Greenwashing at Keurig Green Mountain

by on March 24, 2014

keurig-logoKeurig Green Mountain (KGM) has released its 2013 sustainability report. This is the company formerly known as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. The CEO notes that the name change “better reflects who we are as a Company…” In other words — they are now focused on single-cup brewers and coffee. It’s hard to imagine how a company whose primary products dominate one of the most spectacularly wasteful trends in consumer products in decades can make many sustainability claims. Unfortunately, the way KGM did it, in part, was by making statements that qualify as greenwashing.

First, let’s get one fact straight: K-Cups are not recyclable. KGM baldly states this right on “Reducing Product Waste” page of their sustainability report. People still argue with me about this but hey, just because you throw the thing (or some of its parts) in the recycle bin, does not mean it gets recycled.

Keurig Green Mountain noted they recovered 4.7 million K-Cups in 2013…without disclosing that is only 0.05% of the total number of K-Cups that they produced that year.

KGM states that they have a target date of 2020 to make 100% of K-Cups recyclable. They have been talking about this since shortly after they took over Keurig in 2006. I asked them about it in 2007 and they replied they were working on finding renewable materials for the K-Cups.

If not recycling, then…

The report explains, “While we continue to work toward a 100% recyclable K-Cup pack, we also offer programs for responsible disposal of the K-Cup packs that are currently on the market.” KGM went on to describe their Grounds to Grow On program where workplace customers can return K-Cups for composting and energy-to-waste processing; I wrote about in detail here.

KGM goes on to tout that in 2013, the program recovered an estimated 4.7 million used K-Cup packs. That number may seem impressive, but in 2013 KGM produced 8.3 billion K-Cups.  Providing a large figure of the number of K-Cups diverted from landfills in a sustainability report without noting that it only represents 0.05% of the K-Cups produced in a year is not only misleading, but actually represents a huge failure of sustainability.

Comparing apples and oranges

The Assessing Product Impact page explains KGM’s Life Cycle Assessments on their K-Cup packs, and incorpates obfuscation as a means of greenwashing.

My emphasis added to this statement: “On average, when compared with competitive batch brewers, customers waste less brewed coffee when they use a single serve Keurig brewer than when they brew a full pot of coffee”.

  • For home use, they compared one of their at-home single serve brewers (no model specified) to a cheap ($21), 12-cup Mr. Coffee with no small-batch setting; they didn’t specify their own or the other competitor’s commercial models.
  • Obviously, it is wasteful for me to buy an extra large, 12 slice pizza if I only want a slice or two. KGM knows that waste is not an issue if a consumer simply makes one or two cups of coffee using a pour-over or other dead-easy method.  How much was wasted? They didn’t say. It is a FACT that using K-Cups is a WASTE of money. I gave an example that I would have to dump 11 gallons of coffee in a year before it became more cost effective to use K-Cups.

KGM contends the disposal of K-Cups is a small portion of the total environmental impact because “significant impacts occur in the cultivation of coffee beans, use of brewing systems, and the material used in the products’ packaging.”

  • Since the specific thing they are assessing is a brewing method and the packaging, it is misrepresentative to consider steps prior to that (cultivation, processing, transport to roasting facilities…things that are similar among most brewed coffee products) when evaluating the environmental impact of the K-Cup.
  • They listed four areas of environmental impact they did evaluate (admitting in a footnote that one is “not a true environmental impact category,” although they showed a graph for it).  None of them showed impacts of waste disposal, product-to-packaging ratio, or for that matter toxicity of their proprietary #7 plastic blend used in the K-Cups.

What about certified coffee sourcing?

KGM has increased the amount of certified coffee that it has been purchasing up to around 28% of its total purchases (longer history here). However, the amount of Rainforest Alliance coffee has been decreasing, from 9% in 2011 to 5% in 2013. In the past, KGM has indicated how much of their Fair Trade certified coffee was organic, but the last two years have been lumping it all together.  Fair Trade standards themselves have very few specific and measurable environmental criteria, and none related specifically to coffee, so knowing the amount of organic coffee purchased is important. I calculated a five-year average of 72% of the Fair Trade total, but it has ranged from 59% to 87%. I don’t see the figures presented by KGM as misleading or greenwashing, but I do wonder why they are now lumping all Fair Trade coffee and not showing how much is organic.

Another page shows that 70% of KGM’s coffee sales in 2013 were non-certified coffee, and you can read more about their certification goals here.

KGM is going the way of using their own supplier guidelines as an alternative or supplement to third-party certifications, with a goal of 100% of their primary agricultural products sourced under these guidelines by 2020. These guidelines are no substitute for strong (or even so-so) certification criteria. Take a look at the brief, generic environmental section (PDF) – no specific requirements, goals, or metrics (“All suppliers should protect and restore biodiversity” and “We encourage agricultural partners to protect and restore soil and water resources”). These are weak non-standards that offer little in the way of providing a framework for clear, meaningful, measurable criteria for environmental sustainability.

Pablo Escobar Conundrum

Writing about KGM’s use of greenwashing pains me. This is a company that has a long history of supporting and promoting social and environmental justice and sustainability in so many ways. They still do amazing work in coffee communities, including access to clean water, food security for coffee farmers, and the fight against coffee leaf rust. These are powerful and important initiatives, for which KGM deserves praise. And one can certainly argue that when KGM makes a pile of money on K-Cups and single-cup brewers, they have more money to invest at origin.

Do the positive things that KGM does offset the hundreds of thousands of pounds of non-biodegradable plastic K-Cups being dumped in landfills each year? I call this the Pablo Escobar Conundrum, after the notorious drug lord who built hospitals, schools, churches, and soccer fields, and frequently contributed to charity. I’m not equating KGM with Pablo Escobar, only the dilemma of entities that do both tremendous good as well as substantial harm. We all know two wrongs don’t make a right. I don’t know how to figure out how many “rights” it takes to cancel out a “wrong.”

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Revised on March 26, 2014

Posted in K-Cups/Keurig brewers: alternatives

Jim Pellegrini March 25, 2014 at 10:33 am

As always, nice job, Julie.

The root of the problem is a customer base who remains willfully ignorant of the implications of their purchasing decisions (or worse, they know and don’t care).

Robert F June 15, 2014 at 4:14 pm

A cogent and well-written analysis. I’m planning to buy a pod-based coffee or espresso maker. Based on your criteria (recyclable pods, bird-friendly/organic coffee), is there a manufacturer (Nespresso, Keurig, etc.) that stands out as the best of the worst?

JulieCraves June 15, 2014 at 5:02 pm

I think it’s pretty obvious that I think both Keurig and Nespresso are wasteful and ridiculously expensive…just look at the many posts I have done on both. In this post (You’re paying WHAT for single-serve coffee?) I give my #1 recommendation for making one or a few cups of coffee, a pourover.

CinnamonGirl August 26, 2014 at 12:28 pm

When I clicked to print the article on “Birders Drinking Folgers,” an offer for a Folgers coffee coupon flashes. Why are they allowed to solicit purchases on this website, or do I just not get the irony?

JulieCraves August 26, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Ugh — well, here is the problem. I have to manually block advertisers, and have to know the URL of the ad. So while I have blocked many URLs such as folgerscoffee.com, there are many more that advertise FOR brands that I don’t want on the site. Unfortunately, they often pop up because the ads are triggered by words on the page, yet I am not allowed, through the terms of my agreement with Google Ads, to click on the ads on my own page to get the correct URL to block. So I do my best to filter them out, but some always manage to get through. Also, I think the third-party widget used to create the PDF serves up its own ads which I don’t have control over.

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