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Hastings native speaks at global sustainability conference

Josh Prigge presents at a forum discussion at COP21 in Paris Dec. 7. He is the director of regenerative development at Fetzer Vineyards, which is leading the way in sustainable and regenerative agriculture. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
Josh Prigge is pictured at COP21. The conference made history this year by creating an international agreement to limit global warming. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

On Dec. 7, Hastings native Josh Prigge was in Paris, standing in front of a room full of people committed to creating a better global environment.

He was part of a panel that was presenting at COP21, the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The conference brings together 195 nations and the European Union to figure out a global plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions around the world.

The conference made history this year, as the participating nations adopted the first universal, legally binding global climate deal. The deal, which is being called the Paris Agreement, will be fully active in 2020, and works to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, according to a summary by the European Commission.

“To be invited and to be a part of it, it’s the pinnacle of my career,” Prigge said.

Prigge attended the conference as a panelist representing Fetzer Vineyards, a California vineyard and winery. Prigge is Fetzer’s director of regenerative development, and its his job to move the company beyond just being environmentally sustainable.

“We need to move beyond sustainability … to being regenerative,” he said, “where we’re actually eliminating our negative impacts and creating positive impacts.”

Prigge, a 1999 graduate of Hastings High School, started his college career at Winona, where he studied physical education. His goal then, he said, was to be a coach and physical education teacher.

“In my undergrad, I was really passionate about sports,” he said. “I played basketball and soccer my whole life.”

But after he graduated, his career took a big shift. As he watched more global news and learned more about what’s happening to the environment, he developed a new passion for the environment, climate change and global issues. He said he realized that environmental issues are not only something he cared deeply about, but that they also would become a big industry.

“It would have to be,” he said.

So he switched tracks and turned his graduate studies to sustainable development. He moved to Hawaii for graduate school at Hawaii Pacific University. Just before he graduated, the university created a sustainability coordinator position, which he was fortunate enough to get, he said.

Prigge stayed in Hawaii for about five years. The university started a series of layoffs, and although Prigge didn’t lose his job, he realized it was time to start looking for something new.

“I was looking all over the country and found this opening at Fetzer Vineyards for a sustainability manager,” he said.

And the company already had an impressive environmental record. It was leading the way in the wine industry in sustainable initiatives; it was the first winery in California to operate entirely on clean energy. It was the first wine company to publicly report its greenhouse gas emissions and has been reducing emissions each year. All 960 acres of Fetzer’s vineyards are certified organic. In 2014, it became the first certified zero waste wine company in the world.

“For decades, this company has been leading the way in the wine industry,” Prigge said.

Prigge’s job has him working on ways to not only reduce the environmental impact of the business, but to reverse the negative impacts and regenerate the ecosystem.

Fetzer recently became a certified B Corp, which marks it as a for-profit company that meets the highest standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. There are fewer than 1,500 B Corps in the entire world.

“We use our business as a force for good in the world, not just to maximize profits,” Prigge said.

It was shortly after earning B Corp certification that Fetzer was invited to participate in COP21. Prigge sat on a panel with four other wine companies from around the world, each talking about how climate change is affecting the wine industry and how it will affect the industry in the future, as well as what each company was doing to address climate change.

One of the things Prigge talked about was how Fetzer goes beyond organic practices and uses regenerative practices – things like cover crops, increasing biodiversity, grazing sheep to keep weeds down and mow grass and composting efforts.

“All these things that we do help build the health of our soil year after year,” he said.

And, if more people would use similar methods, they could be a good solution in the climate change discussion, as regenerative methods allow soils to take carbon, a greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere.

Prigge said he got to spend time at the conference talking with other companies and nonprofits involved, and also sat in on other sessions.

“It was a really great event,” he said. “It was amazing to see so many people from (almost) every country in the world come together.”

Still more work to do

Prigge is back in California now, and he said he’s excited to lead sustainability and regenerative efforts there for many years.

“We have a lot of great things happening here at Fetzer,” he said. “We really want to be a model for the rest of the world, not just for the wine industry but for all businesses.”

Many businesses think that there’s an inescapable tradeoff between being profitable, being good stewards of the environment and being socially responsible to employees. But Fetzer, he said, is proof that it’s not only possible to have all three, it’s also the best way to do business.

“It is possible to restore and regenerate the environment, enhance the lives of your employees, make positive impacts on communities while making a profit and making a product that you love,” he said.

One of the more immediate goals he’ll be helping Fetzer accomplish is becoming carbon neutral in 2016. Since Fetzer started publishing its greenhouse gas emissions in 2005, it’s been reducing emissions every year since, cutting emissions by 50 percent, Prigge said. In 2016, they’ll be adding carbon offsets to neutralize the remaining emissions, so they won’t be contributing to the greenhouse gas problem at all.