Nespresso AAA quality program guidelines

by JulieCraves on June 22, 2015

Updated in April 2016

In 2009, Nespresso, the premium capsule coffee unit of the giant Swiss multinational food corporation Nestlé, announced a sustainability initiative they called Ecolaboration. I covered the goals in this post.

One major focus has been Nespresso’s AAA Sustainable Quality Program (“AAA program” for short). The goal in 2009 was to source 80% of Nespresso’s coffee from this program by 2013. They reached that goal, and in 2015 they were at 85%, with a goal of 100% by 2020. It is important to note that parent company Nestlé buys around 850,000 tons of green coffee annually, of which only about 0.2% is eco-certified (via Fair trade/organic).  Nespresso, which has a separate supply chain, sourced 55,000 tons of coffee through the AAA program in 2013, which represented 84% of their purchases. Thus, Nespresso buys about 65,500 tons of coffee, a small fraction of the total purchased by the company.

The AAA program’s three “A’s” are Quality, Productivity, and Sustainability. Once a farm meets the quality requirements (about 50 criteria) and is accepted into the AAA program, they enter a process to evaluate their social and environmental sustainability efforts. This aspect of the program was developed in partnership with Rainforest Alliance. For many years, the criteria or guidelines were not available to the public.  The Generic Tool for the Assessment of Sustainable Quality (TASQ) is now available online. What follows is an overview of the requirements for producers to be included in the AAA program under this TASQ, with an emphasis on the environment. Many of the statistics providing context for the guidelines come from Nespresso’s Ecolaboration Full-term Report, 2009-2013, published September 2014 (PDF), or the Coffee Barometer 2014 (PDF).

Criteria and scoring

The TASQ is based on the 2010 Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standards used for Rainforest Alliance farm certification.  Nespresso has divvied up and tweaked the 10 principals and 99 criteria in the 2010 SAN standard into 42 principals and 296 criteria. Of those, 36 are classified as “critical” (12% of total). They include prohibitions on such things as hunting endangered species, paying below the minimum wage, or not documenting coffee transactions, and are considered “internationally accepted minimum standards for sustainability.”

If a farm does not meet all the critical criteria, they are designated as Under-performing but allowed time to resolve the shortcomings. Once a farm meets all the critical criteria, they are then considered compliant and at the Basic performance level. Thus, there is a low bar (especially regarding environmental standards) for inclusion in the program.

There are three more performance levels in the AAA program, reached by complying with increasing percentages of criteria on top of the critical ones: Emerging (at least 33% of non-critical), High Performing (66%) and Certified (80% or greater and at least 50% per principal).

“Certified” here does not mean that a farm automatically receives Rainforest Alliance (or any other) certification. If a farm chooses to apply for RA certification, Nespresso pays for the first year of certification audits. This is encouraged because at the farm level, only 30% of each harvest from participating farmers meets Nespresso’s quality requirements. Nespresso maintains that due to overall quality improvements and/or certification, farmers are able to sell the rejected portion of their crop at a higher price to other buyers.

As of 2015, according to the company Creating Shared Value Report, there are 75,000 farmers in the AAA program, but Nespresso does not disclose the percentages of farms at each performance level. The progress report stated that as of 2013, overall compliance of participating farms with the AAA standards reached 79.8%.  I took this to mean that 79.8% of farms in the program were in compliance (i.e., at least at the Basic level). It could mean that on average farms were compliant with 79.8% of criteria, but I’m not sure why it would not have been worded that way. Also unclear was whether “overall compliance” included quality criteria, or just TASQ criteria. No further similar reports have been published as of early 2016.

On a positive note, the report also noted that 30% of Nespresso coffee was Rainforest Alliance certified1.

The level of documentation required for various criteria varies depending on the size of the farm — 10 ha or less or greater than 10 ha. Nespresso doesn’t indicate how many of their producers are smallholders.

Inspections are done by Nespresso agronomists, and verified by SAN partner auditors. These include Rainforest Alliance’s own auditing division in many of the countries where Nespresso sources coffee2.

Ecological criteria

Nespresso states that 30% of their criteria fall under the umbrella of the environment. These include topics such as waste disposal and soil preservation.

More narrowly, there are 5 principals covering ecosystem management and wildlife conservation: Protection of Natural Areas, Reforestation, Shade Management, Conservation of Biodiversity, and Susceptible Species Protection. There are 37 criteria in these principals (12.5% of total).

The four shade criteria are fairly general, e.g., one is “There is a shade planting program with records.” One is very similar to the shade guideline from the 2010 SAN standard — this is the one that has been proposed to be watered down in the upcoming revision of the SAN standards. Overall, the ecological criteria tend to be quite generic and many are not quantifiable. Further examples include “Farms provide support to the conservation of nearby protected areas and conform to the management plans of those areas” and “Wild animals bred in the farms are supervised by a competent professional.”

Of the 37 ecological criteria, 7 are critical (none of the shade criteria nor any of the reforestation criteria), which represents 19% of the 36 overall critical criteria, and 2% of all criteria. Some of the critical criteria also seem open to interpretation, such as “The ecosystems conservation program takes into account natural ecosystems restoration and the reforestation of on-farm areas that are not appropriate for agriculture.” However, there are supporting documents to the TASQ that are not available publicly that may clarify some of these criteria.

Bottom line

  • Nespresso is sourcing a small fraction of the total coffee purchased by parent company Nestlé under guidelines that are similar to those used by Rainforest Alliance or UTZ.
  • The bar for inclusion in this program is much lower than other true certifications, with producers being allowed in the program (at least temporarily) even if they do not meet all critical criteria representing baseline sustainability standards.
  • A small percentage of the criteria are related to the ecology of farms, many are generic and without quantifiable goals.
  • Nespresso does not disclose a breakdown of the percentage of farms at each performance level.

Future plans

The next iteration of Ecolaboration is dubbed The Positive Cup by Nespresso. Their new coffee sourcing goal is to source 100% of its permanent Grand Cru range through the AAA program by 2020. There are now there are 45 Grand Cru coffees of which 19 are in the permanent range. These numbers seem to change as limited editions come and go; we don’t know if the new goal will translate to an amount that is more or less than the 80% of Nespresso’s total tonnage it is currently sourcing under the program.

You can read more about the various aspects of sustainability efforts at Nespresso, including those beyond coffee sourcing, at their web site.


1It is not known how many of these producers obtained Rainforest Alliance certification as a result of going through the AAA program, or if they already had it. Many producers carry multiple certifications or affiliations. For example, according to their Mid-term Report Coffee Target 2011, about 25% of Nespresso’s coffee came from Colombia. The same year, Starbucks published a report on over 200 of their farmers in Colombia (PDF). Forty-two percent of them were also Nespresso suppliers, but nearly all were already in Starbucks CAFE Practices program (with its more stringent environmental requirements) first.

These overlaps make it difficult to assess any single program without accounting for producers that participate in multiple schemes because the credit for improvements might be due to the pre-existing affiliation.

2This arrangement is a little cozy. As noted in Table 15.7 of the chapter cited below, the Nespresso AAA standards are defined by RA, RA controls the accreditation process, and RA auditors controls compliance standards (certification). These authors do not consider Rainforest Alliance certification itself as third party accredited.

Soto, G., and J.-F. Le Coq. 2011. Certification process in the coffee value chain. Chapter 15 in Ecosystem Services from Agriculture and Agroforestry: Measurement and Payment. Rapidel, B., et al., eds. London, Earthscan.

Revised on January 8, 2022

Posted in Nestlé/Nespresso

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