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business models, strategies and technologies

Rethinking the wine bottle

Reconsidering the business model for the ubiquitous wine bottle – a big, heavy object whose prime function lies in logistics and producer profiling

It’s (relatively) easy to declare that companies should rethink their business models so their activities don’t kill off the planet we need to live on. It’s less easy for companies to work out how to do something substantial. So here’s a quick look at some of the considerations that could be involved in rethinking the role of the wine bottle.

Redesigning ≠ rethinking

It’s important to note that redesigning isn’t the same as rethinking. Redesigning is about appearance, functionality and marginals – but doesn’t do anything significant about the energy-intensive processes of making the wine bottles, the huge environmental impact of transporting these heavy, space-hogging containers (empty and full) all over the world – and then having to do the same yet again to recover the materials and get them ready for re-use. In the big picture, this is a downward spiral of doom.

There have been numerous attempts over the years to tweak the shape of standard wine bottles to reduce weight, and therefore roll back some of the carbon footprint. Here’s a prototype design by Felicia Ferrone (with Jaeho Hur) that I found on the internet and that goes several steps beyond mere tweaks.This bottle design features an angled, spout-like opening, so it drips less. More importantly, the off-centre neck makes it possible to stack and transport bottles more efficiently – more bottles in less space reduces the relative environmental footprint of transporting them around the world. But this only provides a marginal “less damage” solution, and does nothing about the absolute impact of the transport and recycling processes needed. The same is true of lightweight polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles.

Another approach is a solution from Paper Boy Wines – bottles made of compressed recycled paper with a thin, recyclable plastic sleeve inside, like you find in a box of wine. These cardboard bottles are apparently 100% recyclable and 80% per cent lighter than glass.

The same materials replacement approach is used in Tetra Pak carton packaging for wine, which Tetra Pack seems to claim weighs 1/12th of the glass equivalent. Again, a substantially smaller environmental footprint.

Then there are different combinations of these relatively familiar alternative materials and good design, like this drool-worthy sculptural wedge from the Minimalist studio in South Korea.

But none of this really impacts the business model – they’re just new forms of packaging that are nicer to look at and marginally less damaging for the planet.

Smokescreen for realities?

It’s probably also worth asking some hard questions about the real function of the wine bottle – and whatever form of packaging that supplements or supersedes it. There’s room for re-assessment when the packaging weighs so much and costs so much (directly and indirectly) in relation to the liquid contents.

The fact is that the worldwide consumer demand for large volumes of wine at relatively low cost (a cost that usually involves transport to the other side of the planet) actually means commercial realities very different from the artisanal smokescreen of seductively labelled bottles. Globalised trade means shipping wine in bulk at minimum cost-per-volume, and has brought about a shift in where bottling is actually done. More than half of the wine exports from Australia, America and South Africa are now transported in massive plastic bladders known as flexitank bags (see here), often placed inside standard intermodal shipping containers. A flexitank normally holds the volume equivalent of 32,000 bottles compared to a standard container that carries approximately 12,000 bottles. The maths are clear …

Wine is often also transported in ISO tank containers (see here), and both flexitank containers and ISO tank containers can be placed in barges and on trains and trucks. And then there are stainless steel wine tanker trucks … All this for transporting chemical-laden, industrially produced intoxicants that are often bad for human health. Devil’s advocacy sometimes helps prick perception bubbles …

So for much of the wine industry (deliberate choice of words here), the wine bottle and it’s accompanying artisanal labelling is really a marketing decision, a powerful tool in moulding consumer perceptions.

But what if …?

Any idea that’d involve attempts to chuck out the huge juggernaut machinery of wine logistics and its vested interests isn’t ever going to be an easy sell.

So could there be gains to be had from repurposing existing infrastructure and putting it to better use? What if reputable companies added something like low-cost RFID tags to their bottles, and could then provide consumers with more information and background about the wine – promoting greater understanding and appreciation of what went into growing the grapes, concocting the chemistry and crafting the taste. This could pave the way to new, better-informed relationships between producer and consumer, with potential for shifting the value curve and working against the plonk plummet of inevitable lower-price competition.

Responsibility and appreciation?

What about using such locator tags to reconfigure the whole idea of traceability and responsibility? If a company could use some appropriate technology to identify exactly where its products are at any given time, it’d provide big opportunities for greater efficiency – wine companies could even add new dimensions to their commercial footprint by taking on the role of responsible logistics machines.

And why should wine companies’ environmental responsibilities stop with the grape and/or the transport? What if that tracer knowledge was used to make the wine company responsible for the life cycle of the wine bottles? This would add yet another dimension to their business model and another potential point of competitive differentiation, as well as an extra focus to the realm of their planet-defending responsibilities – a profile that could sit well if we remember that wine growing has its roots in agriculture, and certain claims of natural origin.

What about reducing environmental impacts by curtailing the length of the supply chain? Dialling back the wine world’s traditional snobbishness about terroir and origin, and paving the way to a greater appreciation of wine produced much closer to the markets where it’s consumed. After all, there’s something fundamentally grotesque about shipping wine from places like South Africa, Australia and Chile so European consumers can get a cheap buzz with their dinner …

This is actually happening successfully, on a small scale. Re-appreciation of the source/quality/environmental impact of wine logistics, wine-making and grape-growing could actually reconfigure and reinvigorate much of the industry. And the current climate turmoil might make a serious rethink of vineyard geography particularly opportune. Change the game before the game gets massively dented by the multiple impacts of climate change.  I’ll be writing about this in another post.

To consider this wine bottle rethink from a wholly different perspective, logistics is really the heart of the industry. So instead of each bottle having to make the whole trip to our tables, what if you could take your own containers to some kind of centralised wine emporium, where you can try, taste, compare and be drawn into the sensuous experience, rather than just handling an inert, everything-hidden bottle that’s ultimately a surprise package? I’ve seen similar bring-your-own-container outlets like this in Germany for oils – although my main memory is of shops that provide a wealth of choice, but with very few customers and a dull, static vibe. But couldn’t “experience marketing” and “expectation management” be relevant for wine, too? It is a part of the food industry, after all …

Wine-drinking is not a world I’m familiar with, but I’m sure such places do exist for wine aficionados and cognoscenti, and I imagine them being attractive honeypots for enthusiasts. But rethinking the logistics chain in such a way might be a way to put the wine bottle burden on a much-needed slimming path. But I’m no expert.