A Splash of Beer, A Ripple of Awareness: Sustainability at New Belgium Brewing

by Ryan Withall

Jenn VervierJenn Vervier, Director of Strategy & Sustainability at New Belgium Brewing knows firsthand the potential craft beer has to create profound and lasting change. Since starting part-time on the bottling line more than twenty years ago as a graduate student, Jenn has gone on to serve as CFO, COO, and the company’s first Director of Strategy & Sustainability. She spearheaded the development of the brewery’s sustainability management system and has pushed for greater advocacy for environmental regulation. Jenn’s crusade at New Belgium focuses on overall business sustainability that, along with environmental initiatives, includes employee ownership, fair employment practices, and active engagement with suppliers, distributors, and the greater community. As Jenn would say, great beer is made by passionate and considerate people. By attracting customers to their product, New Belgium is hoping to turn the tide in the beer industry towards greater concern for the environment, the community, and for employees.

I got to sit down with Jenn to talk about New Belgium’s social and environmental leadership when she came to Yale to participate in the Yale Colloquium on Sustainability Marketing sponsored by Dekra. Here are some highlights of our conversation:

When your position was created at New Belgium, how did you go about developing a set of sustainability priorities and goals based on the company’s core values and beliefs?

In creating the Sustainability Management System we sat down and asked, “How does the brewing industry contribute to the world’s environmental woes, and how can we help change the industry?” Through our conversation we identified the areas we wanted to focus on; water stewardship, carbon and climate change, waste, and, also very importantly, advocacy. When we looked at the possibilities at the time, we thought, “Even if we became a net-zero brewery in water use, waste, and energy, would the world be so much better off?” While we are the third largest craft brewery in the country, we are still a small player on the scene. And that’s when the value of our brand became very apparent to us. We realized we could use our brand awareness to turn the little splash we create when we operate according to our values into a ripple, raising awareness around the issues, and highlighting what people can do to tackle those issues.

Sustainability is a theme that seems to come up very often in the craft brewing industry. What is it about beer making that leads to such awareness and concern for environmental issues?

I think that people who get in to craft brewing tend to be renegades. They’re passionate about beer and passionate about making beer, and they think, “I can do this better.” It’s very entrepreneurial and I think entrepreneurs are naturally thrifty and that’s where sustainability goes hand in hand with just good business practice. They also tend to be very tied to their communities, which is also very true for New Belgium. Our customers are our neighbors are our coworkers, and that lends itself to being concerned about social responsibility.

What response have you seen from your customers to your sustainability initiatives? Are people recognizing your efforts and purchasing your product because of it?

I think only at a very shallow level. There are people who drink our beer who are environmental geeks and people who are organizational development geeks. These groups really go out and look for our products. But, I think the vast majority of beer consumers find out about us on their liquor store shelves or in their local bar and I’m not sure how many choose to look further into what our company does. I think it’s enough that people choose us because we make great beer. If they’re also interested that we’re 100% employee owned and that we’ve been practicing environmental sustainability for over 20 years, then that’s great too. The reason that we do it is not to influence our consumers, we do it because it’s the right thing to do.

What challenges do you face in communicating to consumers the positive social and environmental impacts New Belgium has accomplished?

Often, the things New Belgium does to pursue our core values and beliefs do not show up in the primary product attributes of our beer. When you’re buying a cleaning product you are looking for toxic versus non-toxic, but, when you’re buying a beer you’re looking for great taste and alcohol. Both choices often involve the influence of brand identity, but with many other products, sustainability is inherent to the product itself. However, the fact that we know everyone in our supply chain, or that we have a 99% waste diversion rate is secondary to the primary attributes of the beer. So, how do we talk about those positives we have in our value chain or in our operations? Do we try to promote those things if they are peripheral to what the consumer is buying? Does the consumer care? Certainly some do, but you do risk alienating those that don’t when they really want to know, for example, is this the best White IPA I can buy?

Do New Belgium and the other larger craft breweries discuss sustainability strategies at the annual Craft Brewers Association conference? What form does the discussion take?

Yes, that’s the most regular and reliable platform for discussion. The annual conference has a sustainability track with between five and seven sessions over the course of three days. We solicit proposals and we try to balance things that will be relevant for very small and very large brewers alike. As for the range of topics, we have sessions on technical matters such as wastewater treatment or ways to reduce energy usage and we’ve begun to discuss matters of advocacy. Last year, we had a session on the Clean Water Act (CWA) where the NRDC was able to explain what the threats to the CWA are. This evolved into a discussion of water conservation efforts and strategies. In addition, there was a session on extended producer responsibility, which came from the idea that any of us are only as sustainable as our industry. If we all rely on the same packaging from the same suppliers, the only way for us to have more sustainable packaging is to work together.

For more on sustainability marketing in the craft brew industry check out Jenn’s conversation with Chris O’Brien, author of Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World at Yale.

The Colloquium on Sustainability Marketing is a joint effort between the Center for Business and the Environment, the Yale Center for Customer Insights and DEKRA to unravel and address the challenges associated with creating environmentally preferable products and brands that customers love. The next event, “Why Caesars Bets on Green,” will be livestreamed on April 1st at 11:45 AM ET featuring Caesars Entertainment and Saatchi & Saatchi S.

Ryan Withall is a joint degree MEM/MBA student in the class of 2015 at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and School of Management, focusing on urban sustainable development. He received a B.S. from Columbia University in Earth and Environmental Engineering.

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