Hard seltzer, "soft math," and campaign cash

Coors Seltzer says "restore America's rivers." In the past election cycle, its parent company donated $55,000 to anti-clean water lawmakers.

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Coors Seltzer was late to hop onto the hard-seltzer bandwagon. Rolling out its namesake fizzy booze water in mid-2020, the brand would need a fresh angle to catch up with runaway market leaders White Claw and Truly—to say nothing of the eleventy bajillion “artisanal” lookalikes from craft outfits*, or compelling cross-category plays from the likes of Heineken x AriZona and Coca-Cola x Topo Chico.

Rival Bud Light had feted its own hard seltzer line extension with its (depressingly well-received) Chief Meme Officer campaign earlier this summer. Without a similarly strong hook, the Colorado brand—owned these days by Chicago-based parent company Molson Coors—was facing the worst kind of bubble trouble: a flat reception. (Ahem.)

So in a bid to disrupt the rapidly forming hard seltzer hegemony, Coors turned to one of its favorite advertising tropes: natural, clear, refreshing water. “When drinkers buy Coors Seltzer, they help restore 500 gallons of water into America's rivers. It's that simple,” the brand proclaimed in a press release marking its debut.

It may shock you to learn, dear reader, that it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. A Fingers investigation reveals that even as Coors’ boozy, bubbly brand extension burnishes its clean-water bona fides to the American drinking public, its parent company, the second-biggest beer conglomerate on the continent, has spent thousands of dollars to re-elect anti-environmental federal lawmakers.

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“This is just significant, classic greenwashing,” one expert on corporate social responsibility who has studied the beer industry told Fingers. What?! No! Yes? Let’s discuss.

“For the rivers”

Start with the ad campaign itself. The 30-second spot, titled “The Sacrifice,” is clever enough. Serious music plays as one millennial drinker after another turns to the camera in the confessional style and to tell us that they drink Coors Seltzer “for the rivers.”

Day-drinking is self-indulgent and unproductive, see, but day-drinking Coors Seltzer is actually very selfless and noble because you’re doing it For A Cause™. Surely, you get the premise, but just in case you don’t, the brand’s website, social media, and packaging are plastered with more explicit messaging to the same effect, includingsuchasforexample:

  • “Seltzer with a mission”

  • “Join the easiest volunteer program, because when you drink Coors Seltzer you're helping save the rivers”

  • “Want to neutralize your seltzer footprint? Sign up [to be a “volunteer”] and get your first 12-pack on us.”

“This is just significant, classic greenwashing,” Ellis Jones, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at The College of the Holy Cross and author of The Better World Shopping Guide, told Fingers. (Greenwashing is when companies use environmental cues, imagery, positioning, etc. to bamboozle consumers into thinking their products are better for the planet.) The guide rates consumer-facing brands on the social responsibility of their business practices, using 76 data sources to evaluate five criteria, including environmental responsibility. Marquee Molson Coors brands Miller, Coors, and Molson scored D, C-, and C-, respectively.

Via a PR rep, Molson Coors—which is, incidentally, also a partner on the Coke/Topo joint—provided Fingers with a statement disputing the researcher’s greenwashing assessment:

The facts don’t support that opinion. High-quality water is at the heart of our business, and world class water stewardship and watershed protection efforts have been central part to our company since its founding.

In addition to reducing water usage through process improvements and strategic investments in more efficient systems in our breweries, we have also been protecting precious water resources in our brewery and agriculture watersheds for better part of the past decade.

The company also claimed it has restored more water in its breweries’ watersheds since 2012 “than what’s needed for a year’s worth in some small countries.” You can read Molson Coors’ statement in full at the bottom of this edition.**

Tacking towards environmentalism is a common maneuver for hawking products that are otherwise indistinguishable from competitors in a new, crowded market, said Dr. Jones.

“Everybody jumped into this new [hard seltzer] territory like a gold rush, and they're trying to define why their stuff is different or better than every other hard seltzer out there.” In this kind of free-for-all market, he continued, greenwashing is a go-to tactic, because environmentalism is broadly popular and relatively uncontroversial, and offers brands entrée to the coveted LOHAS demo. (That’s “lifestyles of health and sustainability” in marketing-speak, for those of you keeping score at home.)

“We are a company with enormous integrity, and we care about all the things you care about,” said Dr. Jones, parroting the basic greenwashing pitch. “If you give us just a little bit of money by buying our product, we will save the world for you.”


RELATED: Anheuser-Busch brands celebrate the great outdoors while its PAC donates $$$ to anti-environmental lawmakers


Water works and “crazy soft math”

It’s a pitch that sounds too good be true, and it almost always is. But if you’re a millennial or Gen Z drinker (the type beer companies are desperate to reach as per-capita beer consumption in the U.S. declines and Boomers quit drinking/die/quit drinking because they’re dead), and you don’t care which hard seltzer you drink, why not buy the brand that promises to help fix the environment?

