Nelson Switzer, Chief Sustainability Officer for Nestlé Waters North America, has called for ‘aggressive new leadership’ in collective action through partnerships to solve shared water challenges. At an event on August 11, Switzer said all stakeholders – including businesses, industry associations, governments, civic groups and communities – “owe each other more,” and must work together to create shared value.
“I believe what we need to be doing together is bigger than collaboration,” he said, echoing a post he published on LinkedIn the day before. “All of us must work with each other toward mutually beneficial sustainability goals, creating environmental, social and economic value together.
“One challenge we face is that many communities and businesses alike do not fully understand the benefits of collaboration, or are suspicious of working together. Many communities report they are mired in a philosophical struggle between mistrust and need,” Switzer added.
He noted that partners must listen and learn, and encouraged stakeholders to move past suspicions to allow for constructive conversations about how communities work, what they need, and an assessment of whether the right partners are at the table. He cited Nestlé Waters North America’s work with the Project WET Foundation as an example of an effective partnership for sustainable resource management. Their program educates teachers and gives them resources for raising awareness of water challenges with their students.
“Laying this groundwork quickly cuts through misconceptions and helps establish a tone that can move one another from suspicion to trust – the beginning of a relationship,” Switzer said.
Indeed, misconceptions and lack of trust have led to several disputes around water management across the continent – and Nestlé Waters North America has found itself at the center of such disputes several times. Rising environmental awareness and concern has sparked questions about ownership of water as an increasingly scarce resource; other industrial water users – agriculture, paper manufacturing and metals extraction, for example – use far greater volumes than bottlers do, but as a consumer-facing company, Nestlé has often received more attention and been subject to a higher level of scrutiny.
Activists have called Nestlé a lightning rod for much bigger issues, such as fears of water scarcity, which recent disputes in California have demonstrated. Last year, Courage Campaign launched a petition asking Nestlé to shut down bottling operations in the state amidst the historic drought, despite the company’s claims that its operations were not a contributing factor. Meanwhile, a Desert Sun investigation found that Nestlé’s permit to use a four-mile pipeline that siphons water from Strawberry Creek in San Bernardino National Forest expired in 1988, and that the company was still paying just $524 a year for the millions of gallons it collects (the company drew 36 million gallons from Strawberry Creek in 2015, but some years it collected as much as 170 million gallons). Courage Campaign has since teamed up with the Story of Stuff Project and Center for Biological Diversity to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service for allowing Nestlé to bottle water from the park, leading to an ongoing legal case.
Regardless of appearances and proper permitting, Nestlé’s operations in California amount to 705 million gallons per year, or about 0.008 percent of the state’s water use – far less than agriculture or domestic needs.
“Bottled water overall is not a stressor on the system,” Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute and author of Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, told Los Angeles Magazine. Gleick explained that the concerns are more specific: “The right question is, what are withdrawals doing to a local stream or local groundwater basin? That’s the issue in San Bernardino.
“Nestlé could be having a terrible impact or a negligible impact,” he added. “The U.S. Forest Service hasn’t looked.”
In an email to Sustainable Brands last year, a Nestlé spokesperson noted that the Arrowhead brand has been sourcing from the San Bernardino Mountains for more than 100 years – longevity that speaks to the company’s dedication to responsible management. Nestlé has a team of more than 10 natural resource managers who are professional hydrogeologists and engineers, who are responsible for monitoring quality and quantity in every state. The spokesperson noted that most industries do not manage their water so closely, and that Nestlé is also working to ensure its operations are as efficient as possible in California and elsewhere.
To Switzer’s point, communication issues (indeed, a Nestlé exec admitted to SB earlier this summer that the company could improve its responses to water management-related petitions) and a resistance to collaborate have clearly been at play. His statements suggest that Nestlé Waters North America wants to build more – and more effective – partnerships with stakeholders, to deliver better environmental, social and economic outcomes for all.
“As commercial business partners and members of society, our role is to help drive the transition from a depletive to a restorative economy,” he wrote on LinkedIn. “We won’t do it alone; collaboration with communities is paramount. The keys are to identify the level of support needed in each community and together, develop sustainable programs that will make a positive impact - immediately and over the long term.”
At Thursday’s event, Switzer concluded with a challenge to the audience: “I ask you to go back to whatever you do and ask yourself: Are the partnerships that we have, do the donations that we make, and the community investments and the sponsorships that we give out — are they contributing to a restorative economy, of the management or solution of these issues?”