For 14 years, George Clooney has been the impossibly handsome face of Nespresso, the ‘capsule’ coffee for time-pressed poshies that comes in bright, glossy, environmentally unfriendly pods.
The Hollywood heart-throb and political, social and environmental activist has appeared in endless adverts for the Swiss giant, popping up as a playboy in a black polo-neck, a medieval knight and a Confederate soldier.
Over the years he has flirted, smouldered, smooched, cocked an eyebrow and always made it look as if a few sips of Nespresso really have transported him to a personal paradise.
Yes, his global ‘ambassadorship’ has reportedly cost Nestle, the owner of Nespresso, more than £31 million — but the casting was a masterstroke.
Who better than right-on George to turn the coffee brand into one of the world’s most recognised and coveted?
For 14 years, George Clooney has been the impossibly handsome face of Nespresso, the ‘capsule’ coffee for time-pressed poshies that comes in bright, glossy, environmentally unfriendly pods
Naturally, he is on the company’s ‘sustainability advisory board’, which supposedly — and, clearly, not very effectively — works to ensure that Nespresso sources coffee from well-run farms.
He is also a member of the Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade International and the Fair Labour Association.
So it must have been a bitter blow when he discovered — thanks to an investigation for a forthcoming Channel 4 Dispatches programme — that children as young as 11 are working eight-hour days on sites in Guatemala that allegedly supply Nespresso.
There is video footage of the children picking coffee beans and hauling heavy sacks to weighing stations.
George has declared himself ‘surprised and saddened’, pledging that ‘this board and this company still have work to do. And that work will be done.’
We must hope it will. But these latest revelations are far from the only troubling aspect of this oh-so-trendy and expensive brew.
Marketed as quicker and easier to use than dreary cafetieres, percolators and instant coffees, pod machines are now in a third of UK homes — as well as offices, Harley Street waiting rooms, hotels, yachts and private jets.
Hundreds of millions of the pods are used each year in Britain alone — and, three years ago, sales overtook those of traditional ground and roasted coffee.
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Thanks partly to George, Nespresso, with its sleek machines and jewel-like pods, is the most covetable brand of the lot, accounting for 30 per cent of coffee-pod sales in the UK.
Despite their hefty price tag — the machines range from £89.99 to over £600 and the pods are about 30p each — the machines are routinely given as Christmas and birthday presents, hooking customers into the system.
Some owners no longer talk of having a coffee but of ‘having a Nespresso’. And so-called ’boutiques’ have opened — there are 16 in London alone and more than 700 worldwide — selling everything Nespresso-related.
But is the drink actually any good? Many believe it isn’t, complaining that Nespresso coffee — which is made by pushing hot water through the capsule and the ground coffee it contains — is bitter and not nearly hot enough.
Some declare the whole thing a gimmick, all style and no substance: the emperor’s new espresso.
Worse, soaring sales of the machines and pods come at a terrible cost — and not just to the poor children of Guatemala allegedly working up to six-day weeks for less than £5 a day to harvest the beans.
The pods themselves are environmentally catastrophic.
Some manufacturers make their products from a combination of plastic and foil that renders them unrecyclable. This means they end up in landfill sites in their billions, where they will take up to 500 years to break down.
Nespresso capsules are made from aluminium — supposedly to keep the coffee fresher — and are described by the company as ‘infinitely recyclable’.
Which sounds reassuring. But it doesn’t always work like that.
Because no one bothers to wash out the tiny pods, coffee grounds remain caked to the sides, clogging up the recycling process. Most councils won’t accept them in their standard recycling bins, so customers have to go out of their way to dispose of them ethically.
Nespresso customers are invited to take their pods to a ’boutique’ or a High Street collection point, or the company will pick up used Nespresso capsules from your doorstep for a fee.
How thoughtful of them. But it turns out that less than a third of the company’s pods are actually recycled; the industry figures overall are even lower.
Nespresso capsules are made from aluminium — supposedly to keep the coffee fresher — and are described by the company as ‘infinitely recyclable’
So most Nespresso drinkers sweep their used pods straight into the bin. About 350 million pods are destined for UK landfill sites each year.
Industry insiders have been warning of the environmental impact for years.
In 2015, John Sylvan, the entrepreneur who developed single-serve capsules for major U.S. brand Keurig in the Nineties, declared coffee pods ‘a terrible mistake’ and boycotted them because of their environmental impact.
The following year, Jean-Paul Gaillard — Nespresso chief executive from 1988 to 1997 — insisted that even effective recycling, if it ever happened, made no sense.
‘Packing 5g of coffee into something not biodegradable is like selling all the water in the world in tiny bottles,’ he said. ‘Recycling doesn’t work.’
Gaillard had put together the first recycling system for Nespresso, commissioning an analysis which showed that recycling anything smaller than a Coke can was pointless, particularly if the items were dirty.
‘You need to use energy to transport them, to burn off the varnish, to shred the capsules, to wash them, to dry them, then to smelt them,’ he said. ‘The more you recycle, the more you pollute.’
Gaillard may well have had an ulterior motive for being such an outspoken critic. He went on to set up a rival business making biodegradable capsules, called the Ethical Coffee Company.
There are, in fact, plenty of eco-friendly options: Roar Gill’s capsules are suitable for composting and cost about £17.50 for 40. Toast Coffee’s are the same price and can be thrown in your garden waste. Lost Sheep capsules, £3.95 for ten pods, are made from bark.
But still millions buy Nespresso, and today the company employs 13,000 staff in 76 countries.
The company’s response to the Dispatches revelations was to declare that it has zero tolerance for child labour, launch a ‘thorough investigation’ into its farms in Guatemala and suspend all purchases from the problem plantations.
But this is not the first time it has stood accused. An investigation by Reuters last December found that coffee produced by forced labour in Brazil was stamped slavery-free by certification schemes and sold at a premium to firms such as Nespresso.
Which perhaps brings us back to the brand’s well-known tagline: ‘Nespresso. What else?’
Well, plenty of options. How about a cafetiere, a percolator or a stove-top ‘moka’ coffee boiler, as favoured by most Italians?
Anything, in fact, except the brew with George all over it.