Yealands' sustainable business future: Q&A with Jason Judkins, CEO

24 March 2014

“You’re only ever really limited by the number of ideas which you can generate.” Find out how Yealands Estate is embracing sustainability in our interview with CEO Jason Judkins.

What is Yealands’ vision for sustainability?

Right from when Peter Yealands launched the winery back in 2008, the vision has always been to be the world’s most sustainable winery, and from day one we’ve been CarboNZero certified. Since then we’ve focused on three main areas: environmental, financial and social.

I come from a corporate finance background so I always try to look first at the financial savings we can make. But with our focus on being the world’s most sustainable winery, the environmental side – and our vineyard and winery in particular – have taken priority. What we’re trying to do is constantly reduce the amount of diesel that we use in our tractors, our use of chemicals and fertilisers, and look at other things we can do in the vineyard to be more sustainable.

One of the initiatives we’ve got going at the moment is a composting programme where we make about 40-50,000 tonnes of compost by bringing in grape mark from other wineries and vineyards in the area. Grape mark is the leftover skins and stalks and the waste from when the grapes are crushed. We mix it with bark, which is a waste product from the local mills, and with Sealord’s mussel shells. We pick up seaweed off the beach and mix it with that, as well as a little bit of lime. It’s a major composting programme. The compost is spread back onto our vineyards.

Within the winery we’re constantly looking at how we can reduce our energy and we’ve got a number of projects that we’re working on, in particular around the renewables, for example heat recovery systems, boilers fired by vine cane prunings and a large solar array.  The winery itself was actually designed to only use about a third of the industry average of energy.

Other areas that we focus on are around packaging. We’re constantly looking for lighter weight glass. We trialled a new PET plastic bottle which we call our eco bottle, and other packaging types that we hope in future consumers will be more open to.

One of the other area we focus on within our business is influence and bringing awareness of sustainability to all our people. We have 135 people in the company now, but we also focus on our suppliers, customers and communities and that’s a really big part of our vision – not just to be better ourselves, but to help other people become better too. We like to support other people in their own initiatives and promote the learning that we’ve had from our own operations to others as well.

What is Yealands doing that will make the biggest contribution to a more sustainable New Zealand?

There are two main areas that we believe are our biggest contribution. The first is innovation and trialling. We’re a private company, so Peter, our founder, is a big influencer in the decisions that we make. We have the ability to invest in ideas and not be scared of failure. If we trial something and it works, then great, but if it doesn’t we can move on without a fear of having lost some money or having done something wrong. Because of that entrepreneurial focus, we can bring ideas to market that maybe other companies in a more public environment can’t trial to the same extent.

The other area which I believe is a big contribution is awareness. Because we’re a reasonably large wine company we have the ability to communicate with our consumers about our story, what we’re trialling and what is working well. In New Zealand our ability to influence others and tell them what we’re doing – what’s working and what’s not working – is potentially beneficial to other companies. Certainly we have a number of people who come through the winery who benefit from our learnings – and similarly we learn from them.

Are there any other sustainability initiatives you’d like to highlight?

In the area of social sustainability, we’ve got a campaign at the moment called Yealands Raise a Glass where we’re lifting the profile and celebrating the success of six New Zealanders who are doing fantastic things, not only for themselves but also for the community. We like to support people who are doing great work in their own communities – like growing gardens, lifting family poverty, promoting men’s mental health, really cool things.

In terms of energy, which is directly relevant to our winery, we put in a 99kW solar array last year on the northern side of our winery roof. At that time it was the biggest solar array in New Zealand. We did it as a joint venture with PowerSmart. We’re in the process of doubling that system right now, to a 200kW system, which will bring 25-30% of our energy consumption for our wine making directly from solar. That has been a great initiative.

We’re hoping that others will follow our lead in this, particularly with the lowering of prices of solar, making it much more affordable for companies like us.

What are some of the main challenges of driving sustainability through a business and how do you overcome them?

There’s always a healthy amount of scepticism for new ideas, including internally, and the challenge is to prioritise the ideas that might have the greatest impact and get the requisite people on board. That has been a big challenge to us. Quite often, an entrepreneurial idea sounds a bit whacky at first when you’re asking people to put their time and resources into it. But when you prove it’s successful, then others get on board.

Balancing financial and environmental sustainability initiatives is really tough. Lots of fantastic environmental ideas actually cost you more. When we first started there was a lot we could do on big projects where there was both financial and environmental benefit, but as you go further down the line it becomes a bit more marginal and in some cases can cost you more. So the challenge is trying to balance the objectives of the business with everything else.  Some of the decisions we’ve made have cost us more financially but have been the right thing to do, so we’ve done them anyway.

What advice would you give to other organisations looking to make material gains via sustainability?

I would say focus on those big areas that can deliver the highest financial and environmental impact first. For us it was around waste and energy. Energy is always a big one for a wine company, but by getting some projects on board and being successful at them and delivering savings, you can influence management, your board, your customers and your suppliers, and you start getting some traction. When you start getting some wins, that support builds quite quickly.

I would also say promote your wins among your own staff, your suppliers and customers and see what you can do to influence them to be better as well. Lastly, just have a go because it’s so much fun and you learn so much from it. We’re by no means experts but the ideas that have been generated within Yealands, have been fantastic and we’ve really enjoyed our last six years on this journey in sustainability, which I don’t think we’ll ever get to the end of. You’re only ever really limited by the number of ideas which you can generate.


Jason Judkins will be speaking at the Secrets to their Success event in Auckland on 8 April 2014. Tickets are still available and can be purchased here.

The Sustainable Business Network is enormously grateful to Yealands for sponsoring wine at our events.