Spier – a wine estate in search of a sustainable future

At the foot of Africa, in the heart of the Cape Winelands is a business intent on doing things differently. While producing award-winning wine, and offering a luxury experience in its four star hotel and conference centre, Spier estate’s primary focus is to balance prosperity with social and environmental imperatives.

Ever since the current owners acquired the estate in 1993, sustainability has been core to Spier’s approach to business. It began with a sense of custodianship of a cultural heritage – the owners felt compelled to restore the historic buildings on Spier – and this ethos soon extended to the environment and communities around the estate.

In 2003, Spier appointed a Director of Sustainability whose task, amongst others, was to define a set of key indicators that measure performance against financial, environmental and social criteria. Today, the operational team takes full responsibility for Spier’s triple bottom line performance, and these goals are reviewed on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis.

In order to meet these objectives, it has been necessary for Spier to innovate solutions to business challenges that have the least impact on the environment, while maximising the benefit to local communities. Some initiatives include:

• the waste water treatment plant is the embodiment of Spier’s approach to waste management. The closed-loop system receives up to 250,000 litres of waste water per day from diverse sources including the hotel, restaurants, wine cellar and farm. The water is cleansed using the best of green engineering techniques, while healing practices such as ‘flow forms’ return the water to a more harmonious state. All the treated water is used to irrigate the estate’s gardens and grounds. It would take a river of 350 kilometres to purify what Spier’s effluent plant can do in one day;
• Spier has begun introducing biodynamic farming practices that are rehabilitating the soil on its lands, and is implementing a bold biodiversity plan that seeks to re-establish the richness of its land’s unique flora. Spier has also conducted an extensive alien vegetation clearing programme;
• the estate has initiated a vermiculture programme where organic waste from the restaurants at Spier is converted into nutrient-rich compost, which is used on the estate and is also available to the public;
• over 80% of the solid waste at Spier is recycled;
• Spier donates land, water and electricity to two conservation outreach programmes: Cheetah Outreach and Eagle Encounters;
• in 2004, Spier began to overhaul its supply chain to ensure that a significant share of goods was procured from local and BEE businesses. This included introducing a new enterprise development approach, which led to the creation of small businesses, including a laundry and a transport company;
• Spier helped to establish and support a land reform project on a section of land leased from the municipality. 13 previously disadvantaged farmers formed The Small Farmworkers Holdings Trust, and for five years Spier supported the farmers infrastructurally and logistically by paying for services and rent, etc. Spier has recently negotiated that this land reform project continues directly between the Stellenbosch Municipality and the Trust;
• Spier has a focus on local employment. Where possible, permanent positions are given to farm workers rather than seasonal work, affording security and benefits such as a pension fund;
• between 2000 and 2002, Spier contributed to an ecological renovation of the main building at Lynedoch EcoVillage that houses the Sustainability Institute and Lynedoch Primary School — a government school serving the surrounding rural community; and
• Spier contributed to the founding of the Sustainability Institute, is active on its board, and has been a long-term partner of both the Institute and the Lynedoch EcoVillage — an emerging, ecological, socially-mixed community — through various funding arrangements.

Spier’s efforts have been recognised by external organisations. In 2004, the hotel was one of the first in South Africa to receive Fair Trade in Tourism (FTTSA) accreditation. Spier was also the first winery in SA to receive accreditation from the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA) in 2004. The estate also received a Condé Nast Traveller World Saver Award in 2007 — a prestigious international accolade. At the recent Veritas awards, Spier won five double-golds and six golds for its wines.

Jo Marshall-Smith, BSocSc, is Brand Author at Spier Wines.