Meeting with Jean-Pierre Cointreau (JPC) president of the French Spirits Federation and Thomas Gauthier (TG) its general manager.
What is the state of the industry with regard to its objectives to reduce its carbon footprint, particularly in relation to glass bottles?
JPC: First of all, I would like to remind you that the glass in our bottles is 88% recyclable. This did not happen overnight, and it shows that the industry’s concern about our carbon footprint is not new. You only have to look at the wall of bottles that we install at the trade fairs we attend, which shows the diversity of spirits in terms of containers and the importance of the bottle in the identity of the brands.
Is this diversity more important than for wine?
JPC: I don’t particularly want to make a difference between wine and spirits, but it’s true that in wine the bottles of the same appellation are often identical, and there is less diversity. In spirits, the bottles are part of the very identity of our brands.
TG: In spirits, the bottles are specific to each house, and are linked to often very old histories. The bottle carries value because it reflects the product, its history, its terroir and its link with a territory.
Among the measures proposed to reduce the carbon footprint, there is the reuse of bottles, what do you think?
JPC: It is extremely complicated to set up reuse channels in order to reuse limited volumes of bottles due to the great diversity that characterises spirits. There is also the logistical problem of the distance between the place of production and the place of consumption. Not to mention export, since half of our products are exported. It is important to know that developing reuse for a company that exports would mean setting up different bottling lines for France and for export, since our international clients demand lighter bottles that are too fragile to be reused.
TG: We also have to talk about the turnover rate, which is quite low. Spirits often remain on bar shelves or at the back of the cupboard for several months before the bottle is finished and therefore ready to be reused. So the return rate would be quite erratic and the flows extremely variable. Having said that, we are subject to legal obligations that come from the Agec law, which provides for a reuse rate on the scale of all the sectors, of 5% of packaging by 2023, and 10% by 2027. So we are working on the subject to determine the cases where reuse is relevant.
What other avenues are you working on?
TG: We are working on reducing the weight of bottles as part of an eco-design approach. In order to export, the specifications include maximum weight requirements for bottles, as in Canada and Japan. This logic also exists in France, but the further the bottles travel, the lighter they should be. We must continue to improve what we are already doing. Reuse risks cannibalising the other ecological approaches that have already been put in place by the sector, including recycling.
Moreover, we have signed a commitment charter to achieve 100% recyclability of our products (we are at 88%). For example, the liquor manufacturer Giffard has lightened two bottle models and saved more than 400 tonnes of glass and generated a gain of 164 tonnes of CO2. The Pernod group has reached 81% recycled glass in its bottles…
JPC: We can also improve elements peripheral to the production of glass, such as logistics. We can avoid importing glassware by using metropolitan producers, where possible. We can also avoid shipments by plane. For us, the right way is recycling, eco-design and, to a certain extent, reuse.
Given the current context, with the war in Ukraine, isn’t it increasingly difficult to get glass bottles?
TG: There is a real problem with the availability of bottles, with staggered deliveries, quantities and quality levels not always up to scratch. For example, certain bottle models for entry-level or core market products are not always available, which leads manufacturers to arbitrate between different markets. As a result, spirits companies are stockpiling bottles, but they are facing a problem of space, cash flow immobilisation, and rising interest rates when they have to borrow. Of course, with the crisis, glass prices have gone up in 2022. We have seen price increases of up to 60%. And we already know that costs will rise by at least 20-30% in 2023.
Is it possible to get out of the glass?
JPC: There are experiments being carried out, for example, on 100% recycled bottles, but for the moment it is not 100% conclusive, as the bottles are not always homogeneous. There are also experiments on bulk. The customer goes to the brand with his bottle and it is filled. This is done, for example, with certain very top-of-the-range products, but it is more complicated with large volumes. Moreover, the authorities are not very enthusiastic, because it is difficult to stock alcohol in supermarkets, for example. There are security issues in particular.
TG: There are also experiments with plant fibre bottles, but nothing that can be generalised for the moment. Plastic bottles are not ideal, because alcohol is labile, i.e. it attracts certain compounds from the packaging inside the product. As for cans, they run counter to the trend towards premiumisation of spirits, and are not a medium that appeals. In short, there is no miracle solution, but rather a combination of good practices to achieve a significant impact in terms of packaging sustainability.
Wouldn’t the disappearance of the packaging around the bottles themselves be a solution?
JPC: Packaging, or over-packaging (boxes, cases, etc.), is a trend that comes from the process of valorisation, premiumisation and value creation that is taking place in spirits. Rum is a very good example of this. But at the same time, we feel that there is a demand from consumers to reduce their presence. Paper and cardboard are therefore also areas of work.
TG: Potentially, over-wrapping could disappear in a number of circumstances. They are still of interest for gifts, but not when you go to pick up your bottle in your supermarket or wine shop. Moreover, this over-wrapping often goes straight into the bin once the product has been bought!
Any other ideas?
JPC : The shipping crate is also an overpackaging, but it will be difficult to do without it… What you have to understand is that we are thinking at 360°, and that our reflections also concern energy, water, the practices of our suppliers, transport… For example, concerning energy, we are thinking about changing the specifications of certain appellations so that they consume less. In Cognac, for example, we are experimenting with alternative, less energy-consuming distillation methods.