Piper Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck were sold by Rémy Cointreau to the EPI retail group in 1990. Under the management of Christopher Descours, head of the family company, both Champagne brands have grown in prestige and profitability, while also leading the field in sustainability. Piper Heidsieck was the first in the region to be certified as a B Corp, in 2022, along with the other EPI brands, Charles Heidsieck and Rare Champagne.
A highly respected non-profit, B Corp was set up in the US in 2006 by three friends whose vision was to make business a force for good. In 2007, there were 82 certified B Corps. Today there are over 6,000, covering 159 industries.
Meininger’s: How did the process begin?
Boutillat: We started the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) philosophy long before I took over the role and the responsibility at the end of 2019, but I think with Covid, we were willing to increase our commitments and do it quicker.
Meininger’s: How long did the process of certification take?
Boutillat: It was a two-year journey. And then, because so many companies wanted to get certified, and with Covid limiting travel, it took quite a while to reach the audit. We waited almost ten months to get the certification. But it's not an end. It's the beginning.
Independent, demanding and international...
Meininger’s: So, the obvious question is: why B Corp, rather than any other certification?
Boutillat: We benchmarked the different certifications. We wanted one that was independent, demanding and not just something we wanted to communicate. We wanted something to help us build our global and holistic approach to sustainability. For us, B Corp was the only one that was independent, demanding and international. Some of the others were only known in France. B Corp was born in in the US and is known in all the English-speaking countries that are our main markets for Piper especially. And we liked that not as bureaucratic as the ISO certification. More pragmatic.
Meininger’s: There is an impression that B Corp is really for big companies. How easy would it be for a small grower in Champagne to do it?
Boutillat: Actually, there are more small- and medium-sized companies than bigger ones. It's harder to get certified when you’re big. The impact assessment questionnaire is adapted to the type of company and sector. Agriculture is different to services and the questionnaire takes into consideration the size of your company. You don't have the same questions if you are an estate where everything is done by the family.
Meininger’s: Can you describe the ‘holistic’ character of B Corp?
Boutillat: It’s not only about viticulture or environment; we were already certified since 2015 for sustainable farming in our own vineyards. But we go beyond that. We are not organic, but we have plenty of trials on organic farming. We don't use herbicides. We enhance the biodiversity around our vineyards by planting local species of trees. We had a study this year, for example, in biodiversity to see what we can have even more habitats for the species around the vineyard.
Climate strategy was key for us, including measuring the carbon footprint. We committed with the Science-Based Targets Initiative [SBTi: a partnership between CDP (the Carbon Disclosure Project); United Nations Global Compact; World Resources Institute (WRI); and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)] to reduce our footprint by 2030 to meet the Paris Accord to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. In seven years’ time. Not very long.
This is the first stage. The second is to be part of net zero globally in 2050 or before if we can, which means, first of all, to reduce and then invest in a sequestrating carbon initiative that can be planting trees. But it's not that simple. It might include maintaining a mangrove forest, for example.
Lets talk about resources…
Meininger’s: One could say I am doing a B Corp because I believe in it. It's the right thing to do. Is there a business case for doing it?
Boutillat: You cannot start that journey without believing in what you do and having an idea of making a business that is slightly different. We don't want to be better in the world, but better for the world. We are based in Champagne. So far, global warming means better ripeness for the grapes. But it might be complicated in the future to keep the same quality because we have more and more frost damage and hail — extreme conditions. We know that climate is changing and we want to preserve our terroir, our landscape, for the next generation. We need to change the way we make wine and the way we think business globally. It starts in the vineyard. But we export a lot of Champagne to consumers everywhere in the world. We use quite heavy glass bottles, and we know that the carbon footprint accelerates global warming.
So, we need to look at the issues and find solutions. We use 100% renewable energy for electricity. We are looking at our water footprint and at biodiversity. It’s a global approach to the environment. But that’s only one pillar. You also have the social pillar. We try to use local suppliers for all our dry goods. So, 99% of our bottles were produced around 15km away from the bottling line. We want 100% of our vine growers to be in sustainable farming also by 2025, which is tomorrow.
We need to change the way we make wine and the way we think business globally.
