Empty liquor bottle lying on beach.

Making every global crisis a marketing opportunity: alcohol industry corporate activism

Making every global crisis a marketing opportunity: alcohol industry corporate activism

Abbie-Clare Vidler and Keira Bury

The alcohol industry were among many organisations participating in World Environment Day, held by the United Nations Environment Programme on 5 June. The theme of the celebrations was ‘Only One Earth’, a call back to the theme’s use at the world’s first environment conference 50 years ago. As a platform for inspiring positive change, more than 150 countries participated, with engagement from “government, businesses, civil society, schools, celebrities, cities and communities to raise awareness and celebrate environmental action”.

However, the alcohol industry were eager to use this occasion to promote their ‘environmental credentials’ without taking responsibility for their role in the issue. This year, every major alcohol producer operating in Australia shared on social media their commitment to global sustainability initiatives. The Heineken Company highlighted the planned transition of their Nigerian breweries to renewable energy by 2030, helping to build their consumer base as part of a targeted expansion across Africa. Australian-led Accolade Wines is working towards “making every drop count” with 98% of their Australian and European packaging recyclable; with the strategy’s enactment in South Australia found to cut waste disposal costs by half.

Although the alcohol industry is working hard to publicise their efforts building sustainability into their operations, these initiatives are also being put in place to help their bottom line. Research has found that the extreme weather caused by climate change will result in more frequent droughts and heat waves, reducing global barley production, decreasing the beer supply and driving up prices. Spirits producers will also be affected by changes to barley production, and experience similar issues with the production of wheat, corn, potatoes, rice, botanicals, sugar cane, and agave. The wine industry is also combating soil degradation, reducing biodiversity, groundwater contamination, and CO2 emissions resulting from fermentation, packaging, and transport.

The World Health Organization estimates that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional annual deaths from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, and heat stress. Addressing climate change will require collective action; however, the alcohol industry’s involvement in this issue and its use of World Environment Day to promote sustainability initiatives which improve their profits is a clear contradiction.

The diversion of global resources to the production of alcoholic beverages that contribute to significant human harm cannot be countered by an alcohol company using solar panels to cool their drinks. Attempts by the alcohol industry to harness efforts to combat climate change can hardly be celebrated, when alcohol use adversely affects 14 of the 17 sustainable development goals, and 54 of its targets.

But it is not just climate catastrophe that draws Big Alcohol’s attention to health and social issues. The alcohol industry used the deadly global COVID-19 pandemic as a key platform for marketing their harmful products. Retailers leveraged public health measures, like social distancing and lockdowns, to market online sales channels and drinking occasions at home, resulting in increased profit.

Following the floods in New South Wales and Queensland earlier this year which resulted in the destruction of 2,000 homes and deaths of four people, the alcohol industry leapt into action. A primary focus was the impact of this natural disaster on the brewing industry whose numerous venues and production facilities were affected. In just a few weeks, the ‘Flood Relief Pale Ale’ was promoted, with proceeds going to the Ingrained Foundation, a not-for profit created by Stone & Wood and the Fermentum Family of businesses. Another example of the many initiatives of the alcohol industry was the Lion-owned XXXX brewery in the flood-affected region of Milton delivering cartons of beer to affected homes in the area.

Even the war in Ukraine has provided a platform for alcohol producers to put their products top of mind for a socially conscious buyer. Australian alcohol producers developed the ‘Puck Futin’ beer and shared the recipe for ‘Solidarity Brew’, which could be used by the global brewing industry to show solidarity with their Ukrainian counterparts. An estimated 350 multinationals also withdrew their operations from Russia after its invasion of Ukraine to show they were taking a strong stance against the injustice. The brands who volunteered to cease or suspend their operations were able to use this decision to promote their companies’ ethical operations. Those who didn’t act soon enough to pre-empt sanctions and avoid community boycotts, were forced to take action to save face. Movendi International’s monitoring of the situation found Carlsberg and Heineken’s delayed action brought the greatest scrutiny of any alcohol producer operating in Russia, as their unwillingness to withdraw operations from one of their major markets couldn’t be smoothed over by the promise of major donations to nameless charities.

Aligning alcohol brands so strongly with prominent social and environmental causes allows them to target ethical consumers and boost profits. With socially conscious consumerism gaining momentum, research has identified that 73% of millennials would spend more money on sustainable products and prefer to support brands who make ethical and socially responsible decisions. The conspicuous use of corporate social responsibility by the alcohol industry also aids their reputation management and deflects attention from the significant social and environmental harms of their operations, and the potential enactment of regulations that could limit their activity and these harms.

Abbie-Clare Vidler and Keira Bury are part of the Alcohol Programs Team at Cancer Council Western Australia.

Image: Scott Van Hoy/Unsplash

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