Novo Fogo produces Brazil’s national spirit cachaça from its distillery in the small town of Morretes, located in the Atlantic Rainforest. The surroundings serve as a constant reminder of the importance of Novo Fogo’s company-wide emphasis on environmental preservation. 

The brand has worked to become carbon-negative and has even started its own reforestation project, among other initiatives. We spoke to Founder and CEO Dragos Axinte about how the brand has developed its sustainable practices over the years and how the beverage alcohol industry can utilize four tiers of activity to raise the bar on sustainable efforts.

What eco-friendly or sustainable practices does your company use? 

We have been certified organic by the USDA since 2009 and 100% organic since 2016. Our distillery is a zero-waste facility, and the entire combined company is carbon negative. We fund and operate our own reforestation project, named “The Un-Endangered Forest,” which seeks to remove 36 species of native Brazilian trees from the threatened list. Our Bar Strength expression has a carbon-neutral footprint across its entire life cycle, including component suppliers, freight, fuel warehousing, and all distribution – from true origin to final destination.

What was your approach to sustainability when you first started your brand and has that developed over time? 

We are so fortunate to have only added to the original vision, not altered it. When we launched Novo Fogo in 2009, we often had to answer the question of “Why organic? It doesn’t add any value.” Our answer would begin by explaining that the first victims of agricultural chemicals are the field workers, which was a surprise to many. Over the years we have spent a lot of time thinking about what we should do next to continue to elevate the bar. Sequentially we introduced bartender wellness, reforestation, carbon neutrality, then carbon negativity. Today we are bringing it all together through our Tree-Keeper™ program, which enlists the support of pro-soccer players to amplify our voice.

How do you measure the impact that your sustainable practices have made? 

The biggest impact that we see is education. We feel that we must lead by example. We’re a small company, but if we can teach bigger industry players to take the high road, the incremental impact will be huge. When we started hosting soccer tournaments, workouts, and runs at Portland Cocktail Week and Tales of the Cocktail 10-12 years ago, many industry members thought that we were wasting our time and money. But since then, we have seen many other brands begin to prioritize the health of their constituents; this sort of echo-response gives us the energy to continue to think ahead and blaze new trails for the industry.

How do you communicate your sustainable business practices to partners and consumers? 

Our communications start with the content, usually centered around brand transparency; after we know what the content is, we figure out the best way to deliver it. In general, we talk a lot! You can’t make claims and then expect to be taken seriously without objective analysis by your audience; it’s 2022, and consumers do research now. We have hosted countless webinars, seminars, and live video distillery tours, designed to show what’s under our hood, what our problems are, and how we overcome them (or at least try to). This sort of stuff is so much better than making claims of greatness! Don’t make claims of greatness, brands.  

What are some of the impacts your company has seen from being sustainability-focused? 

We never regret decisions and we sleep really well at night. This is actually very important for us, on account of the fact that we have a pretty big conscience.

What sustainable practices would be the easiest for a beverage brand to begin adopting today?

Every brand should try to reduce the carbon footprint of its supply chain. Try working with companies that share your values, in terms of waste minimization, renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, recycling and upcycling, etc.; even if they don’t have answers to all the questions, they should be trying, just like you. With partners like that, you should be seeing your carbon emissions decrease. Finally, what you can’t reduce today, you should offset, until you figure out a way to reduce or eliminate it.

What are some sustainability misconceptions you’ve come across running your business? 

Most importantly, the use of the word “sustainable.” There is no such thing, it’s bogus. We try to avoid using it as much as possible. No business is actually sustainable. Sustainability involves people, community, the environment (flora and fauna), and commerce too. Sustainability is a mindset, a philosophy, a foundation of thought and action that must infiltrate every aspect of a business in order to become possible. It’s an aspiration, not a destination. Companies that trumpet the achievement of “sustainable production” or “sustainable business practices” are only telling us that they’re shooting for the marketing benefits of these claims, but don’t actually understand what they are claiming.

What do you think the industry at large can be doing better when it comes to sustainability efforts? 

I suggest four tiers of activities:

(1) Find your role, make it positive, and lead by example. Before you can act like you know what you are doing, you have to figure out what you are doing and get good at it. This gives you the credibility that you need to accomplish the other things on this list. But it’s important that your example is positive – don’t stand against something, stand for something else. This gives you purpose and makes people want to follow you. You can definitely do this in a bar. You can do this in a store. You can do this in any environment.

(2) Ask producers questions. Support transparency, not claims. You may not know what to ask but ask anyway. You may not be able to fully understand the answers, but you will note the BS if it’s there. It’s very important not to get hung up in the producers’ claims, which may be for marketing purposes only, but instead, judge their transparency levels. If they are willing to talk at length about their business, that means that they are honest. If they hide behind unanswered questions or generic responses, they are possibly pulling your leg.

(3) Push for certifications. Certifications made companies better. It doesn’t matter what they are. They will have a positive effect on the business. Ask your producers to tell you what certifications are available in their area and in their industry and ask them why they haven’t gone after them.

(4) Campaign against outdated systems. There is reason to raise your voice too. The fact is that 20 companies create 1/3 of the pollution in the entire world. Their businesses are supported by outdated governmental policy or political mandates. If we want to make radical changes somewhere, this is it. Get educated about the big polluters in your community and speak to the local government about it.

What are your plans for 2022?

We’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other and see where that takes us!