BrewDog co-founder James Watt on carbon offsets, employee engagement and building forests

EXCLUSIVE: BrewDog’s co-founder James Watt sits down with edie at the brewer’s headquarters in Ellon, Scotland to discuss employee engagement, how he became “disillusioned” with the current carbon offsets market and plans to create a 9,300-acre Lost Forest to help rewild parts of Scotland.

BrewDog co-founder James Watt on carbon offsets, employee engagement and building forests

Image: BrewDog

It’s been a tumultuous year for BrewDog. The company, which can boast the fact it is the UK’s fastest-growing food and drinks company, with an average annual growth of 167%, has been accused of fostering a “toxic” work environment, had to face questions over the validity of its double-offsetting initiative and has come under fire for deer culling plans in relation to its Lost Forest project.

To its end, the company has moved to address the aforementioned issues, including a profit-sharing scheme for staff and, most recently, a press trip to outline the progress of its Lost Forest initiative – a 9,400-acre afforestation scheme in the Scottish Highlands. You can read edie’s in-depth feature on the Lost Forest here.

Speaking exclusively to edie, BrewDog’s co-founder James Watt outlines how the company has had time to rethink its approach to sustainability, which has led to new approaches to external validity on offsets and aims to foster a new internal approach to sustainability from employees.

“I felt we were doing our bit for the planet and our bit for sustainability, and I was lucky enough just before the pandemic to have dinner with Sir David Attenborough,” Watt tells edie at the firm’s Ellon brewery and headquarters.

“Spending time with him I came to the stark realisation that a company like BrewDog is a massive part of the problem we face and that we can start off on a journey of how we can do much more to respond to the climate crisis.

“As soon as we got stablised during the pandemic we decided that we had to pivot our business model to align more towards sustainability. We very soon came to realise that we are facing an existential climate crisis and huge changes needed to be made, note in 2050 or 2030, but today.”

Those changes are evident. A little under two years ago BrewDog made an industry-leading commitment to remove twice as much carbon from the air each year as it emits, with the first year of this being achieved being August 2020 through August 2021.

BrewDog announced that it has started offsetting more emissions than it generates across Scope 1 (direct), Scope 2 (power-related) and upstream Scope 3 (indirect) sources.

Since it began “double removing” carbon emissions in August 2020, the company has had to removed almost 2,900 tonnes of CO2e for each of the 19 weeks remaining in 2020 – equating to almost 55,000 tonnes. The company actually went and removed almost 60,000 tonnes “just to be on the safe side”.

This double-offsetting commitment has been met with some criticism from green groups, who argue that offsetting merely moves the problem elsewhere, and allows firms to carry on emitting as normal.

Watt pointed out that BrewDog is focused on a “reduction-first” approach to decarbonisation. The company has invested around £50m into sustainability initiatives, including onsite energy efficiency drives.

These include investments in direct connections with three 800kW wind turbines right next to the brewery, powering the facility with 2.4MW of clean energy and covering all of its energy needs.

As well as rolling out its first company electric vehicle, the brewer has also started delivering beer across London in a 19-tonne EV. The company has also reported a boost to energy efficiency, with usage being reduced by more than 26% compared to 2016.

edie spoke to Watt at the unveiling of BrewDog’s new onsite bio-energy plant. BrewDog has invested £12m into its bio-energy plant, which features an onsite anaerobic digester that will process the majority of the 200 million litres of wastewater produced at the company’s Ellon brewery each year.

The digester will treat both wastewater and spent yeast and hops from the brewing process to create biomethane. The gas will be used to power the brewery’s boilers and looks set to reduce emissions at the site by more than 7,500 tonnes annually once the plant is running at full capacity. The gas will be used to power the production of more than 176 million pints of beer each year.

Avoiding well-intentioned mistakes

Watt also explained to edie that BrewDog has commissioned the help of renowned sustainability expert and carbon footprint researcher Professor Mike Berners-Lee and his consultancy to help form a carbon reduction plan that aims to reduce emissions per pint by 40% within the next 12 months.

Watt notes that Professor Berners-Lee and his team have been influential in outlining what solutions are viable as well as explaining the validity of other external partners that can help BrewDog with its carbon-negative goal.

“We wanted to do the best thing possible, but it is a minefield for companies moving into the [sustainability] space,” Watt said, with a specific reference to concerns about greenwashing.

“We set out to get the best possible help that we could and working with Mike Berners-Lee has been invaluable and has stopped us from making many well-intentioned mistakes on our journey. This guidance has helped us make significantly better decisions.”

Charlatans and slow workers

But while the pandemic gave BrewDog the realisation that it needed to be more ambitious in responding to the climate crisis, Watt noted that there are still plenty of external factors that can create barriers and ultimately slow down progress toward sustainability goals.

Watt claimed that the timelines that governments work on, which tend to be four-year periods building up to general elections, made the pace at which policy works at “incompatible” with the urgent need for corporates to decarbonise. Instead, Watt recommends that businesses “work hand in hand with leading scientists to change that needs to happen for us to prevent the climate disaster”.

Working with Professor Berners-Lee and his consultancy, for example, has helped BrewDog find suitable and credible partners to help with the offsetting aspects of its carbon-negative goal.

The company is funding an array of nature-based offsetting projects in the UK through The Woodland Trust and The Ribble Rivers Trust, as well as projects overseas through the Nature Conservancy of Canada and Australia’s Carbon Neutral Gold Standard.

Watt claimed that prior to working with Professor Berners-Lee he became “disillusioned” with the offsets and removal market.

“We looked at some other options and the initial strategy wasn’t to own a forest,” Watt said, referring to the progress being made at the Lost Forest. “We became so disillusioned with the majority of removal and offset options on the market and we just felt there was just so much smoke and mirrors in this space and that it was full of opportunistic charlatans… While there are some fantastic people in that space as well, it felt like a minefield and was so difficult and challenging.”

“So why not own the problem and do what we can to fix it ourselves?”

Owning that problem comes in the form of BrewDog’s Lost Forest project, one of the UK’s largest native woodland and peatland restoration projects and the largest corporate-backed initiative of its kind.

It will take decades for the Lost Forest to grow, so in the meantime Watt and his team plan to carry on with its partners on credible offsetting initiatives while prioritising decarbonisation, although the company is acutely aware that the prices in these markets look set to skyrocket.

“For the moment, the plan is to continue the contracts we have with our partners, but we’ll work with our scientific advisors to figure out how we can spend our money to have the best positive impact,” Watt added.

“If there’s a point in time where removals become too expensive, then the ones we’re using ourselves become much more attractive and part of the mix… We’ll see if our strategy needs to change as the scenario changes.”

Employee engagement

It is hard to have a conversation about the work that BrewDog is doing without referring to the allegations that the company, at least in the US, had “created a culture of fear”.

Watt has publicly responded to these issues, claiming that BrewDog was going to “reach out to the entire team past and present to learn”.

On the employee front, Watt told edie that the company is incentivising individual staff members to act more sustainably by “gamifying” carbon reduction in partnership with PawPrints. An internal forum has also been set up to allow staff to express ideas on how the company can become more energy and resource efficient.

Watt added that he wanted the “whole company” to be part of BrewDog’s sustainability initiative.

“I think everyone needs to become acutely aware of how stark the problem is,” Watt added. “We’re facing an existential climate crisis that is only worsening. There’s still a window to change this and radical action is required on our watch. We’re in a precarious predicament that requires action.

“We’ve got different sustainability groups across our business and it can’t just be a top-down approach, the whole company has to come with us on this journey and contribute.

“I’ve told people before that it’s okay for this business to fail, but it’s not okay for this planet to fail.”

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