Wheat and Relationships

INTERVIEW WITH THOMAS OLSSON

"WE HAVE PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS WITH OUR SUPPLIERS THAT OFTEN GO BACK GENERATIONS, ENSURING CONTINUITY AND QUALITY."

Thomas olsson is the Laboratory Manager at the distillery in the small village of Nöbbelöv where Absolut Vodka is produced. He is responsible for the company’s programme for wheat farmers, based on techniques developed together with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.  The aim is to minimize environmental impact while enhancing sustainability in the wheat production. By improving farming methods, the quality of the soil and water is maintained. 

“We use hardy winter wheat that is rich in starch, which makes it well-suited for vodka production. Wheat that is used for bread is higher in protein, but lower in starch – it is the starch that we need to make exceptional vodka.” 

Every day about 500 tons of winter wheat arrive at the Nöbbelöv Distillery. The wheat is grown in Skåne in southern Sweden by nearly 400 farmers and comprises 15-20 percent of the total wheat harvest in this province. The Absolut Company has high demands and the farmers must follow specific directions to minimize the negative effects of cultivation on the environment and to ensure the quality that is needed to produce Absolut Vodka. 

“By choosing to use winter wheat, we have made a sustainable choice. These types of wheat are more hardy and they need less irrigation, chemicals and nutrients.” 

Intense use of fertilizers in agriculture has resulted in eutrophication in the Baltic Sea, in streams and lakes. By reducing the use and leakage of nutrients, the health of surrounding water sheds and ecosystems is improved. The Absolut Company decided early on not to go organic, but rather to work with suppliers to reduce their use of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. 

“There are fungi and other pests that can damage the crop. We require a consistent supply of winter wheat, and this can only be guaranteed if there is room for use of agrochemicals when needed. Instead of choosing organic wheat, we developed our own programme for sustainable production.” 

The Absolut Company’s wheat programme consists of two parts: regulations that the farmers must follow and guidance to help them improve the sustainability of the farms. Farmers who meet the standards are paid more, creating incentives for future improvements. “We have demands in terms of both agricultural methods and the product. The wheat must meet quality standards and contain a certain amount of starch. This is to ensure that our product - Absolut Vodka - will have the same flavor and other characteristics over and over again.” 

There are regulations for the use of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, and some substances that may still be used in Sweden are not allowed on farms that produce for The Absolut Company. Occasionally pesticides are needed so it is not organic farming, but the company has rules about what kinds of chemicals 

can be used, and the farmers must document their use and demonstrate that it was necessary. “Sometimes farmers use pesticides preventatively. Our suppliers are urged not to do this and if we find out that pesticides have been used unnecessarily, we question the cooperation. This has only happened a few times. We have personal relationships with our suppliers that often go back generations, ensuring continuity and quality.” 

The use of fertilizers increases growth and yields, but the wheat produced is low in starch, and hence unsuitable for producing vodka. There is an optimal dose of fertilizer that gives 
high yields without impoverishing the soil, which is one reason why The Absolut Company wants its suppliers to use less fertilizer. Reducing the nutrient input also benefits the wider environment. The company has guidance for farmers on optimizing the application of fertilizers. By adding fertilizer at the right time in the plant’s life cycle the growth, and hence the harvest, is enhanced without the negative effects of nutrient leakage. 

The work to increase sustainability in the fields continues. The company has started to map climate impact from the wheat production, by gathering information on the methods and resources used on the farms. Furthermore, there are ongoing studies on biodiversity in the areas where the wheat is grown. Biodiversity loss is a global and accelerating problem; in southern Sweden many species have already been lost and even more are threatened. By getting access to this project, the Absolut Company hopes to find out which species exist on and near the wheat fields, and then find ways to protect and conserve these species. 

“It is always a bit difficult to introduce new methods or systems for our suppliers, the farmers. In the beginning, when we rolled out the wheat programme, they regarded it as an extra burden. Now they are starting to see the advantages. Their costs for fertilizers and pesticides are reduced, but they still get high yields and good pay. Even so, most importantly, they are proud to be contributing to our sustainability work.”

