Nestlé 2013 sustainability report: the kitchen sink

by JulieCraves on May 15, 2014

nestle-sinkSome corporate sustainability reports are underwhelming. The JM Smucker Co. (owner of Folgers, among other brands) is a great example. Not much to it, and whole swaths are repeated word-for-word from year to year.

Food mega-giant Nestlé, on the other hand, produces phone-book sized sustainability reports. Granted, Nestlé is a larger company with more products. Still, their 2013 Creating Shared Value report (PDF) is a whopping 404 pages, overwhelming in its scope. Any reader would get lost in its facts, figures, and examples. Let’s call it the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach.

I know I’m cynical, but as I grudgingly sat down to read over Nestlé’s latest report, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was an intentional effort to swamp people with data or just impress them with size, all to obscure a so-so sustainability record.  I will restrict my critique here to just what pertains to coffee.

There are two things to note about Nestlé’s coffee business. First, there are at least two coffee supply chains in the company. Nespresso is responsible for its own supply chain, separate from the rest of Nestlé’s green coffee purchasing1. The rest goes to Nestlé’s other brands, primarily instant under the Nescafé label.

Second, on page 150, Nestlé states it buys 10% of the world’s coffee production; thus, in 2013 Nestlé bought 870,000 tons of green coffee2. It’s unclear if this includes Nespresso, but since the figure right in line with previous estimates of Nestlé purchases, we will assume that it does.

How Nestlé’s defines sustainable coffee

In their Responsible Sourcing Guideline (PDF), Nestlé defines responsibly sourced green coffee as that which is verified against the 4C Code of Conduct or standards such as their own Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Program.

What does this mean? 4C compliant coffee is not certified, but indicates meeting a basic, entry-level standard. There are no meaningful, quantifiable eco-criteria, and the 4C Code addresses only the most egregious, illegal, unsustainable practices in the industry. The Nespresso AAA program uses criteria that are based on the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standards used for Rainforest Alliance certification, but which criteria and how they are scored or evaluated is not publicly disclosed. [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.]

So how much of Nestlé’s coffee is “responsibly sourced”?

The majority of Nestlé’s coffee goes to their non-Nespresso brands. Of this, the company states (page 152) that 71,493 tons, or 8.2% of their annual purchases, was 4C compliant, reaching just the most basic level of “sustainability” standards.

Meanwhile, 84% of their Nespresso purchases were made under their AAA program. Nestlé considers volume data proprietary, but in 2010 Nespresso stated3 it purchased 49,020 tons of coffee (5.6% of Nestlé’s total purchases). Nespresso has experienced considerable growth. If we guess that it purchased 60,000 tons, then 84% of that would be 50,400 tons under their AAA program, or 5.7% of Nestlé’s annual purchases. It’s probably safe to say that around 6-7% of Nestlé’s total purchases were sourced under the Nespresso AAA program.

So, less than 135,000 tons is sourced under some sort of standard, leaving nearly three-quarters of a million tons of coffee not meeting any sort of basic sustainability requirements at all!

Even less than meets the eye?

On page 125, Nestlé states a goal to source 90,000 tons of coffee that complies with the Sustainable Agriculture Standard by 2020.  That sounds like a volume that would be around 10% of Nestlé’s annual purchases. However, a footnote explains that this is an “aggregate figure from 2010 to 2020”. In other words, 90,000 tons over 10 years, or 1% of Nestlé’s total green coffee purchases.

A similar footnote is not given for their goal of sourcing 180,000 tons of 4C-compliant coffee by 2015, but later in the report when these figures are provided, the language seems to indicate that this is also a cumulative amount. For instance, on page 152, the report says (my emphasis added) “By 2015, we aim to source 180,000 tonnes…” and “By the end of 2013, we had sourced 148,198 tonnes…” On page 157, it says “…we will have bought 180,000 tonnes…by 2015…” If this were an annual amount, wouldn’t the wording be, for example, “In 2013, we sourced…”?

Other tidbits:

  • They tout that an independent study found that Colombian farms in their Nespresso AAA program had “52% better environmental conditions” than non-AAA farms. Examining the actual report (link here) shows that this figure included farms with Rainforest Alliance certification. It did not say how many of the farms had the certification, or how the conditions on these certified farms drove up the environmental index.
  • The percentage of their suppliers that comply with the company’s supplier code has declined from 96% in 2011, to 74% in 2013.

In a similar vein, the company’s strategy for biodiversity impacts of coffee states: “Biodiversity issues are managed primarily through the use of the 4C Coffee Code, the Nespresso AAA Sustainability Quality Program and the Nescafé Plan, which, in partnership with Rainforest Action Network, has developed better farming practices.”

In a nutshell

Remember, Nestlé has no interest in investing in or marketing third-party certified coffee, so it’s worth repeating we get from Nestlé:

  • around 50,000 tons of coffee sourced under their Nespresso AAA guidelines, with a low bar for inclusion
  • plus 71,493 tons sourced under the dubiously-meaningful 4C code of conduct,
  • leaving more than 740,000 tons of coffee sourced from farms following no sustainability standards, or at least none known or being disclosed to the public.


1Alvarez, G., C. Pilbeam, and R. Wilding. 2010.Nestlé Nespresso AAA sustainable quality program: an investigation into the governance dynamics in a multi-stakeholder supply chain network. Supply Chain Management 15(2):165 – 182. DOI: 10.1108/13598541011028769

2Data converted from world production statistics, International Coffee Organization. 

3Nestlé Nespresso Ecolaboration Progress Report, June 2011.

Revised on October 6, 2021

Posted in Corporate coffee,Nestlé/Nespresso

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