Espresso Expressing CSR

Coffee is the second most sought-after commodity in the world, and in 2018 the industry had an export value of around US $20 billion––and that number is only expected to rise. The coffee machine market is also expected to experience incredible growth over the next few years. Currently it’s estimated that the industry will reach US $7.59 billion.

Drip filters currently dominate the coffee machine market, but capsule machines are actually expected to achieve the highest compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of any of the four machines, and espresso machines are also expected to become more popular as well.

The rise of coffee machines poses obvious ecological hazards, with Ethical Consumer explaining for example how pods from capsule machines will most likely just add to the already vast amount of pollution harming the environment; but they also pose potential social hazards, such as human rights abuses within companies’ supply chains. Most coffee machines are made of plastic and metal from non-recycled sources, and it’s not always clear who is providing the raw materials.

While the coffee industry is facing new environmental problems, the social impact of supply chains is an old one that has yet to be fixed.

How is the industry addressing issues regarding the coffee itself and the coffee machines? Lavazza, Illy, Nespresso, and Starbucks are four interesting examples of companies that have been advertising for some years their efforts in corporate social responsibility (CSR) while still not addressing all the issues that plague the industry.

The Entire Coffee Industry Under the Magnifying Glass

In December of 2019, Reuters reported that armed police and labor inspectors raided two large coffee plantations in Brazil to free people working as slaves. They found 59 works, 13 of whom were children aged 13, who were all “undocumented, underpaid, and lacking safety equipment as required by law.” The article goes on to explain how coffee grown using forced labor was still certified slavery-free and “sold at a premium to major brands like Starbucks and Nespresso.”

Child slavery has also been found at six Guatemalan farms that believed to supply Nespresso with coffee. Channel 4 Dispatches filmed children working eight hours a day, six days a week, making poverty wages.

All these companies are interested in showing their efforts to control the entire supply chain, from coffee beans to row materials for their coffee machines and capsules.

What’s the Problem with Coffee Machines and Capsules?

The conflict minerals are tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold (known as 3TG), and they are given that name because they have historically generated revenue for armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and surrounding countries. In other words, the 3TG trade has helped to fund human rights abuses in Africa.

Two of the primary uses of 3TG metals in the industry are to produce coffee machines and capsules. Coffee companies struggle with transparency concerning the sources of these metals.

How Are These Companies Advertising These Issues? 

Lavazza, Illy, Nespresso, and Starbucks have all demonstrated a similar pivot within the last few years regarding their communication strategies, and they also claim to have been interested in environmental and social sustainability for many years now. But even after the pivot, their communication is often lacking, sometimes even greenwashing.

For example, according to the company’s website, Lavazza has prioritized sustainability for over four generations; and on face value, the company seems to try to uplift social welfare and environmental protection. For example, the company has joined the UN Global Compact and Global Goals, partnered with Save the Children, and worked with local communities in the areas in which it operates. 

But Lavazza hasn’t always centered sustainability in its communication strategies. Most of its commercials from past years, and even some in recent years, prioritize the coffee’s quality over anything else. Ads like “From Italy with Passion,” “The Real Italian Coffee,” and “There’s More to Taste” try to convince the viewer that Lavazza coffee is the superior choice, not necessarily the most ecologically friendly one. 

Interestingly, despite Lavazza alleging that it values environmental and social justice for so long, the company never released a sustainability report until 2015. Also in 2015, Lavazza centered its annual calendar on coffee growers in the company’s supply chain, declaring them all Earth Defenders for the impact they have on the planet and their local communities. 

Two years later in 2017, the project “Goal Zero” was launched to inform people about Lavazza’s commitment to CSR by raising awareness of the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs); and that same year, the company launched the project TOward 2030 to try to accomplish the same goal through a more creative approach.

Sample of Lavazza’s 2020 calendar, which celebrates the natural world in a supernatural fashion

Illy has followed a similar path. The company has demonstrated commitment to sustainability for decades, having established The University of Coffee in 1999. The university’s purpose is to spread the knowledge of growing high-quality coffee, partly by helping to enrich the well-being of those who grow the coffee and to mitigate environmental damage from coffee production. Another initiative is the establishment of the Ernesto Illy Prize in 1991, which encouraged growers in Brazil to produce high-quality, environmentally friendly coffee yields to win a cash prize of $10,000. 

Curiously, not many of Illy’s campaigns cover the company’s engagement toward its supply chain. Take, for example, the 2006 campaign “Beauty Has a Taste,” which glorifies the Illy-drinking experience as an artistic experience. The ad cements Illy as a high-quality, elite brand, but there’s no mention of sustainability. 