It may not be a silver bullet (hey-o!) but it’s a step in the right direction… right?

Maybe! But it’s hard to say how big that step actually is. To fulfill its river-saving claims, Coors Seltzer partnered with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, a 501(c)3 that helps businesses “address [their] environmental footprint” with projects like Change The Course, a water restoration project that counts multinational firms like Coca-Cola and Danone (and now, Coors Seltzer) among its biggest sponsors.

In response to emailed questions from Fingers, Sara Hoversten, a spokesperson for BEF, broke down the math underpinning Coors Seltzer’s 500 gallons-per-12-pack claim in (slightly) more detail:

[I]n total, Coors Seltzer is providing $1 million to Change the Course in order to restore more than 1 billion gallons of water across a portfolio of water projects within the first year of the partnership. The way Coors Seltzer breaks that down based on sales projections is that each 12-pack sold will contribute to 500 gallons of restored water. 

If you’re having trouble deciding whether a million bucks for a billion gallons of restored water across 16 river basins over the course of a year is significant, that might be by design. “It benefits both the nonprofit and the corporation who's doing the greenwashing [to use] these numbers that are so big that they essentially short-circuit people's brains,” said Dr. Jones.

Rivers flow by definition, sometimes to the tune of thousands of gallons per minute. What sounds like a lot in terms of your “seltzer footprint” may not actually be very meaningful in the grand scheme of things, and exemplifies the “crazy soft math” that Dr. Jones said often underpins greenwashing campaigns.

As for the dollars: $1M sounds like lots o’ dough, until you learn that Molson Coors recorded $343M in net income in Q3 2020 alone, and according to the company’s own earnings report, Coors Seltzer sold 500,000 cases in its first month on the market.

A case equivalent, or CE, is 24 12oz cans. So 500,000 cases is a million 12-packs of Coors Seltzer, which sell for around $17 apiece. If Molson Coors profits even just $1 (around 6%) on each 12-pack, then they would’ve already recouped their entire pro-river donation in the first month out of the gate. In this hypothetical, customers who buy Coors Seltzer today thinking they’re restoring America’s rivers would actually just be padding to Molson Coors’ bottom line.

This is a feature of greenwashing campaigns, not a bug. “These campaigns can often be one-time donations, or short-term donations, and then they essentially evaporate, but [the companies] still advertise them for a while, or they have it for a while, they’ve given their million, but later they only give $10,000,” said Dr. Jones, adding that greenwashing brands sometimes spend more advertising their environmental contributions than the actual contributions themselves. “There are so many ways to manipulate this.”

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That doesn’t mean an organization like BEF—which Hoversten told me has restored 14.5 billion gallons of water to date, including 2.2 billion in 2019—isn’t helping the environment. Objectively speaking, restoring water is good! “I think these guys probably are doing good work,” allowed Dr. Jones of Change The Course. But by cutting them a check, Coors Seltzer gets to (literally) package itself in environmental goodwill as the hard seltzer “for the rivers,” regardless of how much their contributions are actually doing… well, for the rivers.

Molson Coors PAC: $55,000 to anti-clean water politicians

Corporations gonna corporation, you say. At least Coors Seltzer is doing good rather than harm. Here’s where the waters get a little—dare I say?—muddier.

Fingers reviewed the campaign donations made from Molson Coors’ political action committee in the most recent election cycle. In 2019-2020 alone, the company’s PAC donated a total of $55,000 to 19 federal lawmakers (or their PACs) with clean-water voting records of 50% or less in the 116th Congress. Those scores come from the Clean Water Action, a 501(c)4 that has worked to protect America’s waterways since Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972.

In other words, these are politicians who, over the past two years, voted against legislation that would protect clean water at least half of the time. I’ve laid out those dirty-water donations in detail here. Some stand-outs:

  • $5,000 to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who voted against clean water 60% of the time during the most recent congressional session. Molson Coors gave another $5,000 to his Bluegrass PAC during the past election cycle, as well.

  • $4,500 to Senator David Perdue (R-GA), who is the “high-scorer” amongst this low-scoring cohort with only 50% of his votes going against clean water.

  • $4,000 to Representative Ken Buck (R-CO), who voted against clean water a remarkable 100% of the time while representing the Coors brand’s home state.

  • $1,000 to House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA); Molson Coors also kicked in another $2,500 to his Majority PAC despite the fact that he voted against clean water 94% of the time.

