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PDX 2010 Green Line Series: Brewing up a Green Storm With Ann Widmer

Ann Widmer GoGreen ConferenceWidmer Brothers Brewing Company is a Portland institution and a national ambassador of our beer culture. But they’re also doing a lot to promote sustainability as an important—and profitable—part of being a business in the 21st century. The Chair of Widmers’  Sustainability Committee and GoGreen Portland 2010 speaker, Ann Widmer, chats with us about their values, how they implement sustainable initiatives and where the conversation needs to go from here.

GoGreen: Widmer is a staple of the Portland community and an ambassador for the region in other areas of the country and world. How does your team tackle that responsibility as far as sustainability is concerned?
Ann Widmer:
We take sustainability seriously, but we also have fun with it. I should say that sustainability, to us, is not just about the environment. We include financial, social, and employee responsibility as well. So, as our CFO reminds me, we must be fiscally responsible, so that we can afford our environmental programs. We are also in the process of becoming an ISO 14001 company, which helps us build a management structure that supports sustainable practices in our breweries and our restaurants like the Gasthaus.

GG: How does Widmer leverage its overall success and success with sustainable ventures specifically, and roll it into the narrative that you’re building for the company?
It’s a part of our brand. It’s become who we are—authentic–not just a line in our brochure.  It includes the fact that Kurt and Rob [Widmer] were and continue to be incredibly honest about sustainability.

There are these parts of your brand that illustrate who you are as people and what you believe in. For us, sustainability is one piece of that, along with honesty and quality. So if the beer isn’t up to our standard or that of the tasting panel, we don’t sell it. We’re also innovating in sustainable ways. I know these are really old values, and they probably sound really hokey, but they’re important to us.

GG: Brewing beer is a very technical business. There are a lot of intricacies and complexity built into your value chain. What have been some of your challenges in taking sustainability to scale and how did you craft solutions that fit your business?
There are many levels on which we try to implement sustainability in our company. The first is all of the things our employees do. I’m really fortunate—I didn’t have to ‘sell’ sustainability to our employees. I get more suggestions from employees on what we can do to be more sustainable in a year than we can possibly ever do. And they’re really good ideas that usually don’t cost a ton. So we try to keep all our employees engaged, because they’re so valuable in this process. We are presently working on a system to support and reward employees for their contributions, and I would welcome any advice from others about how best to do this.

The other thing is that I’ve always had executive backing for the bigger things that have to do with our distribution chain and brewing operation such as our usage of natural gas, electricity and water. We’re really proud of the fact that we have one of the lowest water to beer ratios in the craft brewing industry. Those are big initiatives that go through multiple departments and the executive team, because they often require expenditures and changes in the way people work.

GG: You went into how you engage your employees in this direction, but how do you engage the broader Widmer community in these initiatives?
We recycle everything at our events and in the Widmer Gasthaus. We also support other causes that are working to enhance the environment  through donations to other organizations that support sustainability. There’s this cyclical effect. It’s not just about us. We try not to throw things out into the community that represent our work poorly, or are not sustainable. We have point-of-sale touch points—everything from the beer labels, packing materials, cups, and wearables We  try to make sure that as many of those are biodegradable or recyclable as possible.

GG: Do you feel that in Portland and the Northwest (and maybe a few select other areas around the US) that there is a growing expectation that companies be sustainable? And if so, do you think that kind of peer pressure is a good thing?
Yes—Usually incentives are good, because they raise awareness. I have no problem with people asking me, ’how much water do you use?’ or ‘what do you do with your spent grain?’ The key, to me at least, is whether or not companies can demonstrate what they do through monitoring and metrics. We do very extensive monitoring on all of our energy use, our water use, recycling and transportation costs.

I think the consumer is starting to demand this kind of behavior from businesses. The other thing is that we sell beer from coast to coast. I think it becomes our job in the Northwest to be a beacon on this issue. I mean, not become the environmental police, but Oregon products that do hold high standards turn into ambassadors of sorts.

GG: What advice can you give to a business owner that wants to take things up a notch and get their business to a darker shade of green? What do you tell a business that’s already using recycled paper and off-setting their energy use with renewable energy credits (RECs)—what’s the next step for them?
Many businesses are doing a great job—some much better than us, but I would suggest getting in touch with the Portland’s BEST Business Center and requesting someone come out and do a site appraisal. They are not going to tell you how bad a job you’re doing. They’re really good at taking a snapshot of where you are and pointing out places where you can improve. They can tell you what is feasible within your budget and can even help you prioritize.

Maybe something you were looking into doing wouldn’t have much effect, but another initiative that is about the same in cost would have a much bigger impact. They can help you understand what will get you the most bang for your buck, and can often recommend resources that are available to help you.

The other thing I would suggest is to recognize that many components of sustainability are not very expensive in the long run. There are some things you can’t do—we couldn’t buy every employee an electric car, for example—but many initiatives are ultimately good for your bottom line. I think it’s important to make those choices now—particularly in this economy. This is a newer concept in accountability that also considers the “top line” value of long-term sustainability.

GG: You mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that sustainability is about more than just the environment. Where do you think the conversation on sustainability—as it becomes more sophisticated—needs to go and what are the issues the green business community needs to tackle in order to make progress?
That’s so complex. It’s a book! One is to realize that sustainability has to be global. I think we’ve passed the point where acting locally is the only thing we need do. That’s still important, but we have to recognize there are decisions we’re making, politically and financially, as a country, that are having global environmental impacts.

And locally, we are in a tough economy and people need jobs. We need green employment opportunities—ways to transfer the technology and knowledge from the present working generation to the next.

I also think that universities need to find ways to bring environmental and social responsibility into all areas of their course work, rather than just a few select areas. It should be a thread that runs through the humanities, the sciences, health care, business, etc. in order to instill a greater respect for the diversity of people and our planet.

GG: What can business owners do to help push the process? Is it to focus on ourselves and do our own thing? Or do we need to get more involved?
I think business owners influence more than their own companies  by their choices—both upstream and downstream. For instance, we influence it by selecting vendors who enact sustainable principles and use green products.  Increasingly there are certification processes in place to rely on. When you select those vendors who are investing in certification and sustainable actions, you are encouraging people who want your business to participate in best practices.

Businesses buy as well as sell. If we can’t know the genesis of a product because it’s made in a place we can’t environmentally monitor, then I think we have to reconsider that purchase even if the price is less. If companies keep engaging in this cycle, everyone will eventually have to improve, and at some point that becomes the standard. The Northwest is further along in their expectations that businesses be sustainable.

GG: Anything else you want to add before we wrap up?
I just want to emphasize how important it is to be in sync with what your employees believe and what they want. You are far more likely to be successful if you start with what your employees value and believe in. Listening is the key, then prioritizing and choosing what people want to do and can afford to do. We’ve been really lucky to have employees and a sustainability committee who are passionate about their company, their community and the environment. They really are the heart of our efforts.

Ann Widmer is the Chair of Widmer Brothers Sustainability Committee and Emeritus Professor at Concordia University’s School of Management. She is also a featured speaker at the GoGreen Conference 2010 in Portland, Oregon on October 5, 2010. To register for GoGreen Conference 2010 Portland, please visit: http://www.portland.gogreenconference.net/registration. GoGreen ‘09 sold out, so make sure to sign up soon!

To learn more about Ann Widmer and Widmer Brothers Brewing Company, visit: http://www.widmer.com. Follow them on Twitter at: @Widmer_Brothers.