WHEAT

  • The company’s programme for wheat farmers aims at minimizing environmental impact while enhancing sustainability in the wheat production. By improving farming methods, the quality of the soil and water is maintained. 

  • The Absolut Company’s wheat programme consists of two parts: regulations that the farmers must follow and guidance to help them improve the sustainability of the farms. Farmers who meet the standards are paid more, creating incentives for future improvements.  

  • The company has also started to map climate impact from the wheat production, by gathering information on the methods and resources used on the farms. 

Climate Neutral Production

ANNA SCHREIL

"WE SEE AN OPPORTUNITY AND A RESOURCE WHERE OTHERS MAY SEE A PROBLEM OR WASTE."

Right from start our sustainability work has been  driven by our passion for progression. We try to do   everything a little better next time. This is what motivates us to do great things.” 

Anna Schreil is VP Operations in Åhus, which includes responsibility for sustainability in production and internal logistics. She talks proudly about the company’s environmental results over the last ten years. 

“By including all employees and harnessing ideas and knowledge throughout the company, we’ve reduced our use of energy and fossil fuels, and thereby reduced our greenhouse gas emissions. Together with our business partners and suppliers we’ve cut carbon emissions per litre vodka by 80 percent since 2004.” 

The Absolut Company lives by the motto ‘the most sustainable energy is the energy that isn’t used’, and a lot of effort has been put into streamlining and optimizing processes. These efforts have delivered good results. Since 2004, energy use in the production has been reduced by almost half, and the Åhus plant is now the world’s most energy-efficient distillery. At the same time the emissions of greenhouse gases have been reduced by 80 percent, by switching to green electricity, using district heating and by phasing out fossil fuels. 

“40 percent of our local deliveries are made with renewable fuels. We’re aiming for 80 percent by 2020, and not long after that all our transport will run on renewable fuels. We’ve built our own filling station for locally-produced biodiesel and we’ve switched from rape-seed to leftovers from slaughterhouses for the production of biodiesel so as to avoid appropriating raw materials that could be used for food. Instead, we take care of waste and turn it into a resource. I think this is a great example of our sustainability work – we see an opportunity and a resource where others may see a problem or waste.”

About 600,000 bottles of Absolut Vodka are produced each day in Åhus. Production at this scale involves a lot of transport. The majority of the bottles produced in Åhus are exported and consumed in other countries; only 1 percent is sold in Sweden. To reduce the emissions from logistics, the company uses mostly sea freight for international distribution. To contribute to making freight more sustainable, the Absolut Company is a member of the Clean Shipping Index, which works across the entire shipping industry. 

However, some production-related emissions remain. To take responsibility for these emissions, The Absolut Company invests in the Plan Vivo certified forestry project “Scolel’té”, or “The Tree that Grows” in Chiapas, Mexico. The project supports smallscale farmers to cultivate their land on a long-term basis through planting trees in combination with crops, so called agro-forestry. Deforested areas are reforested. While the trees grow they absorb carbon dioxide, thereby removing it from the atmosphere. The Absolut Company funds planting of enough trees to absorb the carbon dioxide emitted from the company’s production. The project provides more than carbon offsetting; it also contributes to increased bio-diversity and improved livelihoods for the farmers and their families.

“Absolut Vodka is basically an agricultural product for which we depend on the ability of around 400 local farmers to grow high-quality wheat. Therefore, it seemed natural to choose Plan Vivo, which supports smallholders, even though the project is in another part of the world.” 

The vision for 2040 is to close the loop, with 100  percent sustainable wheat “This is a challenge for us, but we like challenges. We’ve already picked off the low-hanging fruits so now we have to focus on the ones a bit higher up in the tree. But at the end of the day, I don’t think we have any option. We have only one planet. It is everyone’s responsibility to work unceasingly to minimize our negative impacts. We can’t settle for the results we’ve achieved so far. We’re driven by always trying to do better.” 

