George Clooney is the face of Nespresso, the Nestle capsule coffee company, and makes no bones about it. “I’m very comfortable with commercials. I’ve done them most of my life,” he said recently in Paris, as he provided star power to the newly unveiled Nespresso Sustainability Advisory Board (NSAB). “But I would find myself at a press conference, or perhaps at a film festival and suddenly there’d be some people challenging me about Nespresso’s sustainability. 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.”
Three years ago Clooney headed out with Nespresso to Costa Rica to see the company’s coffee farmers for himself.
If you’re not familiar with the Nespresso brand, there are usually two main sustainability beefs. A small tray was dropped off at my hotel room ahead of the unveiling of the NSAB, reminding me of the first. The tray held four shimmering jewels, sealed aluminium pods of espresso magic that pop into a machine. Each is a single use canister and an estimated 186 million are used in the UK each year alone.
Nespresso says that it has collection points (and will pick up) for empties in the UK and Ireland and that they can be successfully recycled.
The second major point of contention is that Nespresso is owned by Nestle, and its baby milk scandal has still not been forgotten by campaigners. Nestle is also a mammoth buyer of commodities, and thus not perceived as distributing social value along its supply chain in the same way as, say, Fairtrade.
“This is a great, big company working very hard to help people at the bottom,” Clooney said at the press conference. “It’s smart business.”
Clooney’s Nespresso ads poke fun at himself by being turned down by a series of beautiful women who are more interested in the coffee machine and its bejewelled single-use pods than him. The knowing ads riff off his public persona: uber suave and a little bit smug.
But there are critical differences between advert Clooney and NSAB Clooney — the former doesn’t talk about farming, whereas the latter said: “I’m the grandson of tobacco farmers and I grew up on a farm and I really felt that when I went to Costa Rica. I spent time with one amazing family who have changed everything, made it more efficient, made it better. They were so proud! [Dung] powers their entire home!”
The family, it turns out, are in the room (they stand up bashfully for a round of applause). They are one family of 56,000 coffee farmers who are part of Nespresso’s environmental and quality assurance system that means they can attract around 30-40 per cent above market price.
Nespresso announced it’d be extending this scheme into Africa, and said it expects to double the amount of coffee sourced from Ethiopia and Kenya to 10,000 tonnes by 2020.
But the big story here is Sudan. Were Clooney not in attendance I’d probably have been reporting on the fact that Nespresso is planning on leveraging South Sudan as a high quality coffee producer (as it was 40 years ago).
Clooney said: “Yesterday we got to drink coffee of South Sudan, and this is the only export to have come out of South Sudan besides oil since the war. The problem with oil being of course that a company takes the oil from beneath the feet of the people living there via a pipeline, back of a truck and a dock in Khartoum. Oftentimes the government gets a small proportion and it doesn’t seem to trickle down.”
But if Clooney wasn’t there, then arguably there wouldn’t be a drive to source coffee from Sudan. The country is an all-consuming passion for the actor, who was arrested at the Sudanese embassy in Washington last year: “Most of the money I make on the [Nespresso] commercials I spend keeping a satellite over the border of North and South Sudan to keep an eye on Omar Al Bashir [the Sudanese dictator charged with war crimes at The Hague]. Then he puts out a statement saying that I’m spying on him and how would I like it if a camera was following me everywhere I went and I go ‘well welcome to my life Mr War Criminal’. I want the war criminal to have the same amount of attention that I get. I think that’s fair.”
On his own green credentials, Clooney is coy. He likes electric cars, he thinks the issues are important, “but I’ve been in a private jet [I imagine more than once] and once you do that you pretty much undo any good” but he certainly gets it. He also has a noticeably good rapport with Harriet Lamb, CEO of Fairtrade International, a fellow NSAB panellist.
She said farmers associations welcomed Nespresso’s initiatives and big companies could play an important role.
“You need dedicated pioneer brands but you also need the big boys who can drive the whole sector. We’re all at the start of creating the sort of change we want to see. There’s a strong message here [with Nespresso’s suite of sustainability measures]. One of the problems is the pace of return that shareholders are demanding and this drives them to make snap decisions on important factors for profit. When the public comes in, it gives companies the time to make that long-term change. It takes time to plant coffee, it takes time for farmer organisations to build and to protect the environment,” she said.
Nestle is also planning to source Fairtrade-certified coffee from an additional 7,000 small scale farmers in Colombia. It may be — nobody from Fairtrade International would be drawn — that Nespresso is asked or persuaded to contribute to a Fairtrade fund at some point to the Fairtrade Access Fund, a provider of midscale loans. It seem likely that eventually there will be a Fairtrade-branded Nespresso product. That might be the moment NSAB Clooney finally gets his day in one of those commercials.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd