The limits of localism

This isn’t the biggest deal in the world, but it’s an instructive example of the limits of focusing too narrowly on highly specific or prescriptive solutions to climate change.

The New Belgium Brewery, maker of the tasty Fat Tire beer, is run by a bunch of nice hippies who manage their company toward an impressive list of environmental and social goals. Recently the company endured some minor controversy arising from accusations that their claim to be “100% wind-powered” was overly broad and misleading. New Belgium took the criticism as an excuse to re-up their commitment to sustainability and transparency, culminating in their first-ever sustainability report (pdf).

The New York Times story on the incident includes the necessary splash of cold water from a snippy environmentalist:

> Still, some environmentalists remain unconvinced. New Belgium now distributes its beer in 18 states — a point not lost on Will Walters of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Sierra Club, who would prefer to see companies working more locally.

> “I have seen Fat Tire in far flung places in other states where it shouldn’t be,” Mr. Walters said.

It so happens that New Belgium takes its carbon footprint very seriously, and in 2008 hired The Climate Conservancy to perform a full life cycle analysis of a six-pack of Fat Tire Amber Ale. The report, in 37 pages of gory detail (pdf) lays out the carbon impact of everything from barley seed production to the adhesive on the back of beer labels to employee commutes to refrigeration in retail stores to the landfilling of six-pack containers. In other words, they looked at everything.

The results in a nutshell:

* Distribution of beer (to those “states where it shouldn’t be”) accounts for just 8.7% of the product’s carbon footprint.
* Energy use in retail stores and raw material inputs account for about 76% of the beer’s carbon footprint.
* Fat Tire has a carbon footprint about 35% lower than industry average.
* Fat Tire has a goal of reducing the footprint of its products a further 25% by 2015.

Taken together, these stats suggest that environmentalists should be delighted to see Fat Tire showing up in far-flung places. Not only is it likely to have a lower carbon impact than whatever it’s replacing, but the product is going to get cleaner over time. Further, buying from New Belgium supports an activist company that is working to change practices for the entire industry.

Of course, there are things you can do to bring your own beer footprint down lower. You can fill reusable growlers at your local brewpub. Or buy unrefrigerated beer in cans. Or buy warm vodka in plastic jugs. Or stop drinking and play Scrabble.

But there’s nothing magical about localism. It’s a potentially effective strategy for reducing carbon emissions, but it’s one of many, and it needs to be evaluated on its merits, not treated as a special category worthy of unique consideration.

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adam

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  1. Tom Harrison - February 10, 2009

    Two quick questions on this post:
    1) I wonder what Sierra Club’s footprint is (snark, snark), and
    2) I cannot accept your alternative options for beer, but have one that I have considered as a possible alternative: home brew. My brother-in-law does it and it’s goooood.
    Overall, us environmental types can get kind of lost in the forest on topics like this. It’s good to see someone on the right side of things keeping things honest.

  2. jon - February 11, 2009

    Historically, Breweries were limited in locale by latitude. In the Southeastern U.S., while colonized by the British beer-drinking culture, breweries were not established much further south of Alexandria, VA due to the average temperatures and longer summers, making temperature control of beer difficult.
    If we’re talking about localism and carbon footprints, I suggest we consider the rise of conditioned space as a major consumer of energy resources. As an emigrant to the New South, I struggle with the notion of living in harmony with the local conditions. And by artificially controlling climate, we’re not helping anyone out. Its great to have new breweries popping up all around Raleigh, but perhaps transport from more temperate regions is a more sustainable strategy.

  3. Robin Cape - February 11, 2009

    I have to commend New Belgium for the efforts it is making in looking deeply at its footprint and evaluating its practices. That in itself deserves real credit as it is a rarity amongst not only businesses, but organizations of any kind.
    They have exhibited the kind of thoughtfulness and inward looking that will be a major part of making real change.
    To pick them apart for their efforts is not serving the ultimate good.

  4. Daniel - February 11, 2009

    I believe there are many “better” ways to reduce carbon footprints and still meet the joy of creature comforts. I recently designed and built a fine brewery in Phoenix, AZ. It was not as easy to walk the earth friendly walk as I thought it would be. Compromises were made, to accomodate budget and growth.
    I am aware and extremely thankful of New Belguim and their conscientious committment to sustainable thinking.

  5. Gabriele - February 11, 2009

    The local news had a story about this brewery just a couple days ago. Another aspect people don’t know or think much about is the waste produced by making the beer. New Belgium and a couple smart guys are turning their daily waste into a high protein fish food. Which in turn will help wild fish populations because they will not need to be fished so heavily, allowing a natural ecosystem to try and regenerate itself. I hope they are able to make this a reality. It was a good news segment.
    http://www.9news.com/money/article.aspx?storyid=109496&catid=344

  6. Daniel - February 11, 2009

    Great idea! The waste from my brew house project is divided into making ‘beer breads” for a bakery and chicken feed/scratch for a chicken ranch. Both are local business that are gladly benefiting from the 1000 plus pounds of weekly waste.

  7. aGN - February 11, 2009

    But drinking and Scrabble go together so well.

  8. Melissa - February 11, 2009

    As one who studies corporate CSR models, I can attest that New Belgium is in the top tier for social responsibility. I’m sure they’d be the first to admit they’re not perfect. Yet, such criticism seems counter productive.
    They address CSR issues well beyond CO2 – the holistic appraoch needed for true sustainability. Though CO2 is a major issue we need to solve, we cannot ignore other natural resource issues, communities, living species, etc.
    Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a local brewer with values like this. I’d rather buy their beer in the far flung place where I live than beer from megaproducers whose claims are truly greenwash.

  9. Ted O'Neill - February 11, 2009

    The efforts of a brewery such as New Belgium far out weigh the Sierra Club’s distain for success. The success of the Sierra Club has been substantially funded by donors whose actual carbon footprint may dwarf the net footprint that the New Belgium Brewery makes. To that extent, no one should purchase a vehicle that is not made within their own vicinity, not only those vehicles with combustion engines, but even bicycles or skateboard or skis or shoes. Of course all the materials used to manufacture any of those goods has to be produced locally to stay within that mode of thinking. There are limits to what is local and how many people that locality can sustain. Taking positive steps to reducing/eliminating one’s impact is the best approach. And always seeking news aways to improve is how we should try to live, but we must be practicable about it. Don’t slam New Belgium’s success, with that sucess also comes the ability to contribute and educate. Otherwise, it will get shadowed over by the Budweiser & Miller beer monoliths of the world, in the highly influential imprint on general society. It is not that one is smarter that they aware of their carbon footprint, they are just aware. The more that awareness is in limited circles, the less of an overall improvement is possible. Bteer to have millions reduce 25% than only a handful reduce 100% and feel self righteous and smug about their accomplishment.

  10. TImW - February 11, 2009

    CO2 hungry algae can eat up that bi-product too.
    Fat-tire + microbiologist PhD thesis + algae + sun
    might advance the algal oil knowledge.

  11. sXe - February 11, 2009

    Go straight edge and stop drinking. 0 foot print for the hippies.

  12. Chris - February 12, 2009

    New Belgium is a great company and should be supported. But this statement should be re-evaluated: “But there

  13. Alex - February 12, 2009

    I do not think that simply admonishing others to quit drinking is helpful. I prefer to take the bus, ride my bike, and drink beer from a growler, to reduce my carbon footprint rather than quit drinking and drive a hybrid!