A Short Introduction to Coffeewashing

Greenwashing? via Unsplash

Coffee companies want you to buy their products, obviously. To do this, they need you to feel good about what you’re buying, and ideally to feel good about the company itself. Sure they could just stick their coffee on the grocery store shelf alongside all the other brands, but how are they going to stand out?

If you knew that the company selling you that bag of coffee paid its employees the bare minimum, purchased coffee from poor farmers for the cheapest possible price, and shoveled all the profits to its shareholders and upper management, you might hesitate.

That’s where the marketing comes in. Friendly social media, celebrity spokespeople, sleek websites full of photos of happy-looking coffee farmers: they’re all used to present a progressive veneer. Press releases (and the inevitable media stories that follow) trumpet all the Good Things the company does, like building schools or funding research.

The reality is often very different: exploitative practices like child labour, pollution through plastic waste, union busting of workers. But that’s not what customers see: the marketing is designed to portray the product, and thus the company, in the best light possible, and convince you to keep buying. It’s what I’ve come to call coffeewashing.

When I first started writing about coffee news back in 2017, I came across stories touting the ethical initiatives of coffee companies all the time. Originally I referred to it as coffee greenwashing, because most of the time that’s what it was. Greenwashing, according to Merriam-Webster, is “the act or practice of making a product, policy, activity, etc. appear to be more environmentally friendly or less environmentally damaging than it really is.”

Needless to say, there’s a lot of this going on in coffee. While it’s mostly concentrated among the big corporate brands, small companies do it too: we’re replacing our plastic straws; we’re offsetting our emissions; we’re using compostable or recyclable packaging.

Coffeewashing, noun.

The term evolved to become ‘coffeewashing’ because, while the majority of stories revolved around promoting brands’ sustainability measures, others used a project’s social or economic impact to burnish the company’s image. Take, for example, Nespresso’s Reviving Origins initiative from 2019 wherein the company invested $10 million over five years to “revive” coffee production in various countries that had historically suffered from underinvestment.

Reviving Origins got a huge amount of positive press coverage—a lot of the marketing revolved around George Clooney and Lin Manuel Miranda, which helped. As I pointed out at the time, while $10 million is a lot of money, Nespresso's revenue was more than ten billion. Clooney was reportedly paid $40 million to be the face of the brand!

So $10 million over five years feels more like a marketing budget. That’s coffeewashing.

I’ve tried to come up with a rough definition: coffeewashing is when coffee companies deceive or mislead the public about the positive social, economic and environmental impact of their products or actions. (Thanks to David from Rabbithole Roasters for help workshopping this.)

To illustrate what coffeewashing is and how it works, let’s take a look at too recent, instructive examples: Keurig Dr Pepper funding research into “farmer prosperity”, and Blue Bottle Coffee quietly shelving its much-heralded zero-waste initiative. This might be the start of a series, because holy moly there’s a lot of this stuff.

Creating Change From the Inside

Back when Blue Bottle announced its “zero-waste pledge” in 2019, I was relatively ambivalent. I wrote about it in my news roundup, and expressed scepticism as to the purity of the goals. “On the one hand, a zero-waste pledge from a company of Blue Bottle’s size is impressive, with 70 cafes across the US being affected by this announcement,” I wrote (it’s weird to quote myself). “On the other hand, Blue Bottle is owned by Nestlé.”

Blue Bottle is considered one of the forerunners of the specialty coffee movement, while also becoming one of the first third wave companies to embrace venture capital-funded growth. Multiple rounds of investment (plus acquisitions of its own) ended with Nestlé buying a majority stake for a reported $500 million in 2017.

(There’s another discussion to be had about the reputation-laundering aspect of Nestlé and other big conglomerates buying up specialty coffee companies—moves that are somewhat reminiscent of sportswashing.)

Blue Bottle’s announcement sure sounded noble, with its commitment to “the removal of popular single-use items such as cups, grab-and-go containers and retail coffee bags,” as Daily Coffee News put it at the time. A deposit scheme would make reusable cups more accessible, while coffee would only be sold in bulk—something that in hindsight sounds very difficult to achieve for a company with cafes across the entire United States.

Then-CEO Brian Meehan was honest in his assessment of the issue and how his company had contributed to the problem of what he called “a disposable life”. In announcing the pilot, Meehan noted that Blue Bottle uses 12 million single-use cups each year across its US cafes. “We want to show our guests and the world that we can eliminate disposable cups as we serve our delicious coffee,” he wrote.

