Good behaviour – how companies treat their employees matters as much as how they treat their vines

While environmental concerns are getting greater attention, as Jacopo Mazzeo reveals, modern consumers increasingly care about how companies behave.

Working conditions are becoming more important for the consumer
Working conditions are becoming more important for the consumer

In spring 2020, Tim Martin, owner of one of Britain’s biggest pub chains openly encouraged his workers to take jobs at large retailers while his venues remain closed as a consequence of the UK’s first Covid-19 lockdown. The announcement was met with widespread criticism on social media and boycott calls. An enterprising web developer called Shane Jones created an app in his spare time called ‘Neverspoons’ aimed at helping people avoid Martin’s Wetherspoon pubs, demonstrating how ethics play an increasingly key role in shaping consumer behaviour. The app was rapidly downloaded by over 50,000 people attracted wide media attention and won awards for Best B2C App of the year and Best App Marketing Campaign of the year at the UK App Awards 2020. 

A December 2020 YouGov poll showed 51 percent of respondents having a positive view of Wetherspoons with 22 percent viewing it negatively. In October 2021, the Financial Times reported that Wetherspoon had reported its first annual loss since 1984, with sales during August and September of this year 8.7 per cent below the same period in 2019. This contrasted directly with rival groups such as Mitchells & Butlers, which reported sales over the summer of 4 per cent higher than in that pre-pandemic season. Several factors may explain Wetherspoon’s poor financial performance, but most observers acknowledge that Martin’s treatment of his employees was one of them. 


Yvan Sagnet, international No Cap association


Today, more than ever, customers pay attention to the behaviour of the companies with whom they spend their money. According to a 2020 IBM consumer report, 77% of consumers globally say sustainability is important to them, with 54% claiming it impacts their purchases. The trend is particularly evident in the food and drinks sector. In the UK alone, ethical consumer spending on these reached record levels of over £12,5bn ($16.6bn, up nearly 250 percent from 2010. Consumer research firm Wine Intelligence reported that the wine market seems to be following a similar direction, with drinkers showing greater awareness of ethical categories

Yet, while the industry is responding with growing commitments to protect the environment, a more holistic approach to sustainability – one that combines care for the earth with social and economic responsibility – is a rarer occurrence.
“A lot of companies manage environmental issues, but social issues are often left behind.” says Valentina Lira, head of sustainability at Viña Concha y Toro. “Companies understand that sustainability is a combination of environment, social issues and economy, but just a few actually do it.”

Environmental actions such as increasing a winery’s energy efficiency by purchasing new technology are easily measurable, yet Lira explains that the impact of a company’s social responsibility programme is more complex to quantify and evaluate. “It’s difficult to develop indicators to understand whether you are improving or not… The social impact is also something that you build over time… it requires work, time, and commitment to see the results.” Every step of the supply chain carries some risk, but Lira claims that vineyard labour often hides wine’s most problematic social issues. 


Modern vineyard slavery

The Fairtrade Foundation works alongside wineries in the Global South to ensure fairer terms of trade between farmers and buyers and to protect workers’ rights. Senior supply chain manager, Sarah Singer, points out that the organisation’s geographical scope is dictated by the Global South’s range of unique economic, social, and political challenges: “In order to determine which countries can be included… Fairtrade considers such factors as income per capita, wealth disparity, other economic and social indicators… Each origin has its own complexities… For co-operatives, which include most of the wine producers in Chile and some in Argentina, they have to meet our small-scale producer organisation standards… For wineries in South Africa they have to meet the ‘hired labour standards’.”


Rob Symington, director of Symington Family Estates


Despite Fairtrade’s geographical focus, issues of vineyard worker exploitation aren’t exclusive to the Global South. Last September, a Europol investigation led to eight arrests in France and four in Spain for trafficking and exploitation of vineyard labourers, while a 2018 paper published by the German Institute for Economic Research highlighted the association of organised crime and migrant labour in Southern-Italian vineyards.

Yvan Sagnet experienced the issue first hand as a victim of caporalato, a form of illegal employment characteristic of the Italian south. Sagnet is now tackling the exploitation of agricultural workers across the entire country through his NoCap association. “Unfortunately the issue isn’t at all limited to the south of Italy. It’s nationwide and affects two out of three workers in the agricultural sector, including grape-picking. These workers, often migrants, move north to south according to the season. They start in Puglia picking tomatoes, then move to Calabria to pick oranges… Then go to pick grapes in Asti (for spumante) and to Chianti.” There, they’re mostly workers from other EU countries, principally Bulgarians and Romanians.


A fair price

While producers might often take the blame, Sagnet argues that the issue is rather rooted in the unfairly low prices that large retailers are prepared to pay for the goods, be they Puglian tomatoes or Tuscan Sangiovese. “The problem is that prices are set by big supermarkets’ buyers, not by the farmers. And they’re getting lower and lower, which is clearly not sustainable,” he says, explaining how cheap wine prices regularly affects those responsible for the supply chain’s earlier stages.

Meanwhile, director of Symington Family Estates, Rob Symington, says that, in Portugal’s Douro, unfair grape prices are determined by the region’s complex regulatory system: “In our region farmers are currently selling still wine grapes at a loss. We have decided to take a stand and say that this is wrong. We… know that the future of the regions isn't healthy from a community perspective… because 90% of the region’s income is from grapes.”


Equalitas Director Stefano Stefanucci


Symington’s commitment to social responsibility that led him to apply for – and obtain – B Corp certification. “Certainly for the wine trade it’s organic farming that tends to be perceived as how a company does things sustainably… There are lots of certifications, but often they just have to do with certain aspects and B Corp is the most comprehensive at company level… it pushes continuous improvement as you’re audited every three years.” 

B Corp’s audit required Symington to disclose a series of protocols around how the company deals with the alcoholic nature of its products. “It includes what sort of information you put on your labels but also how you train your sales team in responsible alcohol consumption… Down the line we are going to see more and more restrictions on what an alcohol company can or can’t say in public. It’s right, and as an industry we must anticipate these challenges, rather than wait until we’re obliged to comply.”

Along with B Corp and a growing number of certifications, Italy-based Equalitas adopts a holistic approach to sustainability. Director Stefano Stefanucci is convinced that a fast-growing number of wine companies is recognising the extent to which social challenges need addressing within the industry. “Given our nature, no winery that exploits vineyard workers would ever approach us. That being said, we’ve noticed a delay in terms of equal opportunities. Statistically, [in Italy] there are less women and younger employees covering managerial roles, and there is also an issue when it comes to parental leave.”

Stefanucci argues that there’s a growing consumer awareness of ethical issues, and with the youngest generations leading the societal change, responsible consumerism isn’t waning any time soon. “Even just being cynical,” he says, “wine companies must respond to this shift.”

If they don’t, they run the risk of waking up to find that someone has created an app that directs customers towards their more ethically-recommendable competitors.

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