What does it take to make a difference? We connected with Jill Westra, Senior Manager, Sustainability at The Boston Beer Company on how she transformed a blank slate into a tailor-made sustainability plan. Jill is a member of Manufacturers Alliance's Sustainability Council. Thank you Jill for your wisdom!
"My advice is to leave no stone unturned. There is almost always a way that the things you’re most passionate about intersect with the environment, and sometimes that’s a surprising niche of opportunity."— Jill Westra , Senior Manager, Sustainability, The Boston Beer Company
Q1: The Boston Beer Company is a newcomer to the world of corporate sustainability and has taken large strides since 2021, including the implementation of a standardized approach for collecting and managing its production breweries’ utility data, and assembling a Utility Optimization team at its largest brewery focused on driving energy and water reduction efforts. Could you tell us how tactical initiatives like these have played a part in the early stages of your sustainability efforts?
Calculating a solid baseline and hammering out the process for pain-free, reliable data collection going forward was indeed our first big push. And, undertaking that glorious number-crunching odyssey across the whole organization was neither easy, nor as soul-stirring as blanketing a website with images of coworkers planting trees for Earth Day would have been.
The chore of “extreme data wrangling” was a no-brainer when planning our early milestones, out of necessity for understanding our impact, but also because it felt so authentically Boston Beer. By that, I mean the commitment to putting real numbers where our mouth is, being able to “show our work” in our future reporting and using defensible data to support what we want to publicly disclose. I’ve been known to preach that an organization’s sustainability strategy needs to fit comfortably within its existing culture. If it doesn’t match the recognizable, unique feel and vibe that folks already resonate with, it risks feeling like an incidental bolt-on or flavor-of-the-month that requires excessive convincing and cajoling to execute well.
Speaking of how much we love our KPIs and data: you mentioned the Utility Optimization Team at our Sam Adams Pennsylvania brewery. That’s basically us working (what I call) the Arthur Ashe principle: Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
Boston Beer has always had passionate, motivated coworkers who (intentionally or not) come up with sustainability initiatives, organically. The formation of that team was a logical, site-specific efficiency move by our engineering and utilities leadership that, when leveraged and folded into our corporate sustainability mission effectively, is pure gold. It aids in understanding our consumption data better and will be vital in helping us set goals and targets for reduction in the future, as well as informing ways we might use to move the sustainability needle at our other production breweries.
Q2: Dogfish Head’s Re-Gen-Ale and Team Planet from Sam Adams’ Cincinnati taproom are two recent Boston Beer Company beers that aim to address climate change through sustainable ingredient sourcing and regenerative agriculture. Does The Boston Beer Company plan to build on these types of initiatives in the future?
Increasing sustainable inputs, such as brewing ingredients, is a topic that generates a bit more inspiration with our brewers than, say, reducing natural gas consumption. But raw materials from regenerative agriculture come at a premium price right now and procurement of large quantities is also a challenge. So, to ensure that we keep doing what we can to elevate sustainable agriculture’s role in the future of brewing, we just keep making beer with whatever small quantities of those ingredients we can get our hands on, then keep talking about it.
At this stage, that gives us a chance to spotlight our local brands and taprooms - the smaller breweries that brew their own creative, smaller-batch beers. It’s an awesome opportunity for them to go where our bigger production breweries logistically (or financially) can’t. It’s more realistic for a smaller brewery or taproom to procure enough Kernza grain, or other regenerative malt; or integrate locally grown organic hops into a boutique product than our largest breweries who would need massive quantities to do it at scale.
The cool thing is that once our local taprooms release a product that tells a sustainability story, the whole company gets to talk about it, and company-wide awareness is raised instantly. I love that our smallest locations can show up in our corporate ESG Reporting or internal communications, demonstrating what they’ve accomplished and simultaneously educate internal and external stakeholders on the topic of sustainable agriculture. That drives innovation and a thirst for more. In fact, this year we’ve doubled the number of specialty brews made with sustainable ingredients and our brew pub in Rehoboth, DE has transitioned to brewing with over 90% regeneratively grown malt.
Q3: Third-party sustainability is a hot topic for companies tackling Scope 3 emissions. What are your non-negotiables in data you need to track and understand?
