Nespresso's Julie Gallacher: 'It's about what happens in the full life cycle of a product'

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
Nespresso sustainability and project management lead

How you take your morning coffee can say a lot about you, but so can the choice of coffee brand.

As consumers make more purchasing decisions based on whether a brand aligns with their social values, businesses are rapidly cleaning up their operational footprints, with the pillar of sustainability at the core.

Premium coffee brand Nespresso was founded in 1986 as a new way for customers to enjoy espressos at home. It is now present in 76 countries, employs more than 13,5000 workers worldwide and has 440,000 unique customers visit its ‘online boutique’ every day. Needless to say, the concept of barista-quality coffee at home was a hit.

Yet one aspect of the business model has always been jarring for customers.Given the capsules are used once and then thrown away, they have become a very visible symbol of our fast-paced, two fingers up to Mother Earth throwaway consumer society.

Hoping reshape this impression is Julie Galllacher, Nespresso sustainability and project management lead. I met up with her over a latte macchiato at one of Nespresso’s 700 boutiques to find out what Nespresso is doing to combat the throwaway vision the brand championed in 1986.

So why the vitriol against capsules? “It’s like straws- you know it’s not going to solve the huge problems but it’s a good start. A lot of it [bad press] stems around the idea of single-use plastic, but Nespresso has never been in plastic.

The messaging about precision consumption- using the correct amount of coffee and water- is quite important, and the idea that you don’t throw the capsules away but recycle them. Our customers can be part of something that isn’t throw away, but you do have to go that extra step”

The extra step Gallacher is referring to is putting the capsules in a separate bag, provided by Nespresso, and arranging for them to either be collected free of charge from the home or dropped off at a Nespresso boutique or a Collect + point, of which there are now over 7,000 in the UK. Because of the inevitable coffee contamination within the capsules, they cannot be recycled with regular kerbside metal collections.

Taking on the responsibility

Instead, the capsules are collected by Nespresso and then taken to a processing site in Cheshire where leftover coffee is composted, the silicone layer is burnt off and the aluminium capsules are smelted into bicycle, small car parts and beverage cans. Given aluminium can be endlessly recycled, it would make sense for the capsules to be turned directly back into capsules for future customers. But it isn’t this straight forward.

Gallacher says: “Where it makes sense for that to happen it does. But not in the UK because those pods would need to be shipped to Switzerland as that’s where they’re manufactured. It’s something we could investigate but there is the issue of a small volume to invest in capsule only smelting vs aluminium cans and spare parts from cars. It is not insurmountable and things like that could happen, but I’m not sure the volume would justify a [Nespresso specific] aluminium smelter in the UK.”

The brand has also worked hard to place traceability on its aluminium capsules. “We worked with IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] to develop a standard and make sure that whatever is displaced is put back.

We only work from mines that respect and manage labour appropriately and ensure the energy we’re using to get it out is correct. It took many years to get that standard implemented and last year we were the first customer to receive the world’s first truly sustainable aluminium.”

Nespresso is also investing large amounts into improving its recycling systems. Last year, it conducted a trial in Kensington and Chelsea where the local authority collected capsules in a separate bag which was put out with the twice a week collection service. “It was a challenging borough to do a test in because it’s a comingled collection service which meant residents were not used to sorting and where people are used to sorting, it’s usually better.

Greater public consciousness

One of the greatest challenges of the trial came down to awareness. Nespresso sent out direct mailers and gave customers bags to kick off the trial, but because there are many high rise buildings in the borough, they often failed to reach residents. Customers were also emailed and the boutique staff trained to let customers in the borough know about the trial if they came into a store, but take up wasn’t as high as Nespresso had hoped.

Gallacher says: “We didn’t have unique scanning of the bags so it was more qualitive research than quantitive. Because the awareness of the trial, we didn’t have sufficient volume of people interested and as a result, the amount the local authority picked up dwindled.”

Despite the challenges, Gallacher is optimistic that she’d like to roll out the trials elsewhere but is aware geographical variance makes a huge difference. “Nationally would be ideal but it would take a long-term plan and it’s not an easy thing.”

Competitors have begun to roll out a compostable version of the capsules, yet often these have to be separated into food waste collections or put into an at-home composter which isn’t an option for some customers. Would Nespresso ever venture into the composting world? “I think compostable packaging has a role but the main reason we use aluminium is to lock in quality and taste and we cannot replicate that with a compostable material.”

It may be surprising to readers to find out that, despite being part of the Nestlé family, Nespresso operates in an entirely different format to its parent-brand. Yet Gallacher is keen to share best practice both with Nestlé and leading competitors to come up with the best solution.

“Collaboration is important if you’re trying to create massive change and you can’t do it on your own. It shouldn’t be about competitive advantage- the world has changed when it comes to waste and we have to think about if differently.”

Nespresso is also working with the farmers who grow its coffee beans to ensure they can adapt to climate change. Given that the coffee plantations are being exposed to more severe droughts and heavy downpours, farmers are being encouraged to plant fruit trees around the plantations to provide stability in the soil for floods, much needed shade and could provide additional income.

This large efforts Nespresso is putting into making its processes more ethical and sustainable reinforce the idea a customer investing in the brand just as much as the product itself, and can only mean better conditions for workers and the planet. Gallacher predicts in the next 10 years, the role of sustainability will not exist and instead it will be engrained in the mindset of a company.

She adds: “We did a general recycling survey about three years ago and consumers in the UK didn’t think it was their responsibility, yet most Europeans did. Without a doubt, campaigners and mass media have made consumers more conscious and they’re now behaving differently.

“People will begin to make decisions based on what happens at the end of a product, it’ll be about what happens in the full life cycle of the product and not just getting it to the consumer.”

Companies of all shapes and sizes have a long way to go before they can claim to be 100% sustainable in their packaging and operations, but after many years of lobbying they are beginning to prove that their ambitions are indeed sustainable.

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