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The Chilean Wine Industry is Redefining What it Means to be Sustainable

The Chilean Wine Industry is Redefining What it Means to be Sustainable

Photo Credit: Wines of Chile

It’s one thing to center sustainability efforts around what happens in the vineyard or in the cellar. It’s quite another to include “social responsibility” and all it entails as a core component of such an initiative. But that’s exactly what the Wines of Chile (“WOC”) organization did when it created the Sustainability Code of the Chilean Wine Industry (“Sustainability Code”). This Sustainability Code employs a magnificently comprehensive approach encompassing everything from vineyard and cellar practices to social issues and even tourism. “There’s a pretty holistic approach in this code. It is very complete,” says Julio Alonso, Executive Director, Wines of Chile USA.

Of course, sustainability is not new to Chile. It has always been an integral part of the country’s fabric. As early as 1830, French-born botanist Claude Gay begin laying the foundation for the country’s sense of agricultural protection and consciousness. He was responsible for some of Chile’s first investigations into local flora and fauna, advocated in favor of creating a government agency to improve agriculture, and protected the country from the perils of imported plant diseases. And from there, the work continued.

Chile’s comprehensive Sustainability Code is divided into four areas – vineyard, winery/bottling plant, social sector, and tourism – and includes a mind-boggling 346 requirements. Full certification takes about two years on average which necessitates a strong commitment from producers who wish to become certified. Despite the fact that certification is purely voluntary and has only been around for a short period, the Sustainability Code has been embraced by a significant portion of the country’s producers. “Yes it’s ten years old and I think it’s been pretty fast. In 10 years we have almost 85% of the exports from wineries that are certified sustainable.” That represents close to one hundred producers that have achieved certification. And more are coming on board. “Our focus recently is on helping the smaller producers get certified” says Alonso. “I believe they see that there is commitment and [we are] seeing this reflected in the quality of the wines.”

As one would expect, the section of the Sustainability Code covering vineyard practices includes initiatives around sustainable soil management, fertilization methods, hazardous waste management, disease and weed control, decreasing the use of fertilizers and chemicals, and responsible water use. But it also covers things such as reforestation with native trees and developing conservation zones. Inside the winery, the focus is on energy and water conservation, waste residue methods, recycling, contamination prevention, and emissions reduction. Even a winery’s heating, cooling, and ventilation are taken into account.

But the Sustainability Code’s most remarkable feature is its section on social initiatives. And these initiatives are an integral part of the code. “It’s relevant because greater than 150 among the 346 requirements are in the social aspect,” says Alonso. It’s also an area where the country excels. Always looking to improve, Chile recently did a benchmark survey comparing its Sustainability Code with the codes from other other regions. “Social was the first [item] that stood out where we are more advanced and have more protections,” shares Alonso.

Among the social initiatives addressed include working life quality, employment contracts, health and safety, non-discrimination, professional development, and community relations. How often do we see the welfare and development of workers through training, labor certification and scholarships as priorities in the wine industry? In Chile, the goal is that down the road, concepts like ethical labor and human rights won’t be a big deal. “We have a business ethics code, we have an ethics code for suppliers, we have diversity respect and promotion rules. We also have respect to the local communities which is not something that many codes cover,” says Alonso. The goal is not only to cover the singular actions of producers, but also their interactions with clients, suppliers, surrounding communities, tourists – and more.

Without a doubt, there is a good, real, and authentic interest in social aspects among Chileans. During the country’s unrest in October 2019 where the large wealth gap and lack of middle class was a major issue, the country’s citizens showed what was most important. “The conclusion of this was very democratic and pretty civilized because we elected a body to write a new constitution,” shares Alonso of the favorable resolution of the conflict. “An analogy is that Chile has that social and democratic tradition, or at least intention, and I think it’s something remarkable.” At the time many were concerned about the social unrest and how terrible it was for a stable country. But looking at the big picture and how things were resolved, it ended up being a very positive thing. Fairness for all whether it be income equality or in the wine industry.

The fourth section of the Sustainably Code that has recently been brought online in 2020 is the section devoted to sustainably in tourism. It is closely tied to the country’s social initiatives and really is unique to Chile alone. “The tourism [section] is not something considered in other codes in the world,” says Alonso. “What we are regulating there is pretty much social as well. Things like all the workers that work in the tourism side, how they should be treated, and basic rules for protecting the employees.” In addition to staff working conditions, things like staff training, food waste, sustainable lodging, and even a focus on hiring local suppliers where possible are all covered in the tourism section of the Sustainability Code. The code even covers the tourist experience. Alonso shares that tourists “need to find certain minimum conditions in the wineries.” In the grand scheme of things, it all makes sense as over one million people visit Chilean wineries each year which ultimately helps to cement brand loyalty.

So remarkable is the work being done in Chile, that other regions (including Alentejo in Portugal) have looked to it for inspiration when designing their own sustainability initiatives. It’s quite a remarkable feat for a small New World country to inspire an Old World region’s values and ideals. Consumers looking for these wines need only to look for a prominent seal that reads “Certified Sustainable Wine of Chile” when trying to find these wines.