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Tina Casey headshot

How George Clooney Could Help Nespresso Solve Its Coffee Pod Problem

George Clooney has become a familiar face in the world of coffee thanks to his association with the upscale coffee company Nespresso, and now it appears that the actor is poised to help Nespresso address a daunting set of sustainability issues. The problem is that Nespresso has been trying to establish itself as a green brand, but its whole business platform rests on the latest symbol of wasteful packaging: the disposable single-serving coffee pod.

Nespresso is, of course, encouraging its customers to recycle the pods, and while that would appear to be a logical message for Clooney to help pitch, the company has set its sights on a more comprehensive message. Clooney, who has a history of environmental activism under his belt, is no longer mere window dressing for Nespresso's ad campaigns, he is now a member of the company's newly formed Sustainability Advisory Board, which will help steer the company's "AAA Sustainable Quality™ Program."

A comprehensive approach to sustainability

Nespresso's stepped-up relationship with Clooney provides a good illustration of how companies that sell problematic goods and services can still make significant progress on sustainability issues overall, even if they don't directly address the object of controversy (which in this case, is the coffee pods).

In fact, Nespresso's website avoids the entire pod life cycle issue, including the recycling message. The site's recycling page sports only a brief reminder that customers can bring the pods back to Nespresso or Sur la Table locations before moving briskly along to note that the pods are made of aluminum in order to preserve flavor.

In contrast, the AAA Sustainable Quality Program receives a lavish amount of attention from Nespresso. The program started ten years ago in partnership with the Rainforest Alliance and other stakeholders, with the aim of promoting sustainable coffee growing and, by association, sustainable communities (for a similar approach, take a look at the vision recently expressed by Levi Strauss CEO and President John Anderson).

According to Nespresso (which, by the way, is a unit of Nestlé), a recent study by the Colombian research institute CRECE indicates that the program is working, with AAA-participating farms demonstrating "significantly higher levels of environmental, economic and social performance."

George Clooney and the Sustainability Advisory Board

The formation of the Sustainability Advisory Board comes at a critical time for AAA, as Nespresso plans to expand the program in Ethiopia and Kenya, and re-establish coffee growing in South Sudan. The initiative includes partnerships with local governments and the nonprofit organization TechnoServe, as well as community development programs.

Building on its success with AAA in Latin America, Nespresso also plans to expand AAA to serve more "smallholder" farms in Ethiopia and Kenya, with the goal of doubling the supply of coffee from the region by 2020. According to Nespresso, it currently has 56,000 farms enrolled in the program and receives about 80 percent of its coffee from those farms.

Clooney's role is expected to focus on the South Sudan project with TechnoServe. The organization has a solid track record in local agricultural development, including coffee farming.

As for Mr. Clooney's track record, so far he hasn't been on our radar but now is a good time to catch up. Back in 2006, the actor appeared in a splashy green-themed cover for Vanity Fair to help promote the oil-themed film Syriana, noting in an interview that "If you're doing a movie about oil consumption and corruption, you can't just talk the talk. You gotta walk the walk."

The "walk" for Syriana included a partnership with the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council that launched the Oil Change campaign. In a symbolic tie-in, Clooney became an early EV adopter with the purchase of  an all-electric Tango, later upgrading to a Tesla Roadster EV.

Interestingly, in a 2011 profile Clooney noted a conflict between his environmental concerns and his use of private jets. That may soon become a moot point as renewable jet biofuel comes into widespread use, but it does echo the dilemma that companies like Nespresso and, for that matter, Green Mountain find themselves in.

As with private jet travel, when you look at the coffee pod issue in isolation what you see is a wasteful practice.

Clooney has created a bigger picture by engaging in environmental issues as well as numerous humanitarian and human rights endeavors. Similarly, Nespresso is working to achieve a counterbalance to the pod issue, and its sustainable farming initiatives arguably accomplish that.

[Image (cropped): Nespresso ad via flickr.com by culture.culte]

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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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