Also like Lavazza, Illy waited a long time (2012) to publish its first sustainability report; and then it wasn’t until two years later in 2014 that the company launched a project that explicitly prioritized people over coffee quality: A Small Section of the World, a documentary about a group of women coffee growers from a remote farming region in Costa Rica who’ve had a huge impact on the coffee industry. 

Illy continued its sustainability-centered communication in the following years, with initiatives like 2015’s #illyDreamers, 2016’s #Thanks4theCoffee, and 2018’s “Half a Cup.” Each project built on the previous one, with “Half a Cup” recognizing, as did Small Section of the World, women’s impact on the industry. 

Nespresso has also been alleging environmental and social sustainability for quite some time. In 2003, the company established the Nespresso AAA Sustainable QualityTM Program to help ensure that the company’s coffee is environmentally friendly and that farmers work and live in decent conditions. 

But it wasn’t until 2014 that the company released its first campaign centering sustainability: The Positive Cup. Three years later, Nespresso aired a new campaign narrated by George Clooney that followed in the Positive Cup’s footsteps, “The Choices We Make.”  The ad makes clear that the company is attempting to achieve a higher standard of living for the coffee growers than what they had before.

Prior to “The Positive Cup,” Nespresso used its starpower to puff itself up as a good product rather than a product for good. Clooney has starred in Nespresso commercials for over a decade, including ads like “The Quest” and “What Else.” 

Once again, we see a larger emphasis on quality than on sustainability; but to be fair, Clooney has spoken out against the use of forced labor in the supply chain. As soon as the revelations in Guatemala were made, Clooney stated, “Clearly this board and this company still have work to do. And that work will be done.”

That leaves the coffee giant Starbucks. Starbucks was actually the first of the four companies to report on its sustainability practices, having included them for the first time in its 2009 Global Responsibility Report. But the company seems to have focused its attention on sustainability at least ten years earlier, having partnered with partnered with Conservation International in 1999 to promote sustainably sourced coffee and established in 2000 a licensing agreement with TransFair USA to sell fair trade-certified coffee in US and Candadian stores.

Much like with the other three companies, we can see a large focus on sustainability in Starbucks’ communication strategies within the last decade. In 2015, for example, Conservation International and Starbucks released a video about how the company became the largest coffee retailer to sell 99% verified ethically sourced coffee. But more recently in 2019, Starbucks took a more inclusive (albeit astute and crafty) approach by releasing the ad “Every Name’s a Story,” which shows a transgender man trying to navigate the world with no one respecting his identity––until a Starbucks barista writes his chosen name on his cup.

The common thread in all of their marketing tactics is that quality seems to be the most important aspect. Sustainability has definitely been emphasized in the past few years, but considering the many holes in each company’s marketing, we as consumers have to be skeptical just how much these companies are actually trying to be responsible for their actions.

Social Justice Requires Inclusivity

While all four companies discuss how they are connecting with coffee growers in the developing world, it’s still difficult for them to demonstrate a commitment to ensuring that everyone in the supply chain––including miners who supply 3TG––is earning a living wage and that no abuse is occurring.

The graph above from NYU’s Stern Center of Business Report compares market growth of sustainability-marketed products with conventional products, and it leaves us with a question: what kind of impact could have on consumers a communication strategy based on social and environmental commitments when it portrays a world in which all issues have been fixed?

Another question arises as well: why did the companies take so long to center sustainability in their communication strategies, especially when they have spent years working on making their companies more sustainable? Perhaps they are simply responding to consumer desire trends, as “green” goods saw a huge market increase from 2013-2018, the time period during which most of global companies started pushing their sustainable communication strategies (including ones in the coffee industry).

Whatever the reason, it’s important that we as consumers always remain vigilant whenever companies propagandize about their CSR. We need to ask ourselves, is anyone being left out in this message? Is this campaign just a cheap ploy to win “woke points,” a la Starbucks’ #racetogether campaign? What is the company doing behind closed doors? It’s up to us to ensure that companies are actually walking the talk they spout––for the planet and for humanity.

Works Cited

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Author: elena grinta

I have been dealing with communication for 20 years, I have worked in marketing for large international and Italian companies and I know the mechanisms of advertising persuasion. I decided to invest my know-how and my skills to use the available resources of companies (budgets but also human capital) in positive transformation. Because to students from all over the world I teach at Purpose Brands in Catholic University I wish to give more and more examples of virtuous companies that have invested for the future, of everyone (and there are already many!). Because if we watch, without acting, without taking responsibility, we have no excuse.

Purpose Brand / Trends