Graham Young, Industry Development Director at Scotland Food & Drink looks at the challenges and opportunities for producers and consumers to become more environmentally sustainable in a post-Covid world...


Scotland’s food and drink is known and respected across the world for its taste and quality, but increasingly, our producers are being recognised for their sustainability and green credentials.

As a £15 billion industry, the largest manufacturing sector, and one of the best performing domestic sectors of Scotland’s economy, food and drink must play its role in tackling climate change and pushing back Earth Overshoot Day.

Halting climate change and creating a more sustainable food and drink industry for Scotland is a complex task and we don’t necessarily have all of the answers. However, as a sector, there is a deeply ingrained consciousness of global environmental fragility and that we all bear responsibility for addressing it and minimising our own negative impacts. 

Some of our best-known products and brands have taken major steps to improving sustainability within their supply chains and manufacturing processes. For example, global drinks giant Diageo set a target to cut its emissions by 50%. Operating 50 sites across Scotland, including 28 malt whisky distilleries, Diageo has invested heavily in its on-site bio-energy facilities using by-products from distillation to create anaerobic and biomass power supplies.

As a whole, the whisky industry is leading the way in terms of investment and innovating in reducing its environmental impacts. The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) reports that water efficiency in the distillation process has improved by 29% since 2012, 44% of packaging is now made from recycled materials, and 21% of the industry’s energy now comes from renewable sources. 

Improving environmental sustainability isn’t just a moral obligation for food and drink businesses; it is increasingly becoming essential to keep and attract buyers and consumers.


Graham Young, Industry Development Director at Scotland Food and Drink


One company that has realised the commercial benefits of improving its sustainability is Border Biscuits. Based in Lanarkshire, the 35-year-old business recently redesigned its packaging to reduce the plastic used by 90%.

The baker estimates that the move saved 537 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions from the packaging manufacturing process and will reduce the number of vehicles needed to transport the products by 50%, making considerable cost-savings and strengthening the brand’s reputation as environmentally responsible.

Changing the packaging and reconfiguring its manufacturing took Border Biscuits two years to complete and was part of a wider investment into its products and processes.

Household names making wholesale changes to their products or processes aren’t the only food and drink businesses in Scotland who are leading the charge in the fight against climate change.

The Crafty Pickle Co, a food fermenter based in Aberdeen was set up by founders Madi and Arthur to create delicious small-batch pickles using perfectly edible, imperfect, surplus produce.

Vegetables that would otherwise end up being thrown out based on aesthetics are given a new lease of life through preserving fermentation or pickling – turning food waste into profit. 

The company estimates that 1.3 million tonnes of edible food is wasted each year with one third of food produced never leaving the farm.

We’re blessed with a rich green countryside, (very) plentiful rainfall, rich seas and a talented workforce, all of which contribute to Scotland’s already remarkably green food and drink supply.

Scotland punches above its weight in terms of sustainability, particularly in meat production. According to QMS, around 80% of Scottish farmland is unsuitable for growing cereals and vegetables but can support beef and lamb production. Scottish beef is among the most sustainably farmed globally using low-density, grass-fed herds while Scotland’s hill and upland grasslands play a substantial role in the country’s carbon capture.

Despite clear and significant improvements in the environmental efficacy of the food and drink industry, there is still more that can be done across the board.

Coronavirus impacts have touched every business and person in the country in myriad ways, but one positive outcome of the pandemic has been consumers’ support for local food and producers. Shortening supply chains and shopping local is a really simple but effective way consumers can cut CO2 emissions from unnecessary food miles.

For producers, there is no one size fits all approach to becoming more environmentally sustainable, but if we each make incremental changes to systems and processes can have dramatic positive effects for our environment. There is a wealth of support for businesses of all shapes and sizes to adopt greener practices from organisations like SEPA and Zero Waste Scotland.

As well as Scotland’s natural resources, we’re also blessed with human talent and brain power. Our scientific, research and manufacturing sectors will play a key collaborative role in driving sustainability development with our prized food and drink sector.

For all the evils Coronavirus has caused, it also offers us an opportunity as an industry to re-evaluate where we are, where we want to be and how we can get there together. Environmental sustainability must be a central pillar in rebuilding our food and drink industry, strengthening our global brand and reputation, and ultimately playing our role in protecting the future of our planet. n



Brewer pours investment into carbon reduction initiatives

One of Scotland’s most famous drinks brands is going above and beyond in its drive to be carbon neutral, finds Anthony Harrington

The pressure is ratcheting up on all companies around the world to work at lowering their carbon footprint, and Scottish businesses, by and large, are responding well. With Earth Overshoot day on 22 August coming ever closer, the need for companies to play their part in the drive to make Scotland a net-zero economy by 2045 is clear.

