Several months ago, Nespresso, a division of the giant Swiss multinational food corporation Nestlé, announced a major sustainability initiative they are calling Ecolaboration. Nespresso manufactures espresso machines that use proprietary single-use aluminum coffee capsules.
Ecolaboration has three main goals they aim to achieve by 2013:
- To reduce its carbon footprint by 20% per cup, primarily by developing “greener” espresso machines.
- To increase its capacity to recycle its aluminum capsules to 75% (this does not mean 75% will be recycled, see note 1 below and this post) and to “co-convene an industry roundtable on improving the sustainability performance of the aluminum.”
- Source 80% of its coffee from Rainforest Alliance (RA) certified farms (previously, RA was only helping assess farms in their compliance with Nespresso-specific standards, not certifying them; see note 2).
I’m only going to address the coffee sourcing aspect, as sustainably-grown coffee is the focus of this blog.
First, I read Nespresso’s fact sheet on “protecting coffee ecosystems.” A third of the document explains the importance of shade and biodiversity, while the rest neglects to specify any criteria or concrete measures proposed by the company protect the environment.
Thus, the Rainforest Alliance certification criteria will have to act as surrogate for Nespresso’s sustainability efforts. That’s fine, but exactly how much coffee does that “80% certified” represent? Specifically, and importantly, how much as a percent of coffee purchased by parent Nestlé, a company famous for its dismal corporate responsibility ratings ?
(Updated August 2010 to reflect actual published figures) In 2008, Nestlé purchased 780,000 tons of green coffee, similar to previous years and typical of their annual volume . In 2010, Nespresso purchased 490,000 bags (60 kg each) or 29,400 tons under their “AAA Sustainable Quality Program” which includes, but is not exclusively, Rainforest Alliance certified farms . This represents 60% of Nespresso’s purchases, but just under 3.8% of Nestlé’s total purchases. Their stated goal is now to source 80% of Nespresso coffee from the AAA program by 2013 (again, not exclusively Rainforest Alliance certified), which would be 5% of Nestlé’s total purchases.
The commitment to sustainably-grown, eco-friendly coffee by Nespresso is an extremely small percentage of Nestlé’s total purchases. This situation qualifies for what I consider to be the most offensive of the four greenwashing criteria set forth by Greenpeace: Dirty Business. This criteria states “Touting an environmental program or product, while the corporation’s product or core business is inherently polluting or unsustainable.”
I don’t even have to dig any farther into the elaborate hoopla on the Ecolaboration site (which frankly sounds like a rip-off of General Electric’s Ecomagination program). I cannot support such a meager effort, in particular from a company with such a long track record of disregard for labor and human rights, environmental protection, honesty in labeling and marketing, and other unethical business practices.
 Nespresso offers recycling of the aluminum (home and office type only) capsules in several European countries. Even when Nespresso has expanded recycling efforts, it fails to create any meaningful increase in recycling rates. Due to technical constraints, the capsules themselves are not made from 100% recycled aluminum. This post explains that the whole pod recycling issue is greenwashing.
 Nespresso first partnered with Rainforest Alliance (RA) in 2003, and signed a five-year pact in 2006. In the first phase of this partnership (known as the Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Coffee Program), RA developed guidelines specifically for Nespresso to improve quality and sustainablity practices on farms supplying Nespresso. These farms were not being certified by RA under their usual criteria. RA appraised the farms to see if they were “implementing better methods and are decreasing their impact on the natural world.” Nespresso must have been happy with the partnership, as they routinely donate tens of thousands of dollars to RA (see annual reports). Under the Ecolaboration project, the goal is for 80% of the coffee to actually come from certified farms meeting RA’s standards. Update 2015: here is a post on the environmental and social requirements for producers in the AAA program. Note the low bar for entrance into the program.
 Corporate Watch lists numerous corporate crimes; another laundry list is at Global Investment Watch; Responsible Shopper outlines some boycotts and alerts; Source Watch lists more problems; and Ethical Corporation provides an article skeptical of Nestlé’s CSR report. Add it all up, and you get an award for least responsible company in 2005 (nomination here).
 Nestlé Nespresso Ecolaboration Progress Report, June 2011 (PDF).
Photo by svet under a Creative Commons license.