Monday, November 24, 2008


Saving the world, one cup at a time?

Last week’s Skeptics’ Circle highlighted an essay by Julie at Coffee & Conservation, in which Julie takes issue with Wal*Mart’s claim of saving land by buying their coffee:

Walmart claims that if every Walmart shopper bought a bag of Sam’s Choice Rainforest Alliance (RA) certified coffee, it would preserve 135,000 acres of land.

And that’s complete bull.


The math is correct, but the premise is completely wrong. I don’t know where they got the figure that each bag of coffee “preserves” a fraction of an acre of land, but it really doesn’t matter. The fact is that buying RA certified coffee doesn’t preserve anything. RA doesn’t take a portion of each sale and go out and purchase land and create nature preserves, and coffee farmers don’t take their small extra profit from the sales of certified beans and go purchase land to “preserve” (if anything along these lines, they’d plant more coffee, perhaps clearing land to do so). The land is already “saved,” no matter how many bags of coffee from these farms is purchased.

She’s right, of course; this is marketing hyperbole. At best, when you buy the coffee you’re supporting the use of the land for coffee farming, as opposed to some other use... and the implication is that other uses would be ecologically worse (though it’s not clear why, exactly: land suited for growing coffee isn’t the sort of place someone’s likely to build condos or a strip-mall, and Julie points out that they’ve already cut down whatever was there before to plant the coffee).

The thing is, it’s very common for companies to mislead us into thinking we’re being environmentally or socially responsible when we buy from them. The particular tactic I want to look at here is the popular one wherein “for every [item] you buy, we’ll donate [some amount of money] to [some organization].”

To keep it in the coffee vein (um...), let suppose that a large, national coffee chain tells you that for every espresso drink you buy, they’ll donate 20 cents to cure insomnia. Asterisk. There’s always an asterisk, so follow it down to the fine print, and you’ll see something like the following, enlarged here for easy readability: “We’ll donate 20 cents of the price of every espresso drink purchased between November 1st and December 31st to the Insomnia Research Association, up to a maximum of $100,000.”

It’s that “maximum” that’s the key. First, let’s do some math: It takes 5 drinks to get a $1 donation, so $100,000 would require 500,000 drinks. The program is running for 60 days (let’s assume they’re closed on Christmas), so that’s an average of a little under 8400 drinks a day. Suppose they have 400 stores in their chain (that’s not a lot: Starbucks, for example, has more than 10,000 stores in the U.S.). That’d mean that if each store sold just 21 drinks a day during November and December, they would hit their maximum donation.

So what does that really mean? Well, clearly they sell many more than 21 drinks each day in each store, whether or not they have this promotion going. What that means is that they’ve guaranteed a $100,000 donation to the Insomnia Research Association, regardless of whether you buy their coffee or not... and they’ve figured out a way to make you think you can make a difference. Or, put another way, they’re making you think that if you buy more coffee, they’ll donate more.

They won’t.

Of course, I made these numbers up. But no matter what the real numbers are, and no matter what business it is and what cause they’re donating to, you can bet that their normal sales will easily cover the maximum donation, and that your extra purchases don’t made any difference.

OK, it also has another angle: it puts their donation in your face, making you think better of them for it. And that part’s fine; the companies deserve credit with their customers for their social responsibility.

Just as long as you know the score.


swag said...

All of which is the number one reason I don't let anybody donate anything on my behalf. How lazy does one aware consumer have to be to get out the checkbook and write one out to the charity of their choice?

Outsourcing your charitable giving to third parties has largely, and always, been a bad idea.

Topics Coffee said...

You know it's funny but I would think a company as big as Walmart would be able to do what I'm trying to do. Unfortunately I'm not rich and I'm not a HUGE monstrous MEGA store like Walmart. But I know the difference between Saving the World and Serving the World, One cup at a time.

Hello Mr. Leiba,

Can you please take a moment and look at our website and give me your honest opinion. Please give us your feelings on how Topics Coffee is trying to "Serve the World, One cup at a time" I have a comment page on my website, I would truly be honored if you could give us your thoughts and share it with everyone else.

Thank you a million times Mr. Leiba!


Jason Anthony
Topics Coffee - "Serving the World, One cup at a time"

Barry Leiba said...

I wouldn't normally publish a comment that's basically just an advertisement, but Jason's comment about his Topics Coffee company is directly addressing the subject at hand.

I had a look at the site, and it appears to differ from what I'm talking about in this post, in that it is, as he says, not a large company that's giving money anyway and trying to bump sales along the way. I have no idea, of course, about the quality of the coffee, nor about whether the money really gets where he says it will. But I'll leave it to my readers to check it out.