It’s becoming increasingly common to live an eco-friendly lifestyle. But when we toast to a long day of being conscious citizens – how does that malbec or vodka gimlet factor in?
Alcohol accounts for just 2-5% of food and beverage emissions, but achieving a greener future will take changes large and small. And when it comes to living more sustainably, our drinking habits are low-hanging fruit.
Like all products, the best way to reduce your alcohol-based emissions is, simply, to drink less. Moderation is a form of self care and an excellent climate practice. When you do imbibe, remember: “CLIP” before you sip.
There’s no single silver bullet to drinking sustainably. Understanding how our favorite libations collect their carbon footprints helps us build an intuition for the choices that matter most.
1. What You Drink
When it comes to drinking sustainably, it’s not as simple as sticking to a certain drink. Each type of alcohol has its advantages and pitfalls, and impacts the environment in different ways.
Lower Footprint: Beer
Far and away the world’s most popular alcohol, beer has a smaller relative environmental impact than wine and spirits. Beer accounts for 80% of all the alcohol we drink, but just 62% of alcohol emissions.
Beer does, however, have its weaknesses. For instance, it takes 5 - 10 glasses of water to produce a single glass of beer.
But the biggest eco-culprit is that icy cold bottle. New Belgium Brewing Company analyzed its Fat Tire Amber Ale and found that refrigeration accounted for nearly one-third of a six-pack’s lifetime emissions. Packaging, primarily glass production, accounted for another 22%.
Best Move: Swing by a local, energy-efficient brewery for pint on tap. When buying at the store, pick cans over bottles and local over imported.
Medium Footprint: Wine
Wine makes up 15% of our alcohol consumption; but accounts for over a quarter of alcohol emissions. The good news? It’s more efficient to turn water into wine than into beer.
However, most wine still comes in heavy glass bottles, which are extremely energy-intensive to produce. The heavier an object, the more emissions it creates in transit. Since many wines are produced regionally, they travel longer distances to reach your glass – which makes packaging and transportation key players in wine’s carbon footprint.
That said, red wine, which is more popular than white, doesn’t need to be refrigerated – so it requires less energy to transport.
Best Move: Drink tap wine at a nearby organic winery or pick up a local, sustainable box brand. To avoid the extra impact of chilled wines, choose red instead.
Higher Footprint: Spirits
Spirits constitute just 3.5% of the alcohol we consume, but produce over double their share of emissions. In general, producing hard liquor is more wasteful and resource-intensive than producing wine or beer – due primarily to distillation and processing.
Of the spirits, rum and tequila tend to be the worst offenders. Every gallon of conventionally-produced tequila results in 18 gallons of toxic liquid waste. Rum is notoriously wasteful to process, too. It’s made from sugarcane, one of the planet’s thirstiest and most destructive crops.
Whisky, bourbon, vodka, and gin are made from ingredients like corn, rye, and wheat – which are easier to produce responsibly (but are by no means always sustainable). Unfortunately, since vodka and gin are distilled to nearly pure ethanol, they demand more energy and water than other booze.
Best Move: Sip on regionally-produced organic whisky or bourbon. (Bonus: check if the distillery captures and repurposes operational waste!)
2. How It’s Made
What you’re drinking matters, but how it’s made is equally important. That’s because, for all types of alcohol, there are ways companies can reduce their impact at every stage of production.
Look for certified organic or biodynamic (wine) products, which are made without chemical fertilizers, using sustainable land management practices. These certifications can be expensive to obtain, however – so familiarize yourself with local producers and their environmental ethos. “Natural wines” are made using similar practices, but there’s no official criteria or industry-wide certification for the term.
Sustainability matters after the crops are harvested, too. Look for companies that power their factories with renewable energy, capture and reuse waste, and use energy efficient brewing and distillation processes.
Transparency is key. Review the product label or visit a producer’s website to find hard facts about how their practices impact the environment – and where they’re working to improve.
3. How It Gets To You
Climate, altitude, and soil composition can have an enormous impact on how alcohol tastes. As a result, many types of alcohol are only made in parts of the world with the right geography.
These beverages must travel long, fossil-fueled journeys to reach consumers. This means, when we raise a glass with worldly libations – we raise our carbon footprints, too.
According to Earthly, an “extensively traveled” bottle beer has about double the carbon footprint of a local one. As a rule of thumb, if you’re choosing between two similar products, buy the one produced closer to home.
Planes, trains, and automobiles matter too. Air-freighting has the largest footprint, followed by road, then rail, then water. Surprisingly, if you live in the eastern United States, it’s often more sustainable to buy wine shipped from Europe than driven or flown in from the west coast.
Best Move: Buy sustainably-produced whisky or brandy made as locally as possible, or shipped by sea or rail.
4. How It’s Packaged
Research indicates packaging accounts for nearly half of all environmental impacts for wine on average, 22% - 50% for beer, and around 20% for spirits. The energy required to manufacture glass bottles is the single greatest factor. (Extra trouble: we have mixed success recycling glass in the US).
According to one Nordic study, traditional glass wine bottles have carbon footprints nearly ten times larger than boxed wine. Fortunately, you can find an alternative to glass for most alcoholic beverages.
As a rule of thumb, the lighter and more recyclable the packaging, the smaller its environmental impact. Next happy hour, keep these tips in mind:
Pick paper or aluminum over glass. When it comes to total emissions and likelihood of being recycled, TetraPack containers are best, followed by aluminum cans and boxes – glass and plastic are worst. (This article unpacks how to shop with recycling in mind.)
Straight from the source. The best packaging is no packaging, so meet some pals at your local pub for a glass of tap wine or pint of beer.
Prioritize refillable containers. For takeaway, choose containers you can reuse. Try a growler from your neighborhood brewery or a cocktail kit from a local distillery – even wineries are hopping on the growler bandwagon.
Buy in bulk. Individual packaging produces more waste than bulk containers. Opt for boxed wines, growlers, and large liquor bottles – and pour into reusable glassware.
Use return programs: If you do buy individual beverages, buy packaging you can return. Many producers and vendors take back and reuse bottles, cardboard six-packs, and pack-tech holders (the ones that go over the top of the can).
5. Who Made It
When you support responsible alcohol brands, you support the work they’re doing to steer their industry to a sustainable future.
A quick Google search for sustainable brewers, wineries, and distillers in your city can uncover a new local favorite. You can also explore these databases of B Corp-certified producers and 1% for the Planet members.
A few of our favorite innovators:
New Belgium Brewing Co: Crack a Fat Tire Amber Ale (the world’s first carbon-neutral beer!) and fund deep research helping all breweries become more sustainable.
Proud Pour: Each bottle from this sustainable winery supports a nonprofit working to protect and restore critical habitats like oyster estuaries and coral reefs.
Gray Whale Gin: Made from sustainably-sourced and wild-foraged botanicals, and donates 1% of total sales to environmental initiatives.
Build your carbon intuition with Joro
Our consumption choices are our secret climate weapon, especially when we act together. Joro brings together a community of like-minded folks working to make our collective systems more sustainable. Join Joro to start using every dollar you spend to create a more sustainable world.