Case Study #13: Nespresso Coffee Pods and Corporate Greenwashing

by April Jordan, 2018

Nespresso is a company that has made disposable aluminum coffee pods since 1986 and operates in over 60 countries (Nespresso, n.d.). Nespresso’s product allows consumers to easily make espresso using specialty coffee makers and single-use coffee pods (n.d.). Through various methods and with varying degrees of success, Nespresso attempts to brand itself as an environmentally-conscious company. Since 2015, the company has been pushing to implement convenient worldwide recycling programs and convince the public to feel good about using the recyclable pods (n.d.).

Nespresso published videos on YouTube and TV about their recycling program that were aimed towards English-speaking Western countries, such as Australia and the United States. They powered up their combined marketing and public relations efforts to amplify this pro-recycling message. YouTube videos and TV ads seem to be the primary delivery method for these public relations and marketing campaigns. Their video titled Nespresso Capsule Recycling Program USA (Nespresso, 2015) best encapsulates the company’s PR efforts regarding recycling the pods because. Interestingly, the PR campaign has no flashy hashtag or slogan attached to it and is not glamourous in any way, while the related marketing campaign has those features.

Nespresso’s recycling PR videos are generally unstylish. In the previously mentioned video, the founder and president of one pod recycling plant appears on screen to narrate part of the video, but does not appear to be a polished speaker. In contrast, Nespresso’s high-glamour marketing campaigns about recycling involve celebrity George Clooney. The two different approaches are noteworthy, insofar as the marketing approach would doubtlessly have a higher reach and impact, while the PR videos may well be more for to establish their bona fide intentions and for inoculation against allegations of environmental wrongdoing than for actual distribution.

Involving George Clooney, a known humanitarian (Inside Philanthropy, 2017), in Nespresso’s recent marketing over the last year is calculated and, one must assume, meant to springboard off the earlier public relations efforts. The combination of the un-glamourous recycling plants, followed by later marketing videos of Clooney suggests Nespresso first wanted to convince high-information stakeholders that Nespresso is truly committed to making a difference. They then drive home the pretty, feel-good idea of being part of saving the planet through recycling, just like good-guy George Clooney. That latter campaign would be aimed at low-information consumers and designed to also amplify the previous message to high-information stakeholders.

Unfortunately for Nespresso, there were many challenges working against the PR campaign. Mainly, people already thought coffee pods were bad for the environment (BBC News, 2016) and Nespresso is owned by Nestle, a company whose reputation has been attacked for disregarding human rights (McGraw, 2017).

Perhaps the only factor working in Nespresso’s favour for this recycling campaign was that other major coffee pod brands are much more difficult to recycle (Gunther, 2015). Consumers must do much of the work to recycle plastic pods, whereas Nespresso only asks their consumers to return the pods to a drop-off point or fill a special bag with the pods, then put them in the regular recycling bin (Recycling Process, n.d.). This is a major benefit for consumers and looks like a genuine effort by Nespresso to reduce the environmental impact of their pods.

The resounding consensus in online comments sections and articles is that, while Nespresso pods are not good for the environment, at least they are easy to recycle and are not as bad as the plastic pods, which are sent straight to landfills. However, news outlets and environmentally-focused blogs have generally given balanced pro/con articles for Nespresso’s pods, sometimes even leaning towards positive attitudes, with coverage such as “Nespresso Bid to Recycle Coffee Pods” (Smithers, 2017).

Comments on the Nespresso recycling videos are generally positive; some commenters even claim they switched to Nespresso because of their recycling programs. Other Nespresso campaigns do not always receive such accolades, as evidenced by comments on “The Choices We Make” (2017).

After examining Nespresso’s campaign to improve public opinion around the environmental impacts of their pods, there are a few main takeaways for public relations practitioners. First, Nespresso effectively used visuals to create emotion for the audience. A company must do more than say they are committed to a cause. They must show this to the audience and make them feel that this is true. This could mean depicting a scene that is less visually appealing than what the company usually shows if it creates an honest feeling.

Second, PR and marketing efforts are often laddered and intertwined in the effort to steer public opinion. While different and distinct, the two can be very successfully scaffolded.

Lastly, to shift an opinion, a brand must make a genuine effort towards the cause in question and must convey the message in a way the audience is willing to accept (lest the company be skewered in the media). The Nespresso PR campaign was successful because Nespresso simultaneously made a worldwide effort to be the most conveniently recyclable coffee pod company and launched an authentic-looking two-part campaign at the same time. In the minds of some consumers, the Nespresso coffee pods are an environmentally-friendly product, which is the desired outcome for any greenwashing campaign.


BBC News. (2016) Is there a serious problem with coffee capsules?

Gunther, M. (2015). The good, the bad and the ugly: Sustainability at Nespresso.

Inside Philanthropy. (2017). George and Amal Clooney.

McGraw, G. (2017). Nestle Chairman Peter Brabeck says we don’t have a right to water, believes we do have a right to water and everyone’s confused.

Nespresso. (2015, December 4). Nespresso Capsule Recycling Program USA [Video]. YouTube.

Nespresso. (n.d.). Our Company.

Nespresso. (n.d.). Recycling Process.

Nespresso. (2017, September 12). The choices we make [Video]. YouTube.

Smithers, R. (2017). Nespresso bid to recycle coffee pods.