Shopping sustainably

By Cassandra Charlick

6 Dec, 2023

Sustainable wine. What is it? Who is making it? And how can we buy better? Cassandra Charlick tackles the big issues.

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Chances are that your local bottle shop’s shelves are heavy with ‘green’ sounding terms. It’s little wonder that consumers are at a loss as to what sustainability actually means. That discussion is much bigger than one article can encapsulate, however, let’s start with the basics.

Essentially, sustainability reaches further than environment and ecology. The land and environment must be cared for, but social, economic and governance factors are also taken into account. After all, without an economically sound business, there’s no capacity to make environmental or social change. Sustainability is more than simply ‘being green’; it’s operating in an environmentally way while also caring for the people and community, with ethics and economics important slices of the pie.

While there is currently no regulation around the use of the term sustainable in wine marketing, there is an increasing drive for higher standards with regards to environmental social governance (ESG). “Trends in the global financial market are driving ESG and accountability; big investors and insurers are doing due diligence and looking at risk profiles of companies,” shares Rachel Triggs, head of ESG and Market Access at Wine Australia. For wineries, embracing ESG will soon be a fundamental requirement, not a choice. 

A graphic of two people shopping sustainable wine

Organic matters

Organic and biodynamic practices can, and often do, form part of a sustainable business, but these terms refer to a more detailed part of the picture.

Organic products are grown and produced without the use of synthetic chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified organisms. When it comes to winemaking, there are specific regulations that must be adhered to for certification in regards to heat treatment, sulphur dioxide and tartaric stabilisation, amongst others.

Biodynamics builds on the foundation of organics and is based on the theories of Rudolf Steiner. In addition to organic principles, it includes working with the phases of the moon and utilising special soil preparations to increase microbes in the vineyard.

The issue with these terms is the gap between ‘certified’ and ‘practicing’. Rachel clarifies, “Organic and biodynamic in Australia are terms that are not regulated over and above Australian Consumer Law, so as long as you're not being misleading or deceptive to the consumer in describing your wine as organic, then it’s allowed on the label. There are certification bodies that independently certify to Australian Certified standards and there’s a big difference between a product that just says it's organic or biodynamic, as opposed to a certified product.”

A winery may choose not to certify itself for reasons such as cost, business values or the need to manage tough conditions in the vineyard that are simply too difficult or financially impossible without conventional products. Such wineries or vineyards may still practice organically, however the onus is on the consumer to investigate.

Regarding sustainability certifications, Sustainable Winegrowing Australia is a national program where wineries or vineyards can be certified, however use of the trademark on the bottle requires both are certified. Any winegrowing business can pay to become a member, with all members completing training and an annual reporting process involving business metrics and practices across environmental, social and economic sectors. Unlike organic and biodynamic certification, there are no forbidden products or systems. The data is reviewed and members are benchmarked, with a third-party audit required every three years to retain certification. 

Mardi Longbottom manages sustainability and viticulture at the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI). She adds that “all certified members must attain a minimum standard with regards to their processes and practices. There are no numerical targets attached to performance metrics, however, certified members must demonstrate that their practices are aligned with best practice and demonstrate continuous improvement.”

An infographic of a person ordering wine from a vending machine

Off the shelf

As our recycling and production systems currently operate, wine has substantial environmental impact. The storage, transportation and packaging required gives wine a sizeable carbon footprint. Not all states have the facilities required to recycle and process all forms of packaging, and it’s also worth noting that the auditing of packaging doesn’t currently fall under the Sustainable Winegrowing Australia certification.

Bottle: Most wine is still packaged in bottle. There are multiple reasons for this, including tradition. The manufacture and transportation of glass bottles is the greatest contribution to