New Belgium Brewing Questions CSR Assumptions: Q&A with Katie Wallace

New Belgium Brewing Katie Wallace

New Belgium Brewing Company emerged from Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan’s basement in 1991 with an outdoorsy egalitarian ethos. Early on, the Fort Collins, Colorado-based brewery’s co-founders sought to demonstrate that business could be a force for good.

Since then, New Belgium became entirely employee-owned, achieved B Corp certification, and constructed a distribution center and second craft brewery in Asheville, North Carolina, that both received LEED certification.

Katie Wallace, director of social and environmental impact at New Belgium Brewing, has been with the company for 15 years. She moved into the leadership role seven months ago, right as the craft brewery’s executive team was refocusing their sustainability efforts.

“Once you’ve been in the field for a number of years, it’s important to go back and question basic assumptions,” Wallace says. “The world is changing so quickly. What was relevant and important 10 years ago might not be today.” Recently we caught up with her to find out how New Belgium’s CSR strategy has evolved.

How did New Belgium’s CSR strategy start out?

We were founded by Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan. Jeff was an electrical engineer, a mountain biker who loved the outdoors, and a home brewer. Kim was a social worker who ended up being our CEO for almost a quarter of a century, and is still chair of the board.

She brought this cultural social angle on business — let’s set goals around our values. Before Jeff and Kim sold their first beers, they took a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park and said, these are the things that are important to us as humans and we don’t think that a business should operate by a separate set of moral guidelines.

They created the company purpose, which was largely what it is today: “To manifest our love and talent by crafting our customers’ favorite brands and proving business can be a force for good.” We now have 10 core values and beliefs — they started with four that day.

How did New Belgium go from there to actual practice?

Kim has done an excellent job of taking high-minded notions off the page and integrating them into the daily business decisions and experience of our co-workers.

We are 100% employee-owned, and have profit sharing. In 1999 we had the opportunity to invest in wind power. Jeff and Kim didn’t want to take away what had been promised so they took the decision to the owners: Do you want to have profit-sharing — we understand if you need it — or bring wind power to our town?

They left the room and about an hour later the co-workers said, “We decided unanimously that we’re willing to give up our profit-sharing this year.”

Where are you today on CSR?

We work primarily on three areas: climate change issues, land and water protections, and social equity. We work closely with other departments, for example with Operations on reducing our own impact and Purchasing for the impact of our materials. We also work closely with HR on workplace practices, co-worker experiences, diversity issues, and trying to close the wealth gap with our employee-ownership model.

In addition, we have a policy arm involved in advocacy around those areas. Then we have a philanthropic arm that supports our initiatives, values, and goals. We give away $1 per barrel of every barrel sold.

You have to figure out where you can have the most meaningful impact. We just went back and revisited our entire strategy because our work touches everyone and everything and you can’t do it all.

What was your approach to rethinking the strategy?

I asked myself, “Should we have this team?” Because if a lot of people are engaged and care, why do you need a team?

Going through the exercise, we do need subject matter experts. These complex fields are changing all the time, whether it’s policy issues or technology or general business practices. Having someone with peers pushing best practices and bringing that new, innovative energy into the brewery is important.

I even questioned, “Should we be making beer?” Is that helping with this vision of a more sustainable and equal future? I came back to yes — it’s a bonding experience, it’s a ritual that ties together a community when used responsibility, which is an important part of a sustainable and just society.

How do you decide which areas of CSR to pursue?

We’ve focused our team dramatically. There have been a number of areas where we’ve been successful. One is policy. Despite our size and limited investment, we’re able to make a bigger difference.

Largely because of our involvement, the City Council in Fort Collins passed a 100% renewable electricity goal for 2030. We have shared our voice on water protection nationally, which at one point lead into the Brewers for Clean Water campaign.

We’re in the leadership circle of the We Are Still In movement. The fact that we were invited alongside Microsoft and other enormous companies to help guide the business community and organizations toward maintaining the Paris Climate Accord speaks to the value we have.

Where do you see your work headed?

Sometimes we’ll post on social media supporting a policy issue. Most people are supportive, but regularly we’ll get something like, “Hey, stick to making beer and stay out of politics.” The reality is that politics got involved in beer and not the other way around.

I believe that the role of government is to protect our shared resources, and also to protect access and opportunity for individuals. Having seen numerous efforts around reducing carbon emissions, I do not believe we’ll do it successfully just on a voluntary basis. There will still be plenty of people with plenty of power that are not going to make those changes if they’re not pushed to through policy and government protections.

We are a small company so we have to work through coalitions and partners to understand the issues deeply enough to share a voice on them. We’ve worked with Businesses for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy (BICEP) and the We Are Still In movement. So we will continue to push at the local and state level, and toward a federal solution, working to build blocs along the way.

What is the key to successful CSR engagement for you?

We have an amazing amount of top-level support for the whole company to engage on this. Without the support of our CEO and the rest of our executive team, we would not be as successful.

People love being involved. They’re stoked when, in their daily work, they get to help the world be a better place.

Katie Wallace will be speaking at the Environmental Leader Conference & Energy Manager Summit in Denver May 13 – 15, 2019.

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