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Kentucky bourbon makers plan for the future under climate change

Ryan Van Velzer

Kentucky bourbon wouldn’t be what it is without the minerals from the state’s water, the color and flavor imparted by charred white oak, or the mash bill made from corn, rye and barley.

All of these resources are at risk, and bourbon producers know it. The U.S. is consuming white oak for bourbon barrels faster than we can grow the trees. Farmers are losing their topsoil to practices that deplete rather than restore the land. Watersheds face threats new and old, and that’s when there’s enough of it to go around.

On the other side of production are the greenhouse gas emissions it takes to make, bottle and transport Kentucky bourbons all across the country and globe.

The latest science confirms humankind has a limited time to act to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In the coming decades, every industry that relies on fossil fuels will have to reimagine its business model to sustain the environment and resources we enjoy today. In the last year, researchers have seen a dramatic rise in the number of companies making and promoting climate commitments.

Three of Kentucky’s largest bourbon makers are among them. They’re making pledges to reach net-zero carbon emission in the coming decades.

  • Brown Forman, makers of Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniels, plan to halve emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2045. 
  • Beam Suntory, makers of Jim Beam, plan to halve emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero by 2040. 
  • Diageo, makers of Bulleit Bourbon, plan to be net-zero in their primary operations by 2030 and across the board by 2050. 

These bourbon makers are also planning for and instituting sustainable practices to protect the natural resources necessary to make their products.

Brown Forman is headquartered out of Louisville but distributes spirits in more than 170 countries around the world. The company’s greenhouse gas emissions increased every year from 2012 to 2020, but under revised goals, they plan to halve their emissions by the end of the decade.

The company invited WFPL to discuss its revised global sustainability goals in the face of the climate crisis.

“It was also time for us to make sure that our goals were aligned with the U.N. Goals, with the Paris Agreement and that we were doing our part to keep temperature change to at least 1.5 degrees Celsius,” said Chief Sustainability Officer Alex Alvarez.

Sustainability initiatives

Climate change is already making Kentucky a warmer, wetter place, but for other parts of the world, climate change is making water an increasingly scarce resource. Besides bourbon, Brown Forman produces wine in California and tequila in Mexico, all of which need high quality water.

Brown Forman is considering how future droughts or other interruptions might impact the availability of water in arid regions. To mitigate the risks, the company has formalized stewardship commitments in those watersheds, according to its sustainability disclosure.

“We want to protect the health of key watersheds and create a net-positive impact,” Alvarez said.

  • Beam Suntory plans to reduce water usage by 50% per unit produced by 2030 and replenish more water than they use by 2040. 
  • Diageo plans to reduce water use in operations by 40% in water-stressed areas and 30% across the company by at least 2030. They also want to replenish more water than they use in operations in all water-stressed areas by 2026.  

Brown Forman is making similar commitments in agriculture.

The white oak trees behind the new charred barrels used in bourbon aging take about 50 to 70 years to reach maturity, and they’re not reproducing as fast as they used to. Brown Forman has joined the White Oak Initiative, a coalition committed to the long-term sustainability of the species. For its own part, Brown Forman plans to purchase 50% of its logs from sustainably managed forests by 2035.

Brown Forman is also working with a couple dozen farmers to try to bring back rye in Kentucky, Alvarez said. The company is looking for the right strain of rye for farmers to plant over the winter to act as a cover crop, protect the topsoil, limit runoff and produce another revenue stream for farmers, he said.

By 2025, Brown Forman plans for all of its direct farmers, including those that grow agave and grapes, to engage in regenerative agricultural practices.

The company also has a number of plans to reduce waste. They sell the spent grain leftover from distillation to farmers to feed livestock. Already over 99% of the waste generated at its facilities avoids the landfill, Alvarez said. And by 2030, Brown Forman wants 100% of its primary packaging to be recyclable or reusable.

“The sustainability of our operation depends on not wasting stuff. So making sure that we can use, reuse and take advantage of everything we are using so that we use less. It’s also good for business,” Alvarez said.

Promises kept, promises delayed

Carleton University Assistant Professor Patrick Callery has seen a dramatic rise in the number of companies making and promoting climate commitments over the last year. Callery teaches strategic management and researches corporate sustainability plans.

He’s got two key questions guiding his evaluation of these plans: Are the targets meaningful? Are companies actually making good on their commitments?

“Companies [can] use targets as public relations levers and they don’t want to get into details,” Callery said.

Net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 has become a widely accepted goal across industries, but without a detailed roadmap for how a company plans to get there, that’s 30 years to deflect accountability.

When WFPL News asked Alvarez, Brown Forman’s chief sustainability officer, about the company’s carbon footprint, he didn’t know the answer offhand.

The company later confirmed that the company’s emissions have actually increased every year since 2012.

Brown Forman’s initial sustainability target was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15% by 2023 from a 2012 base year, Callery said.

“That’s great that you have these aggressive goals for 2030 and 2050 but what of the targets that you’ve held of the last decade?” Callery said. “I would be interested to know what’s their plan to attain that target or if they are scrapping that target.”

Brown Forman Spokesperson Tracy Frederick said emissions went up because the company expanded so much over the last decade. She noted carbon emissions per case of spirits actually decreased by 14% in that time.

Callery says companies must be held accountable on an interim basis, similar to the way corporations release revenue and earnings targets for the next 12 to 24 months, then update shareholders on whether they achieved those targets.

“So firms should be held to account not just on whether ‘Come back to me in 30 years and tell me whether you have hit your target.’ It really needs to be: ‘What have you done in the last year to get to that long term goal?’” Callery said.

Corporate Responsibility

The U.S. has a special responsibility to reduce carbon emissions because we have pumped the greatest share of carbon into the atmosphere, said University of Louisville’s Justin Mog, who advises the university on sustainability initiatives.

“Most of our day-to-day operations in the United States are extremely inefficient. We don’t sip fossil fuels, we glug them,” he said.

But companies like Brown Forman, Beam Suntory and Diageo have the capacity to effect change not only in their own industries, but throughout their entire supply chain.

“If the company itself starts demanding more of that supply chain and looking into the practices going on in that supply chain that’s going to have really valuable ripple effects,” Mog said.

Alvarez, with Brown Forman, agrees. In fact, he says global commitments to sustainability are becoming the baseline expectation for doing business, and Brown Forman is already putting economic pressure on their suppliers to be more sustainable in their practices

“And it’s happening to us. The large retailers of the world, European retailers, airlines, all of them are coming to us and saying, ‘There is no way I’m going to meet my commitments if you don’t align with what we need to do together,’ so it’s a long supply chain where everyone’s got to do it’s part.”

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