Third party sustainability and Scope 3 is not just a hot topic, it’s probably the main reason I don’t sleep at night anymore! There are so many moving parts and there’s no existing one-size-fits-all manual for delineating what sources are “nice to have” vs. “need to have”, and how far you’re expected to chase the data to keep up with expectations.
As a company who has just started looking at Scope 3, we know that our biggest challenge will be related to capturing our co-manufacturers’ emissions, many of whom are not publicly traded companies required to disclose their climate impacts to a body like the SEC. Thus, collecting and incorporating their numbers into our numbers is going to be a real bear, particularly if they have no reason to track their own Scope 1 or 2 emissions to begin with!
On the plus side, we are aware of how important freight and logistics metrics are to the topic of Scope 3. This is an area where we at least have good visibility to in-house data, and therefore understanding our overall impact is much easier. If only the requirements for Scope 3 sources were limited to transportation of finished goods, we’d be golden! But to get the ball rolling, we’re developing a Boston Beer Company-specific Scope 3 playbook (with the help of a consultant) to help navigate our first steps. Thanks to this project, I can testify that the myriad emissions sources we have to examine, and the challenges involved in harnessing the right data can be well and truly soul crushing.
Q4: The “no idling” rule at production breweries is an easy yet creative way to avoid excessive emissions. How should companies make sure they’re not overlooking easy wins while in search of advanced solutions?
One of my favorite hacks in this area has always been “find the free money.” At this stage in our journey there is no bucket of capital earmarked solely for sustainability-specific projects. So, cost is often cited as the main reason that some admirable innovations die on the vine. I encourage our site leaders to investigate available credits, programs, or partnership opportunities that exist locally or nationally, to alleviate that pressure. Symbiotic partnerships with local councils or even federal programs like the EPA’s Smartway Shipper or DoE’s Better Plants programs are well-kept secrets that not only come with financial incentives but also valuable input from experts in the field to help drive the initiative.
Q5: As an elected board member of WaterOne (local water utility in the Kansas City area) and promoter of sustainability in your local community, where do you recommend individuals get involved to take additional steps toward environmental responsibility?
If you’re clear on what you’re passionate about in life, the answer is probably right in front of you. Every community is full of untapped opportunities for environmental champions to dig into - public office, non-profit organizations, coaching roles, etc. The most important step is finding an opportunity that genuinely inspires and motivates you because personal time is precious and getting involved is time consuming. Early burnout is a risk if you aren’t passionate about the mission, whereas being a real agent of change is a long game that takes commitment and persistence.
My advice is to leave no stone unturned. There is almost always a way that the things you’re most passionate about intersect with the environment, and sometimes that’s a surprising niche of opportunity. Running for a seat on the water utility board was an option for me because I’m passionate about water conservation and resiliency planning in response to climate change. I knew that aside from simply being a good fit for my professional skillset, this passion runs deep enough to keep me engaged and motivated to serve my community for a 4-year term, at least.
Similarly, as a local musician, I was thrilled to volunteer that same skillset as a panelist and session facilitator for Folk Alliance International’s 2023 conference recently held here in Kansas City. The theme of the conference was Sustainability, and it was an incredible opportunity to participate in panel discussions on climate change and talk about the impact that the music industry has on the environment, with fellow musicians. In short: I think the sweet spot is to marry your greatest personal passions to the work you want to accomplish off the clock. You’ll reduce the risk of running out of steam and have a deeper well of motivation from which to draw all the energy needed to make a meaningful difference.
Q6: Is there anything we missed that you'd like to share?
Being a practitioner in the world of corporate sustainability is full of challenge and adventure, and I am beyond grateful to have wound up in this sector. Where I really lucked out, though, was taking a gamble on an organization that was starting from square one when I joined. Yes, it is incredibly scary to fly by the seat of your pants without an existing roadmap or playbook. But it is also rich with opportunities to get things right and help an organization craft its own unique journey. Sure, I do think it’s probably beneficial for practitioners who are early in their careers to seek out sustainability roles in organizations that already have an established program and robust team in place to learn the ropes. However, for practitioners who have been in the field for quite some time, taking the risk of starting with a blank slate is a great way to implement all the lessons learned from previous experience and put the pieces in place for a good, clean launch that is tailor-made for the organization from the very first step.