At the end of last year, The Uncommon became the UK's first wine company to achieve B Corporation (B Corp) certification.
Established in October 2017–with their first vintage released in 2018–by Henry Connell and Alex Thraves, the B Corp certification validates The Uncommon's dedication to sustainability and the cofounders' mission of making quality wine the right way. "We were acutely aware that the world does not need another wine, but we wanted to start the conversation around sustainability in the UK wine industry," Henry Connell, cofounder of The Uncommon told Forbes. "We started small and focused on what we could immediately control and influence–grape growing, winemaking and packaging. Only once we had the process in place did we start to think about our broader sustainability ambitions–to be the most sustainable wine brand in the UK."
The cofounders' novice position in the wine industry–coming from backgrounds in design and consulting–encouraged them to ask questions and in turn challenge the status quo–something Connell says an experienced winemaker may not have done. During these early days of research, development and training in wine, Connell and Thaves recognized the amount of waste in the wine world.
"We farm land intensively, we have AOCs (like Champagne or Stilton) that restrict production volumes so healthy grapes are left on vine, we press grapes lightly and we only process the free run juice (wasting good quality pressings), we have temperature controlled storage, heavy and fragile glass packaging that is susceptible to spoilage through air and light that is then wrapped in protective single use materials that are shipped all over the world," explained Connell, adding their discovery during this time that over 500 million liters of wine gets wasted each year in the UK . He said now, that number is closer to one billion liters per annum, accounting for businesses and households. "As outsiders it was easy for us to question this," added Connell.
The exposure to the harsh reality of waste in the wine world influenced The Uncommon's foundation, as the company became the first winery to can wine in the UK, with a process powered by renewable energy (four onsite wind turbines, solar panels and heat pump technology using water from disused mines), all while permitting the absence of single use packaging materials. The company also created a fully domestic supply chain, with sustainable accredited vineyards located in the South of England, ensuring a low carbon footprint.
The B Corp certification acknowledged The Uncommon's sustainability efforts thus far, but it also justified the entirety of their business operation; B Corp is a multi-faceted review across five key impact areas, including governance, workers, community, environment and customers. A business must portray socially and environmentally responsible practices in all categories to reach a benchmark score of over 80 and caps at 200. "People think B Corp is all about the environment, but the bulk of the questions are about community and workers. It's perhaps cliché, but we genuinely want people to enjoy working for us and we genuinely want to have a positive impact on our community," shared Connell, noting that the average score is between 40-100 (but 80 is the benchmark to be certified), of which The Uncommon scored 107.4.
Below, Connell shared more about the B Corp certification process with Forbes, as well as The Uncommon's long-term plan to become the UK's most sustainable wine brand, which involves becoming carbon neutral within three years and carbon positive within five years.
Jillian Dara: Was it always a goal to achieve B Corp certification? If so, what type of timeline did you set to achieve this and how did you stick to the timeline?
Henry Connell: We were never going to bring any new business to market without sustainability at the core but honestly, B Corp wasn't on our radar back in 2017 or 2018. We became aware of B Corp in late 2019, but it was only in our third vintage release in early 2020 that we felt confident in our company values, supply chain and governance to start the process.
Dara: Was there a company you looked up to during the process or modeled your more sustainable efforts after?
Connell: Not in the UK wine space. We very much wanted to pioneer the movement of alternative thinking in English wine, lift the lid on some of the issues and break with traditions if, and where, needed. We have long admired English heritage brands like Hunter and aspects of other smaller brands from fashion to flowers such as Uncut Stems and STORY mfg. Patagonia also stands out. Yvon Chouinard's (founder of Patagonia) book 'Let My People Go Surfing' is very much the culture and philosophy we want to create and establish here at The Uncommon. We also thought their 'Don't buy this jacket' campaign was such a smart way of challenging consumerism.
Dara: What does it mean to you to be the UK’s first certified B Corp winemaker? And how do you plan to use this title to pioneer the industry and inspire others to make the change?
Connell: It was a rigorous, year-long process that was far from easy so we are obviously really proud. Out of more than 100,000 companies who have applied for B Corp certification, only around 4000 have been successful. It's easy to mark your own homework. To have B Corp pick apart the business, examine and measure our social and environmental impact (from our vineyard management and waste water recycling to community engagement, employee satisfaction and customer retention) is hugely rewarding and ultimately validating. It also highlights where we can improve, and we have a three-year plan in place to achieve the lofty goal of 150 points come 2024 (our next assessment).
Dara: Can you share more details on the responsible practices you rely on?
Connell: We have robust policies and practices in place in the vineyard around soil health, yield management and biodiversity. These standards extend to our winemaking where we monitor energy and water usage (reduction and recycling of wastewater). This even extends to our office ('The Uncommon Room') offering bike storage, recycling bins and natural cleaning products for employees.
We are also very proud of our work in conservation through our partnership with The Bee Friendly Trust. We have committed to give five percent of revenues to the charity to create habitats for bees throughout the UK (and we help build them!). We have also planted wildflowers between our rows of vines in our vineyards and installed beehives at the end of the rows (along with livestock in the vineyards over winter) to increase biodiversity and improve soil health so that we rely less on herbicides and cultivation for quality crops. We also encourage our team to take paid volunteer days (up to 5 per year) to help support the local community, either with The Bee Friendly Trust or other local charities of their choosing.
Dara: What about the materials you use? How do they reflect the B Corp certification?
Connell: We achieved an Outstanding B Corp score not really because of 'the can' but due to our ethics and values, employee well-being (health and financial security including ownership), high community engagement, our fully local and domestic supply chain and our commitments to conservation. The can is the best format for our young, fresh and aromatic wines. They are also single serve, convenient and recyclable giving wine lovers the option to enjoy high quality wine without all the faff. Almost 30 percent of our business is now through premium on trade (English events, venues as well as airlines) where there is an obvious synergy (glass is heavy and breaks, is dangerous and plastic is just awful) and we believe that will continue to grow.
Dara: What’s the next step for The Uncommon to reach ‘the ultimate ambition of the most sustainable wine brand in Europe?’
Connell: The idea is to learn, adapt and progress, and to keep making incremental changes wherever we can. Specifically, we need to improve workforce diversity and minority representation within our own business and those of the businesses in our supply chain. We will also hold our third-party suppliers to account. Where possible we will encourage them to go be B Corp certified but at the very least we will help them review their own hiring policies as well as their social and environmental policies and be prepared to walk away if there is resistance or marginal meaningful improvement. More broadly, we will always ensure the lowest environmental impact when sourcing raw materials, developing new products, selecting suppliers and distributors.
It’s also important to remember that this is so much bigger than us and our business. We need to ensure our employees and stakeholders understand and evaluate the environmental impact of their own day to day lives regardless of whether it moves the needle on our B Corp dashboard.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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