Before yielding to drunken impulses to smash beer bottles in the street, it’s good to know that the beverage they contained were produced in the most environmentally friendly way.
Fort Collins-based New Belgium Brewing Co. has advertised that all the energy used to produce Fat Tire, Sunshine Wheat and other premium intoxicants comes from renewable sources.
The company has bragged that it operates on “100 percent renewable energy.”
It even distributed coasters that portray giant beer bottles as wind-turbine towers. “New Belgium Brewing Company has tapped into the big winds of Wyoming as their sole source of energy,” the coasters read, “making them the first wind powered brewery in the world.”
This claim has apparently boosted sales among beer guzzlers who are deeply concerned about global warming. It’s also forced competitors to examine their own practices. But it isn’t entirely true.
In addition to electricity, New Belgium burns natural gas – which is not produced in a wind turbine. The trucks that distribute its beer do not run on wind. The glass bottles – from an outside supplier – require more energy to make than the beer itself, much of it coming from fossil fuels. And most of these bottles likely end up in landfills anyway.
Additionally, New Belgium doesn’t run a wind farm. It buys renewable-energy credits, paying a premium for the right to claim that the electrons it uses come from a wind turbine instead of a power plant, even if it is not technically so.
The person who pointed out all of this is a former employee named Eric Sutherland, 44, who left the company in 1999.
As a result of Sutherland’s agitation, which began in late 2005, New Belgium recently stopped bragging that all of its energy comes from renewable sources.
“We went through the whole wind-power phrasing with him,” said New Belgium spokesman Bryan Simpson, “and the positive outcome was that we amended our language.”
But Sutherland didn’t stop there. He grew up in a logging town in Oregon and said he considers himself one of those tree-hugging activist types. Winning a small victory only emboldened him.
Now he wants New Belgium to start a returnable-bottle program to cut down on energy waste and landfill mass. He accuses the company of “greenwashing.”
“How did a company that makes a non-nutritious, highly processed agricultural product packaged in a disposable glass bottle become an icon of sustainability?” he asks.
Over the past several months, he has bombarded New Belgium officials with e-mails and letters and confronted them at public meetings. He’s also been spotted taking photos of New Belgium’s plant from public streets.
“Questions, comments, kudos, criticisms? We like ’em all,” the company claims on its website, where it seeks feedback from anyone, except Sutherland.
New Belgium, which has so prided itself on environmentalism, has responded to this environmentalist by calling the cops and getting a temporary restraining order. The company claims he couches his activism in veiled threats.
“The brewery has confused criticism with harassment,” said Sutherland, who as far as I can tell is a family man with no criminal record or history of violence.
The most menacing things Sutherland has said and done are contained in a police complaint and a temporary restraining order. According to these documents, he has e-mailed the company under a fake name and e-mail address. He said he did this because the brewer didn’t respond to his real name and e-mail address.
Sutherland has spoken of “wheels set in motion” that he cannot stop. He also sent a postcard to Simpson thanking him for at least one e-mail response. It said, “So many others have fallen through the cracks. Much depends on a timely response.”
Writing under the pseudonym of Steve Schnoodecher, Sutherland wrote, “you never know when someone is going to fly into a fit and start tossing thunderbolts around.”
Any threat that might be construed from these words, said Sutherland, were of litigation and media exposure. He said the thunderbolt line was in jest, written to an executive who signed her e-mails as “sustainability goddess.”
Goddess. Thunderbolts. Get it?
“In this day and age, you can’t call a business and say that,” said Simpson, adding that employees were genuinely frightened by Sutherland’s words and tone.
Sutherland did not say what he meant by these words, and his missives indeed had an acerbic and even mocking tone.
Perhaps Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil or even Denver-based Qwest should take a pointer from the more socially conscious New Belgium. Perhaps they can silence their critics with restraining orders, too.
“We’re not trying to silence him,” said Simpson. “He’s free to talk to the media. He’s free to set up anti-New Belgium kiosks. But he’s not free to threaten our employees.”
I attended a court hearing Thursday where New Belgium officials asked a judge to make the temporary restraining order against Sutherland permanent. The hearing ended without a decision and will continue July 6.
So far, the score is tied. Sutherland gets one point for forcing changes at New Belgium. New Belgium gets a point for smacking him around in court.
But the game is not over.
“I don’t have any intention of ever talking to anybody out there again,” Sutherland said. “I’ve learned my lesson. They’re not going to respond to anything I say. They’re only going to respond when I take it to the media.”
By Al Lewis
Denver Post Columnist
22 June 2007
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