Clooney's Coffeewashing

Clooney's Coffeewashing
via Wikimedia Commons

George Clooney crouches on a sunlight-drenched hillside in Puerto Rico, smiling as he helps a farmer plant coffee seedlings between banana shade trees. “When you hear Nespresso talk about sustainability, it’s about people as well as it is about the coffee bean and the plant”, Clooney says in a voiceover. The two men share a moment as they finish their work, gazing with satisfaction over the picturesque landscape below them.

This ad is part of Nespresso’s Reviving Origins series, a sustainability campaign that aims to “bring back lost coffees” and “restore coffee farming in regions where it is under threat”. Focused on specific growing areas in Colombia, Puerto Rico, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Cuba, and Zimbabwe, the five-year programme has invested around $10 million to regenerate coffee production in areas that have experienced some kind of hardship, whether that’s natural disasters or civil war.

It’s a laudable mission, and one that Nespresso has not been shy about promoting. In addition to shots of the Hollywood A-lister getting his hands dirty on a hillside, Nespresso has produced other slick ads that take us behind the scenes of the project, many narrated by Clooney himself. There’s even a bonus celebrity cameo in one short, during which Clooney discusses the project in Puerto Rico with ‘Hamilton’ creator Lin Manuel Miranda.

It’s hard to watch these videos and not be impressed: They’re very well made, after all. And Nespresso is helping real people improve their lives and livelihoods—what’s not to like? But there’s a reason why the brand is producing these ads. If a sustainability project takes place and no consumers hear about it, did it really happen at all?

There’s a reason for Clooney’s presence, too. When you have one of the most famous actors in the world on your payroll, someone who positively oozes sophistication, you might as well lean into it. But his participation in this campaign does a lot more than just make you want a coffee—it actively assists Nespresso’s coffeewashing.

A Force for Good

Coffeewashing—like “greenwashing” before it—is a word I use to describe coffee companies’ deceptive or misleading claims about the positive social, economic, and environmental impacts of their products or actions.

Nespresso is prolific at the practice. It has marketed itself as sustainable and well-intentioned for years, positioning itself as, if not specialty, then at least specialty-adjacent in its approach to coffee-sourcing and care for the planet.

There’s The Positive Cup, “a strategy that remains at the heart of our business and that reinforces our conviction that coffee must be a force for good”. This overarching—if vague—sustainability strategy encompasses a series of “convictions”, such as the belief that “a low-carbon economy is the only future” and associated goals like reaching net zero by 2035.

Then there’s the AAA Sustainable Quality™ Program, the company’s sourcing programme, which “aims to improve productivity and quality while promoting the adoption of socio-environmental practices and approaches”. 93% of Nespresso’s coffee is sourced through the AAA program, which pays premiums “around 30% to 40% above the standard market price”. And in 2022 Nespresso became a B Corp, a certification given to companies with high standards of social and environmental responsibility and transparency. (This didn’t go down too well with other B Corp companies.)

With Reviving Origins, Nespresso’s stated goal is “to invest in regions where coffee crops and farms are under threat – whether through civil conflict, economic hardship, or natural disaster”, according to a Q&A with the company’s global head of sustainability, Jérôme Perez. This takes the form of partnerships with NGOs like TechnoServe and AgriEvolve to “improve farming practices” as well as more social development endeavours, like increasing access to clean water and building schools.

“Over the 15 years that I’ve worked with Nespresso, I have seen firsthand the impact of the company’s investments on coffee regions around the world and, more importantly, on generations of families”, Clooney said in a press release. “Nespresso’s involvement in local coffee industries means that the rhythm of life can return to normal after conflict, natural disaster or other hardships”.

‘A Black Box of a Company’

These programs sound pretty great—transformative, even. The only problem is that they provide excellent cover for the many supply-chain controversies that Nespresso and its parent company, Nestlé, have been responsible for in recent years.

Young children picking coffee on Nespresso-supplying farms in Guatemala, for instance. Coffee suppliers in Brazil investigated for multiple instances of wage theft. Poor working conditions and “exhausted workers” at a factory in France. Zooming out, Nestlé has a litany of scandals too lengthy to fully list—luckily there’s an entire Wikipedia entry for them—but to pull just one example, the multinational corporation admitted that beans from Brazilian farms that use slave labour may have ended up in its coffee “because they do not know the names of all the plantations that supply them”.

Nespresso puts out slick presentations about its environmental and social objectives, but doesn’t back it up with transparency. “The more scrutiny Nespresso has attracted, the tighter it has drawn the curtains”, the Guardian writes. “It no longer releases figures about its sales or revenues, with its results buried in the overall Nestlé reports”. Coffee consultant, entrepreneur, and author James Hoffmann called it “a black box of a company”.

It’s an opinion shared by others. In 2022, after Nespresso had achieved B Corp status, a group of fellow B Corp companies published an open letter decrying the move. They acknowledged that “Nespresso’s size certainly provides additional complexity and challenges for traceability and transparency throughout its supply chains”, but noted that “size must not be permission for potential child labor, worker abuse, or wage theft for large B Corps”.

George Clooney clearly cares about such issues. He’s been a United Nations “Messenger of Peace” since 2008, and together with his human rights lawyer wife Amal founded the Clooney Foundation for Justice “because we believe in a world where human rights are protected and no one is above the law”. He even told the Guardian that he spends “most” of his Nespresso paycheque on a spy satellite to “keep an eye on Omar al-Bashir [the Sudanese dictator charged with war crimes at The Hague]”.

