[little machines from hell, as seen in nightmare]
The independent film Black Gold, released in the UK earlier this year, questions the ethics of charging 25 times as much for a cup of coffee as the coffee farmers receive from it.
“Nestle is trying to sex up coffee, to make it seductive,” says its director, Nick Francis. “But the fact of the matter is that the coffee farmer is being paid 2p out of every £2 cup of coffee. Nestle has so much purchasing power. But the question is, how much money goes back to the farmers? It’s quite staggering when you see the gap.
“Nespresso is another reminder of the difference between the owners and buyers in the industry. You can’t rely on the likes of them, and the likes of Starbucks to tell the story of whether that happens.”
– Independent.ie , Rob Sharp 09/11/09
Ok, let me start this article the way people usually start articles, just for the unusual fun of following convention for a change. Here goes:
The other day my partner [girlfriend, chew on that word for a sec, will you?] and I went to a Lucernese Nespresso store to get a couple of new capsules for her indispensable, fully automated coffee-maker. Now before I go on with this story, I must point out two things:
A) I will acknowledge that I have made a couple of remarks at the expense of that machine, even though it has served me well and my partner did not buy it for herself but received it as a gift
B) I’m usually sensible to culturally charged stuff like this, that is, I sort of mentally prepare for the situation and telescope my ethnographic antennae in anticipation of craziness. This time around I got caught completely off-guard though.
Why? First of all I didn’t closely pay attention to what she had said: the Nespresso store, as in, a store solely dedicated to one fiendishly popular brand of coffee; moreover a brand I had complained about recently for being the new AIDS-level advertising plague to infect the infosphere. The thing is that Lucerne is at best [in twisted self-perception] a medium-sized city, though, if I had it in me to be demographically honest I’d probably sigh deeply and acknowledge that it’s really a town, a bjuuuuuuuuuutiful one at that. Most beautiful town in Switzerland, you can bet your family on that. And given this size there are simply not that many shops solely dedicated to one brand [the Swatch store comes to mind but that sort of umbilically connected to Tourism being a predominant industry around here] because this… here I plunge into speculation… violates some basic micro-economic principle of small urban areas. There is a Jack Wolfskin but they at least sport a wide variety of products and again seem to be in harmony with the great outdoors that central Switzerland provides. I might get called on this stuff, it’s not what I’m driving at.
So anyway, in we went. And at once were confronted by a huge wall stacked top to bottom, all the way across with Nespresso coffee machines that made my partner’s model look like some ridiculous anachronism from the days of the analog mouse and magnetic audio tapes. Here were the new gleaming coffee-makers of the early 21st century, ready to liberate the willing consumer from a couple of hundred bucks, as well as the oh-so-arduous procedure of making coffee for themselves. Now this critique is obviously a bit gratuitous because coffee machines have been around for decades for folks who are unwilling to stomach the watery filter coffee or believe that the workings of the Moka Express [that silo-shaped Italian thing that works through the miracle of steam] are just another form of black magic. However, there is a new dimension to this latest assault on coffee culture by grand Capital.
I am referring to a combination of phenomena. First and foremost, the stunning advertising pre-dominance that Nespresso has managed to establish, not just in this country, but from all I can tell in widely varying parts of the world. [Though Tianjin happily spared me the spectacle of Clooney’s self-congratulatory grin]. If you keep an eye-out for Nespresso advertisements as compared to the other coffee folks [with the possible exception of Starbucks] you’d come away with the impression that there really aren’t too many other games in town if you want to prepare your coffee at home: you’re stuck with the accursed capsules. But perhaps I would have been able to ignore the bombardment with the “What else?” tag-line at the cinema, in life-style magazines [life is a style? I had no idea, I always mistakenly thought it’s something people just sort of do] and from billboards if it had not been for that severely traumatic event at Zurich’s equivalent of the Art Basel.
Psyched by the prospect of hundreds of meters of new, creatively highly advance art my friend C.D.J and I had approached the re-engineered industrial hall of which it seemed that back in the 20th in a factory this size they could have easily constructed a dreadnought or the like [if it weren’t for Switzerland being land-locked]. Naturally, the aristocrat posses and baby-boomer gangs gave us a little pause but we did not let them strike fear in our art-loving hearts.
Once inside the long, gutted hall what finally did stop us dead in our tracks was the first twenty meters, a reception area solely dedicated to the sublime experience of Nespresso “Coffee Culture”. ‘Cause that is what they sell it as, as some sort of high-class, artsy cultural experience with the archly grimacing G. Clooney at the helm, twisting young vixens’ heads at the local Nespresso spot.
As you might expect, Nespresso follows suit in the controversy stakes. George Clooney clutched for his handbag when questioned at this year’s Venice Film Festival about the apparent hypocrisy inherent in his appearing in Michael Clayton, a film about corruption in multinationals. “I’m not going to apologize to you for trying to make a living every once in a while,” he blustered back. “I find that an irritating question.”
– Independent.ie 09-11-09, Rob Sharp
[“You want me to actually drink this crap? Are you fucking serious?”]
Somehow the Zurich branch marketing geniuses had contrived to get a hold of a few works of art that are coffee-related and presented them in the lovely, espresso-cup strewn reception area as somehow deeply related to aluminum-capsule-coffee [hereafter ACC]. Meanwhile people were sampling the different types of no-spressos as though this was the highest height of joe to be scaled. The whole business was a huge gross-out, to be honest. I mean, I just couldn’t get rid of the sensation that this farce of Capital [manifested this time as Nespresso] appropriating every last bit of everything to increase profit had corrupted the rest of the exhibit with its ultra-crude materialism, the symbol of which was and is the capsule. [I’m talking capital C capital, the other one’s fine as wine by me.]
