In the 21st century sustainability has become somewhat mainstream in business thinking with international companies from The Body Shop to seemingly unlikely companies like BP and Walmart all doing their bit. In New Zealand big companies like The Warehouse have publicly recognised the importance of sustainable business practices, but with 99 percent of Kiwi businesses having 49 employees or less, is sustainability viable for them?
Seeking to answer this very question, a case study was conducted in 2010 on Huia Wines, a small Marlborough wine producer. It was the worst of times for the wine industry worldwide, yet Huia Wines were, and still are, doing very well. The study identified success was strongly influenced by the vineyard's engagement in sustainable business practices.
Mike and Claire Allan founded Huia wines in 1990 with a vision of producing outstanding wine with “as light a footprint on the land as possible”. Logically this led to organic production methods, carbon neutrality and an overarching focus of operating sustainably.
While operating organically was mainly done for the good of the environment and for wine quality, it aids the general management of the vineyard. For example, when dealing with weeds the conventional approach is to use chemical herbicides. Not being an option for the vineyard, Huia instead opted to hire casual labourers to cultivate weeds. That meant every vine was regularly inspected during weeding, giving greater awareness of soil and vine health which in turn kept management informed of potential issues early.
Staff are treated as stakeholders in the business and are given assistance with gaining qualifications and skills that benefit both the individuals and the greater company. Permanent employees have longer employment tenure than is typical in the industry, resulting in a higher residual skill level and strong team relationships. Casual and seasonal employees want to work there, so even when there is a skills shortage, Huia have no problem recruiting skilled and experienced staff.
Huia takes its carbon footprint very seriously and while this is expensive for a small business, it helps to differentiate its product in a crowded market. And of course, it also helps the vineyard gauge true cost of making the wine, including the long term cost to the environment through carbon emissions. Its high quality wines have significant market appeal, especially in the valuable European markets where there is a trend amongst more sophisticated wine consumers to deliberately choose wines made with sustainable principles over other wines.
While sustainable business methods are not a direct cause of business success, they require a holistic, long term view that treats the business as a complete system and an integral part of the external environment. for smaller businesses.