Wine Industry Sustainability: Social Equity

Panel at Green Wine Summit relays importance of protecting employees and customers

by Kate Lavin
domaine carneros solar
A 15,700-square-foot solar installation shed light on the social equity aspect of sustainability at Domaine Carneros. Photo: SunPower Corp.
Napa, Calif.—Many people consider social equity the element of “sustainability” not related to the environment, but at Napa’s 45,000-case Domaine Carneros Ltd., the company’s dedication to social equity was first powered by the solar panels installed at the Napa sparkling wine facility.

“The employees were very interested” when the company installed solar panels in 2003. “They wanted to know more,” Domaine Carneros CEO and winemaker Eileen Crane said Wednesday as a member of a “Greening Your Organization” panel at the Green Wine Summit.

“We found that as soon as we opened the door on green, a lot of people started coming forward and saying, ‘let’s look into this;’” sharing their own ideas for improvements, she said.

Crane credited this spirit of openness with her company’s ability to push through the recession without laying off staff. The employees’ ability to devise ways to “run more economically made it possible to not do layoffs and not take away benefits,” she said.

Crane was one of four speakers on the panel moderated by Geni Whitehouse of the accounting and advisory firm Brotemarkle & Davis during the fourth annual event at the Napa Valley Marriott. Michele Rodriguez, a panelist and program manager with experience promoting sustainability in both public and private sectors, said that in the classic definition of sustainability—the “Three E’s” of Economics, Environment and social Equity—the components are equally balanced. Social equity is as important as commitment to economic health and the environment.

When it comes to making changes, Rodriguez said, sustainable companies adhere to two tenets:

1. Don’t take action unless you know it creates no harm.
2. Consider how each decision relates to your employees’ quality of life, and their productivity for you.

Rodriguez recommended that business leaders weigh issues such as providing a living wage, the importance of child care and flex time and long-term considerations such as health care and employee ownership.

New view of sustainability
For Andrew Bryson, vice president of consulting at global advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, helping Wal-Mart with its sustainability mission changed the way he thought about the concept. After surveying Wal-Mart employees all over the country, Bryson and his team found, “People overwhelmingly gravitated to social equity-type issues as the one thing they wanted to change.

“It forced us to think of a more holistic definition for sustainability,” he said, adding that employees’ interest in health and wellness inspired a corporate initiative to help workers quit smoking and lose weight. Relaying sustainability goals and achievements to employees is as important as communicating them to consumers, he said. “The cultural piece often gets left out of the equation, but it’s a really important part.”

The emphasis on health also predated the solar installation at Domaine Carneros, where Crane said organic farming practices were born from a desire to keep employees as removed as possible from exposure to vineyard pesticides and herbicides. As a benefit, she added, these farming practices have saved the company money over time (the winery began experimenting with organic growing in the early 1990s).

For human resources manager Lora Price of 275,000-case Mumm Napa, employee training and education plays an important role in sustainable certifications such as Napa Green, which her winery earned this year.

“Once you get those certifications, you have to maintain them, and how do you maintain them? Train your employees,” Price said. “If you don’t’ train your employees, you don’t maintain, and you’ve wasted your time.”

She added that new Mumm Napa employees learn about winery recycling programs and water and electricity use to help them feel ownership of sustainability at the winery. Getting employee buy-ins is a key to the success of sustainability programs, Price said. “A lot of the ideas we’ve implemented came from below.”

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