Regenerative farming in action

By Suvi Reinikkala – Spirits Marketing Director, Altia

Altia cares about suitability and it published its first GRI Sustainability report which shows determination to incorporate sustainability in your corporate strategy.

Let’s be real, offsetting carbon footprint through planting forests and other means is important but it’s a band aid solution. What we are after is real change in production processes, better packaging, product development and regenerative farming. We have set super tangible goals for these. Carbon neutral distillery and 100% recyclable packaging by 2025 when we talk about environmental sustainability, and when we expand it to include all the four pillars of sustainability we are also increasing low-alcohol, low-sugar and non-alcoholic beverages in our portfolio and focusing a lot on safety at work as well. 

Koskenkorva’s sustainability journey begins in 1953, the first batches were made from surplus / leftover food supplies. Circular economy at work even before the term was coined, I believe. Sustainability has been in Koskenkorva’s DNA since the beginning and ever more so today. 

We are proud that 100% barley use and bioenergy. For example, in 2014, we built our own bioenergy plant for our distillery which among other things got us to 100% use of the barley grain. This basically means that we use every part of it, not only grain but the stalk, husk and everything. Only a part of it goes to making vodka. But then what’s left from that is used in different applications such as animal feed and pulp for paper. And what absolutely can’t be used anywhere else is used as fuel in our bioenergy plant. And here’s the kicker, when we run our bioenergy plant, we get energy but also ash as a side product. It’s turned into natural fertilizer that goes back to the fields that grow more barley. 

That brings me to recycling. Koskenkorva’s distillery sports a record high 99.9% recycling and reutilization rate. In 2018 we won the Green Company of the year award which was a huge thing for us. It’s recognition of the things we’ve achieved so far and obviously it pushes us forward. We really aim to become the world’s most sustainable vodka through our efforts in developing production, packaging and as well as the actual product as well.

After conducting your sustainability assessment, what were the conclusions?

We haven’t pulled these goals out of thin air either. We went through a tedious LCA or life-cycle assessment calculation process that helped us to see what we really need to focus on. There were two very clear pain points. The first one was packaging. It turned out that packaging caused 51% of all the emissions of Koskenkorva Vodka. Plastic PET bottle, believe it or not is worse in terms of emissions than Glass because of our Nordic recycling system. And we are working on new recycled PET and glass materials, lighter bottle weight and also more recycled glass. And as I mentioned before, by 2025 our target is to have 100% recycled packing. 

The other pain point that we recognized in the LCA calculation was raw material, barley, and farming to be more specific. That caused 27% (agrifootprint glass bottle) of the emissions. Which is very much in line with the global emissions—about one third of all global emissions come from agriculture. Our farmers are doing great work but clearly this is something that needed to be addressed. And that’s our biggest project today, regenerative farming. Two years in the making, a product coming out soon and a project that literally transformed the way we do marketing. 

KOSKENKORVA VODKA is the world’s first vodka that is made entirely with regenerative farmed barley. Can you tell us more?

A lot of farming today is done in a way that’s called monoculture. Without going too deep into that we can say that it forces farmers to use a lot of pesticides and fertilizers that end up in waterbodies and essentially make them toxic to wildlife (eutrophication). At the same time the soil gets worse and produces less and less crops. It’s literally bleeding our soil dry. Regenerative farming does the opposite, it makes the soil richer, increases biodiversity, helps it retain more water and nutrients, and produces more crops. And at the same time, it draws carbon from the atmosphere and stores it into the ground. 

But it requires a big shift in thinking. You need to rotate crops which means you change what crop you farm on a plot every year. You don’t till the ground because that releases the carbon back into the atmosphere. You employ circular economy and plant cover crops. It even goes as far as to the way you procure your seeds. You get the idea—instead of simply taking resources from nature, regenerative farming is a part of nature’s natural cycle. And at the same time, it draws carbon from the atmosphere and stores it into the ground.

Koskenkorva Climate Action Vodka is the world’s first vodka that is made entirely with regeneratively farmed barley. If everyone in the world farmed regeneratively from now on, we could remove 10 times the amount of carbon from the atmosphere than we currently emit globally in one year. And that’s just the conservative estimation.