Another stated motivation was to influence Blue Bottle’s parent company. His company’s goal, Meehan wrote, was “to inspire Nestlé to do more”, asserting that “Nestlé’s past is not its future.” Leopards, spots etc: Nestlé’s future saw it named among the world’s top plastic polluters multiple times over the next few years and receive a cease-and-desist letter from California for pumping too much water from the state’s parched aquifers in 2021. Not to mention Nespresso’s child labour scandal that made George Clooney sad.

Although it was originally a pilot, the stated aim was to spread to every cafe in the states by the end of 2020—70 locations in all. “We make the promise to be zero waste next year with the goal of making further strides in sustainability in the years to come,” Meehan wrote.

Shelving the Reusable Cups

Smash cut to 2023, and the San Francisco Chronicle reports that “Blue Bottle outlets continue to hand out single-use cups for patrons to sip on the company’s chicory-infused New Orleans iced coffee and other beverages on-site.” Unsurprisingly, retail coffee is still being sold in single-use bags, and the deposit-funded returnable cups are not in use.

Blue Bottle blamed the pandemic for the zero-waste strategy’s “pause”—the timeline got shunted out to 2021 and 2023 depending on location—but then went on to admit that the single-use elimination project had been “shelved”. The company insists that the zero-waste plan more widely is still ongoing, pointing to a 25 cent discount for bringing reusable cups to the cafes and “a food waste reduction program”.

But the company had already received a bunch of favourable press mentions—the zero-waste announcement was written up approvingly by NBC News, the Guardian, Eater, Fast Company, Los Angeles Times, CBS News, Greenpeace, and the Today Show. Customers associated Blue Bottle with sustainability and leadership; whether they actually followed through is less important.

Studying farmer income instead of just raising it

Another, perhaps more insidious, way for big coffee companies to launder their reputations is to donate money to science, specifically scientific research grants. Look at the membership page of World Coffee Research’s website and you’ll see a list that includes massive multinationals like Starbucks, JM Smucker/Folgers, Tim Horton’s, and Keurig Dr Pepper.

It goes without saying that World Coffee Research does a lot of good, and researching coffee is vitally important to the future of the industry in a world ever-more threatened by the climate crisis. It just feels a bit weird to do so with the support of companies that are actively doing harm to the world and the climate through their emissions, waste, and relentless focus on growth at all costs.

In the case of Keurig Dr Pepper’s financial support of the Coffee Science Foundation’s research into farmer income, this paradox is even more stark. The goal of the study is to “endeavor to understand the impact of interventions on farmers’ incomes and whether such interventions can improve the livelihoods of the millions of resource-poor around the world,” according to the Specialty Coffee Association.

While World Coffee Research is a wider industry body, the Coffee Science Foundation is the SCA’s research arm, putting it squarely in the specialty category. Keurig’s support gives added credibility to a multi-billion-dollar corporation whose coffee, while it claims to be “sustainably sourced”, is far from specialty.

Embracing the Easy Kudos

According to Keurig, the study will “illuminate learnings about the most effective ways to improve coffee farmer prosperity” that “enable stakeholders in the coffee industry like KDP to optimize the impact of their investments on farmer livelihoods.” But the majority of coffee professionals already know what the answer is. As I wrote in my news roundup at Fresh Cup Magazine, “Most people in the specialty coffee industry agree the best way to help producers and make the coffee industry more sustainable is to pay more for the green coffee we buy—we don’t need a study to tell us this.” (Ugh, quoting myself again.)

Keurig Dr Pepper had sales of more than $14 billion in 2022, has a total market cap of $49 billion, and its majority shareholders include Mondelez International (market cap $94 billion) and JAB Holdings (total assets under management worth $80 billion). Bob Gamgort, CEO of Keurig Dr Pepper, made nearly $8 million in compensation in 2021. According to the AFL-CIO, that was 141 times the median employee pay for the same year.

Think how many times the average coffee farmer's income that would be.

The point here is that Keurig Dr Pepper, which buys 278 million pounds of coffee per year, could easily afford to pay a proper premium and play a huge part in raising the world’s coffee farmers out of poverty. Just think of the PR! But it’s much easier to fund a study looking into how to do it, get the easy kudos that comes with that support, and move on.

Gigantic corporations like Keurig Dr Pepper and Nestlé, as well as the smaller specialty-coded brands they control, need you to keep buying their products so they can show their shareholders that they’re growing. We live on a finite planet, one that is rapidly becoming unsuitable for coffee production. Yet growth remains the sole focus, and the industry would have you believe that there’s a lot of growth left in coffee.

Because of this fixation on growth, the incentives remain for companies to present a positive facade, to advertise as socially or environmentally progressive in order to keep customers feeling good about the products they’re consuming while in the background the status continues to quo.

That’s coffeewashing.