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On sustainability

Sustainable: adjective

1.capable of being supported or upheld, as by having its weight borne from below.

2.pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse: sustainable agriculture. Aquaculture is a sustainable alternative tooverfishing.

3.able to be maintained or kept going, as an action or process: a sustainable negotiation between the two countries.

4.able to be confirmed or upheld: a sustainable decision.

5.able to be supported as with the basic necessities or sufficient funds: a sustainable life.

Synonyms

defendable, defensible, justifiable, maintainable, supportable, tenable

 

So it says when you do a basic search on dictionary.com. Merriam-Webster breaks it down even more simply:

: able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed

: involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources

: able to last or continue for a long time

I looked this up the other day because given how much the word sustainable is being thrown about, I needed to double check what it actually means. Having worked in the world of sustainable agriculture and food since 2007, this is a word that is near and dear to my heart. To see it becoming as meaningless as natural or artisanal, makes me want to scream until every window is shattered within a two mile radius.  

Of course it’s not surprising  given the reality of the market we live in where nearly everything is commodified and relabeled as artisanal (Round Table Pizza?) because that’s the only way to distinguish it from other commodities. In the spirits world what distinguishes one whiskey from another? We love to champion individuality and distinctiveness in all things, especially food, wine, beer, and spirits. It’s practically cultish. But really, most of those things aren’t very individual, few represent or maintain an actual tie to the tradition that they lay claim to, even fewer are actually produced in a traditional manner. That costs too much, it’s difficult to export, it even tastes different. Because here is the dirty little secret that we rarely want to talk about – true craft or artisanal production really really really doesn’t scale – that’s the whole point.

While in Oaxaca in July, I traveled with reporter Grace Rubenstein, researching the subject of women in mezcal and sustainable maguey production. She has a great profile piece here in Craftsmanship Magazine on the subject which I highly recommend. When talking to people about the industry, we asked them to identify the top three things most important in the mezcal world: The common themes were – production (both the growing of maguey and the process of making mezcal), management of silvestres, and how palenqueros are paid. But to really understand what’s happening, a conversation I had with Ulises Torrentera goes to the heart of what is happening.

In a nutshell, this is the situation that Ulises and I discussed.

What you have enveloping the industry now are entities with money who live outside of the areas where mezcal is produced, contracting with people to find mezcal to buy, to bottle and brand and sell outside the area where it is produced. Often the owner of the brand has never met their producer, or actually researched how the mezcaleros are making mezcal, let alone where the maguey is coming from nor how it is being grown. The mezcal is a commodity which puts the  consumer so far from the process and origin of what’s in a bottle that it is possible to say anything while marketing the final product.

There is no transparency no matter how clear the substance of the bottle. And this is where Ulises became truly passionate – the system that produces that bottle has so many different levels of people and processes involved from growing the maguey, to the production, to the shipping, and finally to the market that by the time you get that bottle into your hands no one knows anything about it. We’ve seen what this has meant for our food supply: It was industrialized to the point of anonymity which inspired the backlash and the success of the Eat Local and Know your Food, Know Your Farmer  campaigns.

This is exactly why people love farmers’ markets and why wine tasting is such a big thing in the US and, increasingly, the rest of the industrialized world. It’s the reassertion of a connection with the concept of authenticity. But every time it’s used, it gets co-opted by marketing machines and the very process of production is industrialized to internalize whatever facets are important to that particular authenticity.

There has been more focus on this concept of sustainability in the mezcal industry – something we have written about for a while, most recently in Max’s piece on the CRM, and in other pieces like this, this and this. But so much of the discussion is focused on the production side, especially on cultivating maguey, but that’s just one part of being a sustainable operation. We need to start applying this term to the whole of the industry and factor in the pay, economics, impact on communities, ultimately applying true meaning and meat to the word, otherwise we’ll end up right where we are with everything else. So in the absence of standards or verbiage when it comes to sustainability in mezcal, I propose the following four “pillars” (to borrow from the sustainable food movement)  that must be addressed and answered for any brand or organization that uses the word:

1. Is it environmentally sound? Growing and production practices must be such that maguey is being replanted and it needs be diversified between seed and hijuelos. Silvestres cannot be over harvested, the wood fuel supply must not strip the land, water must be used responsibly, waste must be managed appropriately, and environmental impact must be minimalized.

2. Is it economically viable? The financial structure must include fair pair for all including a truly sustainable wage for each laborer involved in the production all the way up to the mezcalero. The business must be able to sustain itself through market gyrations and maintain a commitment to the community in which it operates.

3. Is it socially just? The business must demonstrate an awareness of its impact and relationship with the local community and proactively work to give back and renew resources from the its place of origin. There must be a conscientious decision to adhere to a triple bottom line of people, planet, profit.

4. Is it humane? This specifically refers to the treatment of animals in agriculture, but really should be a cornerstone of any business. Humanity can’t be left at the sideline as profit is pursued.

This may sound stark but this is pretty basic stuff. Consumers repeatedly say this is exactly what they want of their foodstuffs and we stand at a great point in mezcal’s development to ensure that it takes a different path from most other artisanal products. I am laying down the gauntlet and challenging every mezcal brand out there who refers to themselves as sustainable to clearly and transparently state their practices per the above pillars so that we can have some industry lead standards until anything official is adopted.

I encourage anyone who has ideas on these fronts to speak up. Post your comments, send us your questions, and tell us about the sustainability project you’re seeing. If you have a bigger thought send it to us – we might publish it in order to deepen and enliven the conversation. And – stay tuned – we’ll be doing a whole series dedicated to this issue of sustainability and the different projects out there.

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