Over 90% of our businesses comply with environmental regulations, according to a February report from the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). This was the fourth year in a row that Scottish businesses have achieved this level of compliance.

Many are going above and beyond mere compliance and are actively pushing towards becoming carbon neutral. SEPA is encouraging this through the use of what the Agency calls Sustainable Growth Agreements (SGAs). These are voluntary formal agreements between SEPA and businesses that focus on practical action to deliver environmentally positive outcomes.


Martin Doogan, Group Engineering Manager at C&C, left, with Terry A’Hearn, SEPA Chief Executive


The Agency’s chief executive, Terry A’Hearn, pointed to the performance of both the Scottish Whisky industry and the brewing sector as examples of the positive impact that active sustainability initiatives can bring about across industries.

“We’re pleased to recognise the exceptionally high standards of compliance from Scotland’s distillers and brewers,” A’Hearn said.

Both sectors achieved a 95.5% compliance rating, up from 93% the prior year. 

Scotland’s leading brewer, the Glasgow-based Tennent Caledonian was singled out by A’Hearn for special praise. The brewery, founded in 1556, received an ‘excellent’ rating for the third year in a row.

Tennent’s has made sustainability an integral part of its business model with initiatives that have included launching a major consumer awareness campaign and becoming the first brewer in the UK to join the UK Plastics Pact, set up by WRAP, the Waste and Resources Action Programme.

As part of this, the brewer has committed to phasing out shrink-wrap from its packs. Cans are being packaged in cardboard rather than using plastic rings to hold packs together. The firm has pledged to do away with all instances of single-use plastics by 2021 and has said that it will cease using plastics altogether
by 2025 – the same year that it aims to have all its energy supplied from renewable sources.

Martin Doogan, Group Engineering Manager at C&C (owners of Tennent Caledonian Breweries), points out that the company has invested significantly in environmental performance enhancements at its Wellpark site.
This includes putting in an anaerobic digestion plant and a carbon capture facility which, he says is ‘the biggest of its kind in Scotland’.

Completing this September, it will enable the brewer to capture and store the CO2 that is generated as a byproduct during fermentation. The facility aims to capture and store 4,200 tonnes of CO2 annually. In addition, the brewer will be able to use the CO2 to carbonate the beer. This means it will not need to source CO2 externally, which it estimates will eliminate the carbon output associated with some 100,000 kilometres of road haulage.

Martin Doogan said: “The installation of the new facility marks another milestone in our commitment to challenging climate change and it’s been fantastic seeing the tanks put into place and everything come together and we are eagerly anticipating having everything operational later in the year.”

There is no doubt that companies benefit from having their brands associated with sustainability and carbon reduction efforts. Consumers today are more aware than ever of the need to mitigate and slow down climate change to safeguard the future, with younger consumers showing the highest levels of awareness and concern.

A ‘Future of Humanity’ survey by Amnesty International sampled the opinions of 10,000 18 to 25-year-olds (the so-called Generation Z) across
22 countries. Overwhelmingly, respondents cited global warming as the most important issue facing the world.

More generally, Scotland’s food and drinks sector already has a proud record in striving to mitigate its carbon footprint, and even to become net-negative. The Arbikie distillery on the east coast of Scotland, owned by three brothers, John, Iain, and David Stirling, recently launched what it calls the world’s first ‘climate positive’ gin, called Nàdar (“nature” in Gaelic) gin.

Nàdar gin is made from peas rather than from cereals, like other gins. Peas do not require synthetic nitrogen to be added to the soil to facilitate their growth, avoiding having nitrogen run-off into the waterways and soils. Instead, they benefit the ecosystem and improve soil quality. Arbikie claims that its Nàdar gin has a carbon footprint of -1.54kg CO2 equivalent per 700ml bottle.

All the distilleries ingredients are grown on its farm and the brothers claim a proud record in provenance and traceability for all their products. The distillery uses its own locally grown juniper and locally produced honey, along with solar power. Waste from the distilling process is recycled wherever possible as feed for cattle.

Encouraging as these instances are, there is still an urgent need to do more. SEPA points out that if everyone in the world lived as we do in Scotland, we’d consume the equivalent of the output of three Earths.

“As a society, we are over-using our planet’s resources. In the 21st century and beyond, only those businesses that operate in harmony with our planet will thrive,” it warns.