Agriculture constitutes about one third of global carbon emissions. One might ask what a vodka producer can even do about it? Our main raw material is barley, a product of agriculture. We work daily with over 2000 farmers. We are the biggest barley purchaser in Finland. We can do a lot. We can change the way we farm and at the same time show the world that if we can make a difference, so can you. I mean the governments aren’t going to do it so we as companies need to step up, isn’t that right?

What were the challenges on the way?

A project like Koskenkorva Climate Action Vodka could not be done without collaboration. We  realized that we need a lot of help from inside Altia and also a partner in science. We included people from the distillery, legal department, procurement, the actual farmers and of course our C-suite. We also partnered up with the Baltic Sea Action who is the leading institution in regenerative farming. One of the biggest challenges was finding a farmer who could commit to regenerative farming as well as provide us with enough barley to make a batch. There were points where we thought that this would be impossible because we would need at least 50 tonnes of Barley. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be enough to go through our distillation process. Fortunately, the Baltic Sea Action Group found Jari Eerola for us and that’s when we knew that Koskenkorva Climate Action Vodka would become a reality.

It took few years mainly because nobody has done stuff like this before. Sure, there are small regenerative farms out there, but to have a product that is made entirely from regenerative barley is completely new. That’s part of why we are super proud of the project. This is a way we can show that we are actually doing things to fight climate change while providing a product. And this kind of game changing platform also gives us a way to show all the other things we do with circular economy for example. In marketing terms, we don’t have to claim things when we can actually show them through our products. 

I can’t stress enough the importance of a great team. Altia the company behind Koskenkorva and the people from different departments, the farmer, the Baltic Sea Action Group and of course our advertising agency Bob the Robot. These kinds of projects are truly team efforts. It takes time, a lot of commitment and drive from everyone involved. There are going to be surprises and challenges along the way. Timelines will change, even the world will change as we’ve all seen, but we need to stay focused and flexible. That’s the only way to make it happen. 

How do customers react to it?

So far, it has been successful start for the product that is just about to hit the market. The sales numbers are therefore not in yet, but we have created a lot of buzz in the industry;  won the prestigious Goodvertising award and the World’s top 4 innovations by The Spirits Business. And we do believe that this is just a beginning. We follow several indexes such as the Finnish Sustainable Brand Index and do annual Brand Equity Studies. And internally we have a very clear sustainability roadmap with clear cut KPIs for product, packaging and production related objectives.

This is not only a unique project but a real game changer when it comes to marketing. According to Forbes, 88% of people think that brands should help them be more sustainable. 88%. At the same time, it is quite clear that people can smell through a lot of marketing claims especially when it comes to sustainability. So, you can’t simply come up with stories anymore. As a brand, you need to do real things to change the world. And then show them what you’ve done. That’s a story that flies.

We want to show to everyone out there that if vodka of all things can be sustainable then anything can. We are by no means perfect, but we will not stop trying either. In the future, we will continue working on increasing regenerative farming with our contract farmers. The first step is to provide education but also to raise awareness that this kind of farming is a win-win situation for everyone: the farmer as well as the environment. It does take a lot of work and a lot of time but I think we’ve proved that we aren’t afraid of that. And hopefully the world with follow and in the future regenerative farming will become mainstream. 

What is the secret connection of the Nordic countries with sustainability?

I think it’s a combination. Take, for example, education. It’s free and world class so a lot of people are highly educated. As education is higher the recycling rate is higher. So, as you recycle more, you think about the environment more, and then you think about other ways you can do better. We have innovation such as the Finnish PALPA system, a country wide bottle recycling system. This is how it works: when you buy a big bottle of say, soda, you pay 40 cent deposit. When you bring that recycled bottle back to the store, you get those 40 cents back. 

Also, sparse resources, going back just a few decades and you realize that mere survival in these conditions required a lot of creativity on how to reuse things and how to make the most out of nature without rendering it useless. That kind of a legacy and attitude doesn’t just disappear overnight. 

And then there’s a third big thing that is transparency and trust. For example, Finland ranks as one of the least corrupt societies in the world. These things are very important when it comes to sustainability which is built very much upon transparency. Without transparency it’s pretty much just greenwashing. And it’s incredible how good of a nose consumers have for that these days.