This week, we’re looking at environmentalism in the drinks industry. We all want to do more to take care of the planet, but when it comes to imbibing, certain ‘green’ solutions are in danger of causing more harm than good. We talk greenwashing with award-winning bar owner Ryan Chetiyawardana – whose low-waste, ingredient-centric ethos can be felt across the entire drinks industry – and attempt to sort sustainability fact from fiction…

The booze world may not have a reputation as the greenest of industries, but over the course of the last decade bars and brands have made some serious in-roads in containing their carbon footprint. Ever since Ryan Chetiyawardana flung open the doors to his former London haunt White Lyan, with its strict ‘no perishables’ policy, the cocktail scene has been awash with environmental initiatives, from foraged botanicals to closed-loop drinks.

And not without good reason. Countries and communities across the globe are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, be it through droughts, floods, or more intense and frequent natural disasters, with the poorest and most vulnerable being hit the hardest, according to the World Bank Group, a cooperative made up of 189 member countries. The stakes are high. Climate change could push more than 100 million additional people into poverty by 2030, it says, so keeping global temperatures below 2°C requires coordinated action at an unprecedented scale and speed. 

Ryan Chetiyawardana aka Mr Lyan

In the face of an ecological disaster, doing something is (usually) always better than doing nothing. But we need to consider the environmental impact of knee-jerk sustainability solutions before we take them on board. “The really difficult thing about the topic is that it’s a Hydra,” says Chetiyawardana. “You cut off one head, and two more appear.” He highlights California’s almond industry. “The American dairy industry is one of the most fucked things in the world, it’s horrific, and from whatever perspective – health, environmental, cost, welfare for the farmers, welfare for the animals – people realised it wasn’t good, so they went, ‘Cool, we’ll switch to almond milk, it’s high in protein and it behaves like milk’. All of a sudden they’re pulling out crops in California and planting almond trees, because they want to satiate that demand or maybe get a quick buck, and almond milk becomes an issue in itself.”

At least part of the problem is that we aspire to adopt an absolute approach where none can exist. Climate change isn’t one problem, it’s millions of small ones. And each region has its own unique backdrop of challenges, says Chetiyawardana, who points to Belvedere Vodka’s bartender training roadshow tour, on which he and other London bartenders collaborated. “It wasn’t about sustainability per se, but being inspired by nature and delving into ‘natural’ food systems to increase deliciousness and creativity,” he explains. “In certain parts of the world, our stories were super-applicable, but in India they don’t have monoculture or industrialised crops in the same way, so that same ethos needed to be pivoted to their conversations. It was really fascinating.”

We’ve all got a part to play in tackling climate crisis, and a little extra knowledge can help to make your efforts meaningful. Below, you’ll find five misguided green initiatives along with their planet-friendly solutions…

Cub's Ardbeg Americano, made with Ardbeg 10, English cassis, Somerset pommeaux and soda

Ardbeg Americano served at Cub in Hoxton Street, London

#1 Locally-sourced produce

Reducing food miles seems like an obvious way to cut emissions, but the reality is more nuanced. We may frown over tomatoes trucked hundreds of miles from Spain to the UK, but their carbon footprint is less than a third of those grown in heated glasshouses over here, a study by the UK government revealed. Plus, there are serious discrepancies in food miles among different modes of transport. A single air food mile is the equivalent of almost eight road food miles and more than 75 shipping food miles, New Scientist reported.

#2 Paper straws

There will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, according to a report by the World Economic Forum. But straws make up just 0.025% of total plastic waste in the ocean, and  the microplastics our clothes shed during washing are far bigger an issue. When it comes to sipping our drinks, the battle isn’t between paper and plastic (there’s an argument that producing paper products is more harmful, requiring more energy and water, and emitting more pollution) but against single use items. Just say no.

#3 Foraged produce

Wild ingredients look cool on the menu, but for most bars, foraging is best kept to the confines of the farmer’s market. Reckless foraging damages soil and vegetation and disturbs wildlife, throwing off the equilibrium of the ecosystem and threatening the future of the very habitat you’re trying to interact with. Either leave foraging to the professionals or forgo the hand-picked garnish entirely.

#4 Zero-waste

Achieving zero waste is seriously commendable, but it isn’t a realistic goal for every bar (not without government-enforced changes across, for example, food packaging regulations and waste disposal infrastructures). Using clever kitchen kit to make waste products last longer might make your compost heap smaller, but if the machines are heavy on electricity it’s doing more harm than good. The entire process needs to be sustainable to be worthwhile.