CLIMATE

  • 40 percent of the local deliveries are made with renewable fuels. The goal is to use renewable fuels in 80 percent of these transports by 2020. 

  • The company has built a filling station for locally produced biodiesel, made from leftovers from slaughterhouses. 

  • To reduce the emissions from logistics, the company uses mostly sea freight for international distribution. 

  • To take responsibility for the emissions that still remains, The Absolut Company invests in the Plan Vivo certified forestry project “Scolel’té”, or “The Tree that Grows” in Chiapas, Mexico.

Creativity for a Better World

INTERVIEW WITH ANNE ENGER

"WE GAINED A LOT FROM THIS PROCESS – BOTH IN TERMS OF NEW INNOVATIVE IDEAS AND INSIGHTS AND IN TERMS OF STRENGTHENED COOPERATION WITH OUR SUPPLIERS"

During the summer of 2015, The Absolut Company tested a new concept – Creative Space - for finding innovative solutions to reduce environmental impact. In Gröndal, south of Stockholm, containers that had previously been used to transport Absolut Vodka, were given a new life. 

“Every day, innovative people come up with brilliant ideas. We were looking for ways to access those ideas and to harness them to find more sustainable packaging solutions. At the same time, we wanted to tell people about the many good things we had already done. We used the containers both as exhibition spaces to showcase our sustainability work, and as places where entrepreneurs could come together to generate new ideas and solutions.” 

Anne Enger, Manager of Product Development and Realization at The Absolut Company, is one of the people behind the project. She says that the Creative Space builds on the belief that “Sharing is Caring” – that transparent and generous sharing of ideas and solutions is key to finding sustainable solutions. 

Aside from being used to display The Absolut Company’s work, the containers were used for a three-day hackathon, during which the participants dreamt up smart and bold ways to minimize the negative impacts of bottles and other packaging. Sixteen innovators, creators and industrial engineers worked on ways to address The Absolut Company’s sustainability challenges.

“The participants were chosen for their backgrounds and expertise. They were teamed up and tasked with fulfilling briefs from Absolut Company employees. After the hackathon the space was open for other entrepreneurs to work on their own projects, as long as they focused on ways to make the world a better place.”

There was enormous interest in the project, especially from young people that wanted to participate. The containers were visited by journalists and reporters and there was a lot of coverage in social media. International media highlighted the ambition to enhance sustainability, the innovative use of the containers and the links to community and young entrepreneurs. “The participants had a unique opportunity to work closely

with other innovative and creative people, and to be inspired by experts and other inspiring speakers who visited the project. It was a place where truly innovative ideas were generated.” 

The participants worked in groups or alone. They were asked to explore and present ideas for reducing the use of packaging materials and for prolonging the life of the bottles. 

“We asked the participants to ask themselves questions that had not been asked before such as, can we have multiple solutions for our products? or can the bottles be used for something else after they are emptied?  Packaging is one of our most significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions so we need to work hard to reduce its impact.” 

Anne Enger says that the idea of using members of the community to find new solutions fits with the company’s commitment to sharing and supporting communities. Instead of trying to solve the problem themselves, with Creative Space they invited the local community to help. 

After three days, the participants had produced eight ideas, of which one was selected as the winner. “We’ve shared the ideas with our suppliers and their networks so that they can work on ways to turn them into reality. We are sure that at least some of the solutions can be used for our products.” 

There are still a number of technical issues to be solved before the ideas can be used in The Absolut Company’s production and processes. 

“We’ve gained a lot from this process – both in terms of new ideas and insights, and in terms of strengthened cooperation with our suppliers. We believe that sharing really is caring, and with this project, I think we have given our suppliers deeper insight into our sustainability work, and demonstrated how important sustainability is for us. And it has been fun! I think that everyone involved -The Absolut Company employees, the hackathon participants, the visitors and the suppliers - was happy during the project. It generated a lot of positive energy.”