And so on. Now, $55,000 is less than $1M, as you’ve surely noted. But keep in mind that that figure only includes the publicly traceable cash that Molson Coors’ PAC funneled into pollution-friendly politicians’ campaign coffers, and only for the most recent election cycle. By taking a longer view of a company’s political contributions, Dr. Jones said, you can gauge whether its environmental campaigns are genuine. “Unless they have a track record of funding environmental legislators, et cetera… then in all likelihood, of course they’re pursuing their own interests” with this or that environmentally themed campaign.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets project, since 1990 the companies—Molson, Coors, and since its formation in 2005, Molson Coors—or PACs and executives affiliated with them have made $4.3M in campaign contributions. As in the 2019-2020 cycle, the overwhelming majority of those historical contributions went to Republicans. (Your Fingers editor is hardly a fan of the modern Democratic establishment, but when it comes to environmental issues, one of this country’s political parties has been death-marching us into the jaws of doom for the past few decades with a lot more glee than the other, and that’s the GOP.)

When asked why Molson Coors would fund anti-clean water lawmakers while one of its brands was marketing itself heavily on its “mission” to “save the rivers,” the company told Fingers:

The Molson Coors PAC makes donations across the political spectrum based on a variety of factors that impact our business. Because there are so many issues at stake, we’ll likely never agree with an official on every single one. That doesn’t preclude us from pursuing our own initiatives, like restoring rivers across the country.

I guess this makes sense if you consider clean water an infinitely renewable resource and treat its preservation as a policy issue on par with, like, canceling student debt, or whatever. (Side note: cancel student debt.) But clean water is a decidedly limited resource, and we need that shit! Safeguarding it against the gerontocratic ghoul gang whose leathery claws control this country’s levers of power isn’t a political football, it’s an existential imperative.

For Molson Coors to underwrite said pollution-friendly ghouls while also funding pollution clean-up efforts is basically just the hard seltzer version of Tim Robinson’s “we’re all trying to find the guy who did this!” sketch. The guys who did this can only keep doing it if they get re-elected, and campaign donations from companies like Molson Coors help make it so. That’s politically pragmatic and presumably profitable for the beer conglomerate, but it casts a whole lotta silt into Coors Seltzer’s seemingly crystal-clear “for the rivers” claims. So if you’ve been skipping White Claw/Truly/et al. because you like the environmental bent of Molson Coors’ “seltzer with a mission,” just know that the real mission, the forever mission, is selling cases, not saving rivers. Sorry to burst your bubble.


*On the matter of “craft” hard seltzers: One imagines the folks at CANarchy Brewing Collective (a private-equity backed brewery portfolio anchored by craft brewer Oskar Blues) were none too pleased to see the #2 light beer in the country brand-extend itself into the hard seltzer space with a pro-rivers pose and a bunch-a dough to donate.

After all, Oskar Blues’ Wild Basin hard seltzer has been on the market for a couple of years, and positions itself as the boozy bubble water for riparian advocates, what with the “basin” moniker and the fact that they list funding river clean-ups under the “Purpose” tab on their website. (Thanks to Friend of Fingers Jess for reminding me of this!)

But hey, all’s fair in love and war, and the hard seltzer business in 2020 is most certainly war. Armed with deep pockets, powerful national distribution, and a stupid-simple environmentalist message, Coors Seltzer showed up ready for battle.

**Full statement from Molson Coors:

The facts don’t support that opinion. High-quality water is at the heart of our business, and world class water stewardship and watershed protection efforts have been central part to our company since its founding. Coors Seltzer’s mission builds on that rich legacy.

In addition to reducing water usage through process improvements and strategic investments in more efficient systems in our breweries, we have also been protecting precious water resources in our brewery and agriculture watersheds for better part of the past decade.

In the US, we’re engaged in restoring water in our high-risk brewery watersheds. Since 2012 alone, we’ve restored 2.1 billion gallons of water in those watersheds, which is more water than what’s needed for a year’s worth in some small countries. We’re able to achieve this through partnerships: In our water-scarce brewery watershed in California and our water-stressed brewery watersheds in Texas and Colorado, we partnered with organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy, Tarrant Regional Water District and California Water Action Collaborative, to restore water to these watersheds. We have been recognized by the federal agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) - an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), for our leadership and work in restoring essential water to the water-stressed Trinity River watershed in Texas since 2012.

At our global breweries, we have saved over 1.3 billion gallons of water since 2016 by reducing water use in our direct operations by 4.75% and achieving a water-to-beer ratio of 3.41 hl/hl in 2019.

We have saved another 7.6 billion gallons of water since 2016 by working with our barley farmers to reduce water use in our agricultural supply chain. In that time, we have achieved a 10% reduction in water use (m3) per metric ton of barley produced; and 99% of our barley farmers grow, produce and deliver in a manner that recognizes and embraces our sustainability standards.

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