At Maine Beer Company’s (MBC) industrial tasting room in Freeport, beer pilgrims and local fans queue in socially distanced lines to pick up cases of two of the brewery’s popular beers, Lunch and Dinner. A wall is emblazoned with the company ethos: “1% for the Planet. Living wages for employees.”
The phrase is more than just a design feature. Brothers Daniel and David Kleban, who founded MBC in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, were determined to run their business based on ethical principles.
“While many businesses measure their success purely by profit, we measure ours in how much we are able to give back,” says Anne Marisic, MBC’s marketing manager.
Since its 2009 debut, MBC has donated more than $650,000 to environmental nonprofits. MBC also supports living wages and quality of life benefits, unusual for the alcoholic beverage industry. The starting pay is $18 per hour, far above the state’s minimum wage of $12. Full-time employees receive insurance coverage, at least three weeks paid vacation, and a 401(k).
For forward-thinking drinks companies, sustainability is not just about environmental impact, but also employee health and longevity. Success requires financial profitability as well as commitment to the well-being of workers and actual, meaningful change.
These principles echo the triple bottom line concept conceived by John Elkington, an author and entrepreneur, in 1994. He theorized that people, planet and profit are fundamentally intertwined. He hoped companies that prioritized all three would enact “a triple helix of change for tomorrow’s capitalism,” according a 2018 article in the Harvard Business Review.
The idea has traction in the modern market. In a 2017 study, Cone Communications found that 86% of U.S. consumers expect companies to address social and environmental issues.
In the alcohol industry, distinguishing green-washing and virtue signaling from meaningful action can be difficult. For one, environmental certifications can offer companies cover through trade-offs and accounting tricks, says Jason Haas, partner of Tablas Creek in Paso Robles.
Haas says that sustainability certifications have allowed wineries to hide behind a seal. A recent graph shared by the American Association of Wine Economists suggests California wineries use more pesticides now than in 2006, he says. “How is that possible if 90% of California wines, according to the Wine Institute, are produced under a sustainability certification? It’s a sign of the bankruptcy of these programs.”
Tablas Creek educates peers on dry and organic regenerative farming, critical techniques in a region with soil degradation and dwindling water supply. It hosts seminars at the winery, some in partnership with groups like Community Alliance with Family Farmers. The company has also donated more than $100,000 to charities, including local youth arts and sports programs.
In Elkington’s framework, he defines “people” as the positive and negative impact an organization has on its most important stakeholders. This includes employees, families, customers, suppliers, communities, and anyone influencing or affected by the organization.
Karen Hoskin, the founder and owner of Montanya Distillers in Crested Butte, Colorado, was unaware of the “formal business language” of Elkington’s theory, but its ideals guide her approach.
Montanya Distillers is certified by B Corp, which vets companies based on social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability. The goal is for companies to compete not to be the best in the world, but to “be best for the world.”
Montanya provides employees with benefits like health insurance, disability and life insurance, and a ski pass, for quality of life. Hoskin has kept staff employed and benefits intact throughout the 2020 shutdowns.
“I came up through my career as a bartender, server…and I remember how hard it was to make ends meet,” says Hoskin. “I try hard to treat staff the way I wanted to be treated, but so rarely was.”
Women make up 65% of Montanya’s workforce, including management and leadership positions. That’s rare in the craft spirits industry, according to Hoskin. Thirty-five percent of the staff are people of color, in a community that is nearly 95% white.
“I came up through my career as a bartender, server…and I remember how hard it was to make ends meet. I try hard to treat staff the way I wanted to be treated, but so rarely was.”—Karen Hoskin, Montanya Distillers
But are businesses doing enough?
Marisic believes the pandemic could catalyze some industry professionals to re-examine problematic practices.
“This year, society came to a screeching halt because of Covid-19,” says Marisic. “We’ve had to address concerns surrounding the economy, healthcare, education and now race and injustice. The positive of having the world’s attention focused so intensely on these issues is that we are starting to see concrete change happen as people look to repair where these systems are broken.”
Hoskin believes there’s enormous potential for businesses to enact widespread societal change. “Individually, we can do a lot,” she says. “But collectively, our impact can’t be denied.”