer experience 

What do craft breweries have to do with sustainability? 

Craft breweries often have environmental and community values in their DNA. “[They] tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy, product donations, volunteerism, and sponsorship of events,” says the Brewers Association

In addition to brewery certification, the Brewers Association also provides resources, like sustainability tools and benchmarking reports. These “provide a platform for the craft brewing community to share best practices for identifying how to use water more efficiently, generating less wastewater and solid waste, decreasing total energy usage, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” 

Given their reliance on natural ingredients and small-batch processing, many craft brewers feel connected to environmental health and sustainability. 

In an interview with Sustain.Life, Kevin McGee, president and CEO of Anderson Valley Brewing Company, said, “You’re dealing with ingredients and chemical processes that are very nature-oriented. So, I don’t think it’s a very far step for people that are in the craft brewing mindset to also get involved in an environmental sustainability mindset.” 

Common brewery sustainability initiatives range from carbon footprint-reducing renewable energy programs to water-saving technologies and waste reduction programs. And breweries often donate their spent grain and hops from the brewing process to feed livestock, diverting that waste from landfills. 

Anderson Valley, for example, claims to be the world’s first solar-powered brewery. Installed in 2005, its solar array currently provides over 40% of the brewery’s energy. The second set of solar panels is in the works, which means the brewery will generate 110% of its power from solar by June 2022. (The extra 10% means it could sell energy back to the local utility for a profit.) Anderson Valley Brewing also aims to have close to a zero-impact water use system. It sources water from on-site wells, has an on-site treatment system, and all water that doesn’t end up in its beer gets returned to the water table. 

Applying craft brewery lessons to other businesses 

Lessons from craft breweries apply to other food and beverage businesses—things like careful water use management—but what about other companies? Can businesses like accounting firms, consultancies, and IT companies learn anything about sustainability from craft breweries? Yes! 

Sustainability lessons from craft breweries  

1. Sustainability offers cost savings 

For sustainability to work for businesses, it can’t just be about doing good for the world. For small businesses that want to stay competitive, sustainability has to positively impact their bottom line. Using renewable energy like solar power leads to lower utility bills and is especially beneficial if tax incentives offset some installation costs. 

Acting sustainably can also save business partners money. Anderson Valley is moving away from glass packaging to all aluminum and cardboard, which will enable the brewery to ship 110 cases per pallet, up from 72. “Packing more cases to finish the pallet helps our distributors reduce their shipping costs, and it also helps us take trucks off the road,” explains McGee. And the cost savings trickle down to retailers and consumers. 

Other businesses should work with their partners to act more sustainability while reducing costs. That can range from working out an agreement with an office or building owner to share the cost savings from reduced energy usage to making early investments in the electrification efforts of fleet partners as a means of long-term cost reduction.  

2. Sustainability correlates with quality

Another craft brewery lesson: Acting sustainably goes hand-in-hand with higher quality. It can also coincide with understanding your supply chain better. It’s not a leap to say that a farmer growing barley responsibly (e.g., using non-toxic herbicides and sustainable soil management) also provides a high-quality ingredient to brewers. Focusing on environmental factors demonstrates an attention to detail and a long view that shows up in product quality, rather than squeezing every drop of short-term—and short-sighted—profit. 

“The environmental footprint and practices of the companies that produce [ingredients like barley] are important because we want to patronize people that have a similar mindset. And also, those are the people that generally are putting out a superior product,” says McGee. 

Conversely, not doing things sustainability can hurt quality. New Belgium Brewing Company—a certified B Corp based in Colorado and North Carolina—brewed Torched Earth Ale, an experimental beer to demonstrate what beer might taste like in a world where climate change is even worse. “This beer uses the kind of ingredients that would be available in a climate-ravaged future including: smoke-tainted water, drought-resistant grains, shelf-stable extracts, and dandelion weeds. While it’s technically beer, it’s not great,” the company says

For other types of businesses, similar concepts apply. For example, a software company that cares about how much energy its servers use demonstrates an attention to detail in other areas, like minimizing server downtime, so customers don’t experience any interruptions in using their software. And on a broader scale, like with the Torched Earth Ale, a world with more extreme weather could equate to more power outages. That could prompt a need for more grid alternatives so businesses can still operate smoothly.  

3. Sustainability can strengthen your brand

Like many craft breweries, incorporating sustainability into your company’s DNA goes a long way to attract customers and employees that connect with your brand.  

For example, Allagash Brewing Company—based in Maine and a certified B Corp—has a unique recycling program. It gives customers the option to bring in typically hard to recycle materials like cork and bubble wrap, which go toward Allagash gift cards. The brewery also has a green team composed of employees from across departments.  

“By representing a cross-section of our brewery, we can not only tackle sustainability ideas wherever they crop up, but we can then act on them knowing that we have buy-in from all key stakeholders,” says Allagash

Essentially any company can also launch a green team to get employees to buy into a larger sustainable mission that also helps with job satisfaction. 71% of employees and job-seekers think sustainable companies “are more attractive employers,” and almost 50% would take a lower salary to work at these types of companies, according to a 2021 IBM Institute for Business Value survey

Similarly, all companies can engage customers by donating a portion of the proceeds to support environmental justice or creating marketing materials about making your supply chain more sustainable.  

Overall, making sustainability part of your brand’s DNA, much like craft brewers do, can help your business in the long term. 

“Doing the right thing for the right reasons is always going to be something that will resonate with others in the market,” says Anderson Valley’s McGee. “There’s marketing, sales-driven, and economic reasons that can make it worthwhile, but also, a lot of times, it’s just the right thing to do. And because of that, there’s intangible benefits. […] It’s something that I think craft beer has done pretty well with over the last 15 years or so. So, I think it’s a good blueprint for a lot of other industries.”

Editorial statement
At Sustain.Life, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Written by practitioners and experts, articles are grounded in research and experience-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by our team of sustainability professionals to ensure content is accurate and aligns with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Jake Safane
Jake Safane is a writer specializing in finance and sustainability. With over a decade of experience, he has written for organizations like The Economist Group, Washington Post, and Business Insider.
Alyssa Rade
Alyssa Rade is the chief sustainability officer at Sustain.Life. She has over ten years of corporate sustainability experience and guides Sustain.Life’s platform features.
The takeaway

Craft brewers have long figured out that sustainable behaviors correlate with quality, brand affinity, and bottom line savings.