Meininger’s: Can you say how much this is costing the company?
Boutillat: It's hard to measure because it’s a systemic approach. I think it will cost more and more. Today, every decision a manager makes has to involve a sustainable approach.
We might pay more for dry goods because they’re produced locally by a company that fits with our values. We pay more for sustainable grapes — even before certification, to help the growers to get certified. It does cost more. At the end of the day, Piper Heidsieck will cost a little bit more as well.
Meininger’s: How much are you communicating about this to consumers?
Boutillat: Because it's systemic, it's global, and so big and wide, it’s quite complicated to sum up. We decided to have the B Corp logo on the bottle, so some people know. In France, UK and US we had some advertising of Piper with the message ‘Grand Maison: Grand Responsibility’ with the B Corp logo. We made video interviews with 10 different workers in the company to ask them what it means for them to be B Corp today. And we also post those on LinkedIn especially. We are still working on the communication. As we said, it’s a long journey but we will keep going on, to communicate about our commitments and achievements in the coming months and years.
We were quite amazed to see how the certification is getting more and more recognition, especially in the US, in the UK, in the Netherlands, as well as in Italy. The people that are buying Champagne are more aware than the rest of the population.
Meininger’s: The first audit was obviously before your certification in the summer of 2022. How often do the audits happen?
Boutillat: We will be certified again in July 2025, which means we will start to report a year before. We are monitoring everything, every year: water consumption, electricity, carbon footprint, and if we don't have those files in 2025, it will be impossible to get re-certified. There will be a new questionnaire that will focus more on the business model impact. The challenge to remain certified will be very high. We already know that, for example, the commitment we have to be in line with the Science Based Targets Initiative regarding the Paris Accord will be mandatory. So that’s one of the examples of the requirements you will need if you want to get certified, or if you want to keep the certification.
Meininger’s: How costly is it to be certified?
Boutillat: It depends on the size and revenue of your company. There’s a certification fee and we pay every year to be part of a very active community. We have regular three-monthly talks with other B Corp companies — including ones outside the wine business — with whom we can share ideas or issues. There are dedicated working groups looking at CO2, biodiversity, social impact etc.
Meininger’s: Are you learning a lot from companies outside wine?
Boutillat: Yes, especially on the social impact we might have. And last February at Wine Paris, we had a round table talk with Elisabeth Laville, CEO of Utopie, which does consulting in CSR management for companies and was the first company in France to get certified B Corp. We invited also all the wine, beer and coffee companies in France and beyond to be part of that talk. Meeting them directly was quite interesting.
On the other hand, I recently had a meeting with a small start-up in in France that is working on how each company can manage and reduce the use of energy. That small company wanted to get B Corp certification and we showed them how it works and helped them get that certification. It’s really a win-win situation between the different companies that are certified and want to get certified.
Meininger’s: In your ideal world, presumably by the time we get to 2025, many of your suppliers will be B Corp too?
Boutillat: First of all, we want the growers who supply us to be farming sustainably. And if we can convince some to get B Corp certification, that will be perfect. We’ve already talked to label suppliers and stuff like that. Some were interested in B Corp and asked us about it. And some importers are already quite aware of the B Corp certification and the impact it has on their business. If we can help and show them how important it is for consumers and sommeliers etc, it will probably push them to move in that direction as well.
Sustainability cannot rely on one person or a small team. It has to be implemented on each level and each part of the company.
Meininger’s: How much of your time has B Corp certification taken?
Boutillat: I'm the chief winemaker for Piper-Heidsieck and Champagne. And we have another winemaker for Charles. It's all connected. I was in charge of the certification for all the [Champagne] houses and it's a big family. The winemaking teams work together but in the market, the brands are separate. During the process, from 2020 to 2022, it was quite a lot of time — maybe one day a week, almost 20% of my time — but now we have hired somebody to be in charge of CSR. I’m still involved and will be working with her for the recertification because I know the process quite well now, but on a day-to-day basis, she's the one taking care of it all.
The approach now is that everyone is taking the sustainability approach individually on a day-to-day basis. Sustainability cannot rely on one person or a small team. It has to be implemented on each level and each part of the company.