new20belgium20brewery20logoInteresting article today in the New York Times’ “Green Inc.” blog focusing on New Belgium’s energy sustainability efforts and how the company has marketed itself in this increasingly green-happy world. 

While it seems New Belgium has been on the front end of the sustainability curve since 1999 when it began using wind power from its local utility to run its operations, a disgruntled former employee publicly balked at the brewery’s claims that its facilities are “100% wind-powered” since the company had been purchasing renewable energy credits for the right to claim its power was sourced from a wind farm (even though it technically wasn’t).

Now, anyone who understands the renewable energy or carbon trading markets knows how this works…the renewable energy credit is an environmental commodity purchased at a premium on the voluntary open market that in effect subsidizes the production of renewable energy. This renewable energy is then eventually fed into the energy grid at some point down the road. In this case, New Belgium’s electricity was likely sourced from a traditional fossil fuel burning power plant, but because they bought the credits, the pollution from the fossil fuels would be offset by the eventual production of carbon neutral wind power. At least, that’s the theory. This practice is relatively commonplace, accepted, and a key driver in the promotion and use of renewable energy technologies. But, it isn’t exactly the same thing as running your own wind farm.

New Belgium initially dismissed the former employee’s claims of greenwashing, but to its credit in 2007 took a step back and came clean (no pun intended) on its production and marketing practices, reexamining the accuracy and transparency of its green efforts. From the article:

“Looking forward from that incident, the company has laid out a number of sustainability ambitions. Among other things, New Belgium noted that packaging and transporting of raw materials, including barley, which is imported from faraway Wisconsin, account for nearly half of its overall footprint. As a result, Ms. Orgolini [New Belgium’s sustainability director] said the company was investing in research to harvest local barley, and that it was opening a new packaging facility designed to reduce carbon emissions. The company also reported that it had partnered with the City of Fort Collins, Colorado State University and ‘other energy-focused companies’ in applying for a grant from the Department of Energy to fund a project aimed at reducing peak-load electricity demand.

Last Spring, the D.O.E. granted the city and its partners $6.3 million in funding toward that end, and New Belgium said it now plans to install $4 million in energy-saving technologies — ‘funded 50 percent in house, 25 percent by the D.O.E. and 25 percent by in-kind donations,’ according to the sustainability report. It is ‘our biggest single project,’ Ms. Orgolini said.”

So what’s the takeaway? I think as corporate America gets more settled on the green bandwagon and claims of greenwashing periodically arise, it seems even relatively smaller breweries aren’t immune from intensifying scrutiny. I think this story also demonstrates how advocates (or badvocates, in this case) can truly impact an organization’s reputation in the marketplace and spur change in business practices.

I guess if you’re going to market yourself as green and sustainable, you better truly walk the walk. Sounds like New Belgium is taking the right steps in that direction.