From case-study to company-wide vision: How Absolut is expanding its carbon neutrality ambitions

EXCLUSIVE: Back in 2013, The Absolut Company achieved carbon-neutral certification for its distillery in the Swedish village of Ahus. With its sights now set on company-wide carbon neutrality by 2030, how will the company turn this case study into an overarching vision?

From case-study to company-wide vision: How Absolut is expanding its carbon neutrality ambitions

Pictured: Absolut’s director of sustainable performance Tina Robertsson at the company's only distillery

With less than 10,000 permanent residents, Ahus, Sweden, is perhaps not the place you’d expect to find pioneering low-carbon technologies.

 But aside from eel-eating parties and handball tournaments, it’s where Absolut has been producing its namesake vodka for more than a century. Since 2004, the company has been using just one distillery to produce all vodka it sells across 150+ markets and, six years ago, the facility received carbon neutral certification.

Reaching this status required a number of changes: the facility was placed on a 100% renewable electricity contract which prioritises locally generated hydropower; energy efficiency systems were implemented; investments were made in carbon offsets that fund reforestation in Mexico.

Progress at the distillery has laid the foundations for Pernod-Ricard-owned Absolut to set an ambitious emissions pledge in 2016: to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, across not only direct (Scope 1) and power-related (Scope 2) areas, but indirect (Scope 3) sources too.

Speaking exclusively to edie, Absolut’s director of sustainable performance Tina Robertsson explained that achieving carbon neutrality for the distillery was a “long journey” consisting of two key steps – namely championing operational efficiencies and then assessing lifecycle emissions across the value chain. Crucially, it was the latter of these steps that ultimately resulted in Absolut’s 2030 target.

“Initially, we were focusing on our energy efficiency – we have a philosophy that the best energy we use is the energy we don’t use at all,” Robertsson said, noting that the distillery’s energy consumption in 2018 was 40% lower than in 2004.

“Step two was taken when we realised we wanted to have wider and bigger impacts for the whole value chain.”

Challenge as opportunity

To that end, Absolut completed an analysis of its Scope 3 emissions in 2014, concluding that most were accounted for by three key activities: wheat cultivation, packaging, and transport.

“It was important for us to see the areas which we needed to focus on; as we’d worked so hard on production, we set a target to achieve carbon-neutral production without compensation [offsetting] by 2030 and begun analysing other which other aspects of the value chain we could work on,” Robertsson said.

On the first of these areas – wheat – Absolut prides itself on having a “one source story” to tell and procures all wheat from a network of farms in Skane, Sweden. This, Robertsson explains, helps to ensure traceability and consistency. But, as with most agricultural activity, it also generates CO2 emissions from fertiliser and spurs the soil itself to emit NOx.

In order to reduce these emission sources, Robertsson said, workers on Absolut’s 338 farms will shortly be required to sign an updated version of the company’s contract, which will commit them to using fertiliser produced using resource-efficient, low-carbon methods. They will also be supported to switch to biofuel tractors.

While work on wheat sustainability has been ongoing since the 1990s, decarbonising Absolut’s transport, Robertsson added, remains “the hardest part” of the puzzle. While “having the power of agreements” has helped the firm begin to transition to biogas-powered and electric road transport, container shipping will be a harder battle.

According to a report by the European Parliament, the international shipping industry is currently responsible for about 2.5% of global CO2 emissions – more than aviation. Many nations and corporates have signed the IMO’s agreement to halve emissions by 2023, against a 2008 baseline, but with slow progress in electrifying larger vessels and industrialising low-carbon fuels, high levels of offsetting remain firmly on the table as a solution.

Absolut’s final central carbon challenge, packaging, largely stems from the fact that its portfolio consists almost entirely of glass bottles and aluminium cans. While these materials benefit from higher reuse and recycling rates than plastic and are therefore less likely to end up polluting land or water, they are most carbon-intense to produce and heavier to transport. Indeed, some lifecycle analyses of beverage packaging have concluded that aluminium and glass used in this way generate 11 and 30 times more emissions than PET.

Aware of these issues but wishing to avoid the so-called ‘war on plastics’, Absolut’s head of future packaging Louise Werner is working alongside Robertsson to increase the proportion of recycled glass used in vodka bottles and to help the company’s glass manufacturer increase biogas use.

The company’s ability to do this, Werner admitted, is largely due to its geographical location and its suppliers’ “growing interest” in climate issues.

“In Sweden, more and more companies are showing an interest in biogas,” Werner said. “Here, this work is about collaboration. Yes, it’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity to go on a journey together.”

Continual collaborations

Aside from glass, Absolut’s latest collaborative initiative on low-carbon packaging was kick-started last month, when it joined the Paper Bottle Community. Under the initiative, the likes of Carlsberg and L’Oreal are working with material developer BillerudKorsnäs and bottle manufacturing specialist Alpla to create a paper-based beverage bottle that is both biodegradable and recyclable.

Carlsberg has created two prototype paper bottles, both with an inner “barrier” that enables them to house beer. One version prototype uses a thin recycled PET polymer film barrier, and the other a 100% bio-based PEF polymer film barrier.

Plastics critics have argued that switching away from glass and aluminium to pilot mixed-material packaging which contains plastics is disingenuous. But Werner sees the situation differently and emphasised Absolut’s desire not to roll out new packaging without full analyses of all environmental impacts across the lifecycle.

“As we enter a world with more single-use packaging, we need a different way of looking at our packaging portfolio,” she explained, noting that glass bottles experienced far higher reuse rates in the 1990s and prior. “When it comes to a single-use product, a paper bottle is a great thing – and when we get to the position of a bio-based and recyclable paper bottle, this could be a fantastic opportunity.”

“We’re cautious to make any predictions on timescale or impact, as this is a pioneering project and a developing project – but we’re hoping to know, within the next five years, what its full potential is; how the bottles will be transported; how they fit in to carbon reduction; how they will perform in different conditions and pressures; and so on.”

Prototypes of Absolut’s paper bottles will be completed in spring and used to house a ready-to-drink pre-mixed beverage, which Werner claims will be easier to contain using natural fibres than straight vodka, due to its lower alcohol content.

Not resting on their laurels, Absolut will also continue to collaborate with Pernod Ricard’s other brands in a bid to meet the overarching goals of the Group’s new sustainability strategy. The framework is aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and includes a science-based target to halve group-wide emissions across all Scopes by 2030 – a goal which Robertsson believes Absolut could help other brands deliver.

Absolut was a state-owned company until it was purchased by Pernod Ricard in 2008 – a move which enabled the business to expand to sell into 150 markets globally. While this expansion has undoubtedly increased emissions, Robertsson believes the Pernod Ricard takeover has ultimately been positive from a sustainability perspective, giving Absolut representatives the opportunity to sit on a sustainability steering committee and task force; access training; and collaborate in a pre-competitive way with other brands to share best practice.

She concluded: “As a brand within a group, we really try our best to have the lowest carbon emissions of all the cohort – but we don’t see this as competing. If we take the lead, we can help others; they can come to us for advice on technical solutions.

“We often have differences in the group and that is a strength.”

edie’s Net-Zero November

This article forms part of edie’s Net-Zero November, a month of content and events to inform and inspire sustainability professionals to push towards net-zero. You can read all our Net-Zero November content here.

Additionally, if you have a net-zero carbon target, or a commitment to set one, that has recently been announced you can add it to our Mission Possible Pledge Wall here.

Sarah George  

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