And so now back in Lucerne’s Nespresso store, which was like a bad reprise of the nightmare in Zurich. In the far right-hand corner there is a separated lounge area with creamy-leather seats, stylish dark coffee tables and even, would-you-be-surprised-or-at-least-pretend-to-be-?, young, nubile hostesses waiting to take charge of the complicated coffee preparation process. But what occupied my attention for the moment was this big wall full of coffee machines. On it was printed the skyline of an illustrious metropolis, which was either New York or Chicago, I cannot remember and the thought of going back to this shop is too distressing.
The Nespresso machines themselves are modeled accordingly to resemble the stalactites of glass and steel that will only grow on downtown- globalization’s prime real estate, vying for the limited attention-spans of the MNCs and CEOs. So the machines, within the confines of domestic life, are engineered to evoke the glamor of megalopolis, while dispensing coffee that comes from quite a different site of the world. The irony cannot be lost on anybody: while the exterior machine is made to resemble the head-quarters of the financial masters of the Universe [e.g. the carcinogenic, neoliberal variety], the actual content, which is inside and gets crushed and then flushed for every last aromatic molecule, comes from the plantations of farmers who have been on the loosing end of the game for centuries. It’s an open secret that this food includes one of the most unfair, exploitative trade systems, so that Fair-Trade coffee remains on the list of hot topics in consumption and one of the best-known books on joe is titled “Coffee – a dark history”.
Ok, fine. So what about that degustatory separee? It’s genius, pure marketing genius. Here come a couple of coffee machines that are not all that exciting except for being convenient to the point of sloth [which, mind you, is a deadly sin] and it’s actually a real brain-raker how you could make this attractive to the average consumer? Well, you fabricate an experience but not just any experience. The experience of high-class, of sophistication, of savoir-vivre for Joe Average. Almost anybody [Western, middle-class, hahaha] can afford one of the less expensive machines, which makes it sort of democratic but then when you come to the store, there is this really fancy-schmancy sampling area with the delicious-looking hostesses and this wide “selection” of capsules, some of them even “limited edition” and BOOOOM! you get the 10-minute, quasi-glitzy Nespresso Coffe Culture experience. Having to do with coffee absolutely zero.
Why? Because you don’t have to do fucking a thing but sit down and have them bring little cups to you. The fact is, I know very little about coffee other than what I wrote in that last piece “The Moka Express” but that’s not a big deal; I understand that not engaging with the matter in any way at all surely should not qualify as cultural experience. It’s at best the shell of an experience, not even that, let me be more accurate, it’s the crushed aluminum capsule of a coffee experience. Because what this damn thing does, apart from using up resources like crazy, is PHYSICALLY SEGREGATE the coffee from our SENSES: you cannot touch it, you cannot smell it, hell, you cannot even see it inside that blasted metallic caffeine suppository. What is this shit?
[because our grand-children deserve them]
Any other points I take issue with other than my partner not being given assisted for fifteen minutes in a shop with three customers? Above I mentioned the digestive powers of big capital, how it is somehow, damn-near magically able to incorporate everything into its own, reductive cost-benefit logic. The most recent acquisition in this regard has been “ethics” itself, in as far as ethics is reducible to the warm feeling in a consumer’s belly when s/he buys something that is branded as economically equitable to all members of the surplus-production-chain: a fair-trade, ecologically-sustainable product.
It is evident that for a company that forces one to use one aluminum-capsule per cup of coffee and who deals in a notoriously, negatively tainted branch of world trade, this presents a particularly sharp-edged obstacle. How is it tackled in the setting of Lucerne’s Nespresso store? Head-on and ingeniously simple. As soon as one enters, there is a transparent, plastic cube display on the right side, filled with seven or eight stacked, rectangular units of multi-colored, compressed capsules. The thing looks gaudy, almost like a sculpture; it’s fairly screaming: recycled! Which in the motherland of PET is sort-of a brainstem trigger that the thing is ecologically sustainable. Nobody’s going to ask how much energy is consumed producing a capsule in the first place, much less how much it takes to recycle one. Recycle is just too beautiful and green a word to deserve any further consideration. The critical spirit of inquiry might even lead one to ask how these recyclable capsules compare, energetically speaking, to getting the job done by the coffee-machine of another brand or a Moka-Express?
So then the last, insubordinate element in the whole Nespresso Marketing and Branding Juggernaut is, as everywhere else, the human being, dreadfully unpredictable and able of calling forth such profit-threatening factors as solidarity and compassion. The question even the most effete glitteratus might, in a moment of high pathos or poor iPhone connectivity, consider is: dear heavens, these poor coffee farmers, do they at least get paid fairly for their harvest? Enter the flat screen TV mounted up on the wall fed with a corporate “documentary”, endlessly rolling footage of the lush green hills from the furthest corners of the world. The peasants and farm-hands who are picking the red beans in their pointed straw hats, endlessly smile into the camera as they do so, giving us a faint premonition of how ecstatic it must be, to collect the harvest day in day out.
[“Ever since I turned 3, I’ve been telling folks ‘Nothing beats the scent of fresh pesticides.'”]
As I watch the Indonesian farm woman laughing into the camera, because somebody behind her made a good joke about the jerk-off Nescafe contractor or the camera man’s fly is open or because the job is indeed such a blast, as I watch this on the screen and wait for my partner to be finally administered her fix of capsules, my doubts evaporate and I finally acknowledge that Nescafe is a fine brand, a power for the good. What else?