In that same 2013 interview, Clooney revealed that Nespresso had taken him on a (definitely not stage-managed) trip to Costa Rica to visit farmers: “I thought if I was going to be involved on a long-term basis with this company, and I like them very much, I should find out what they’re doing and what they should and could be held responsible for”.

Cosmopolitan, Sophisticated, and Seductive

Nespresso’s Reviving Origins campaign has been a $10 million investment for the company, and it appears to have paid off: Nespresso has received a lot of good press off the back of it. “With help from the Nespresso community”, wrote Forbes, “farmers are overcoming conflict, environmental disasters and economic hardships, and revitalizing their coffee farms to be more sustainable while bringing back to life some of the world’s rarest coffees”.

As for Nespresso’s investment in its longtime brand ambassador, that, too, has been a coup for the company. Clooney is a beloved actor whose charisma reflects onto the tiny aluminium capsules and the company that sells them. As an article in the Association for Psychological Science notes, “the two-time Oscar winner, twice voted People magazine’s ‘sexiest man alive’, made Nespresso a cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and seductive label”.

All this sophistication has helped boost Nespresso’s coffers—a 2015 Guardian headline makes the connection clear: “Clooney’s Nespresso steams ahead with 35.5% sales growth in UK”. That year the company brought in estimated revenue of $4.5 billion; by 2021 that had grown to $6.7 billion, while its parent company Nestlé brought in $95.7 billion the same year. And it spends a lot on getting the word out: One estimate puts Nespresso’s yearly advertising spend at “under $100 million” per year.

For his work as Nespresso’s spokesperson, Clooney has reportedly earned $40 million since 2006. Nespresso has also recruited other A-listers—Matt Damon made $3 million for a single commercial alongside Clooney back in 2013—while the company has leaned into its desired reputation for effortless cool with ads featuring Jean Dujardin, Camille Cottin, Penelope Cruz—and, of course, Danny Devito.

The Stakes Are High

Climate change is coming for coffee, and Nespresso is here to tell you about it. Well, George Clooney is—replacing his usual frothy coffee with an empty cup “as a symbol of the risk facing many coffee growers around the world”.

This campaign, launched in 2022 to mark International Coffee Day, saw Nespresso and its spokesperson grappling somberly with the realities of coffee production in the 21st century. Coffee is at serious risk from climate change—an estimated 50% of coffee-growing land could be unviable by 2050, and what’s left will be hit by increasingly erratic weather patterns.

“Empowering farming communities to protect their land against weather shocks while simultaneously combatting the causes of climate change is critical to the future sustainability of high-grade coffee”, Nespresso’s website claims. “Nespresso is doing this through regenerative agriculture: an approach that has the potential to not only reduce global agri-food emissions but to increase rural resilience against the impacts of climate change”.

As I wrote in my weekly news roundup for Fresh Cup Magazine at the time, this might be the ultimate coffeewashing example. Nespresso’s stated coffee pod recycling rate is just 32%, with the Guardian estimating that 12,600 tonnes of aluminium end up in landfills each year. Nestlé is one of the worst plastic polluters in the world, has a long history of draining stressed aquifers during droughts, and produced more carbon emissions in 2021 than Morocco or Bolivia.

“The threat of climate change is real and coffee farmers are on the front line”, George Clooney said at the launch of The Empty Cup. “It’s vital that we empower these communities to build financial and environmental resilience, so that they not only survive but thrive and prosper. Climate change is not something that a single company or even an entire industry can fix”.

But one single company—especially one with Nespresso’s resources—could make a significant difference if it were to invest in sweeping supply-chain and manufacturing changes instead of patchy coffeewashing campaigns.

Work Will Be Done

In 2020, when Channel 4’s “Dispatches” programme published its investigation of child labour on seven Nespresso-linked farms in Guatemala, George Clooney was quick to comment. He was “surprised and saddened” by the allegations, and vowed that “work will be done” to improve conditions. “Having grown up working on a tobacco farm from the time I was 12, I’m uniquely aware of the complex issues regarding farming and child labour”, he said. (Clooney worked on his grandparents’ tobacco farm during summer holidays to make extra money; his parents were a city councillor and a news anchor.)

The investigation found “children working long hours in gruelling conditions. Where they were able to speak to the children, [reporters] were told many of them were aged 11 or 12, but others looked as young as 8 years old. Dispatches was told that the children worked up to six days a week and around eight hours a day through the heat of the day”.

In Clooney’s statement, he goes on to say that “I joined the Sustainability advisory board of Nespresso seven years ago … with the goal then, as it remains to this day, to improve the lives of farmers. Make their farms more profitable. More sustainable. More safe”.

The Reviving Origins project, as well as the wider Positive Cup strategy, positions Nespresso as a sustainability trailblazer, an example of how big corporations can combine growth with impact, and can balance improving the lives of their workers and suppliers with their pursuit of profit. But the simple comparison of the $10 million budget for Reviving Origins with the $40 million paid to George Clooney reveals the company’s true priorities.

At the Venice Film Festival in 2007, where his film “Michael Clayton” was premiering, Clooney was asked about the hypocrisy of starring in a movie about corrupt corporations while lending his fame and suave to, well, a corrupt corporation. “I’m not going to apologise to you for trying to make a living every once in a while”, he retorted, according to the Independent. “I find that an irritating question”.

Everyone has to make a living, but it’s not like Clooney is short on cash—he was Hollywood’s highest-paid actor in 2018. And he clearly cares about human rights and social change. Does he really need another $40 million to act as a spokesperson for a company with a history of labour and environmental scandals?

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