Nestle Waters' Hit and Miss

Nestle Waters' Hit and Miss

There is a great deal at stake in the bottled water business. Perhaps Nestlé Waters North America knows this better than anybody. The company presently controls approximately 41 percent of the $11.7 billion US bottled water market. Like every other competitor in the space, it faces shrinking category sales, as well as mounting pressure from groups complaining about the toll that water corporations take on the planet.

Bottled water activists point to plastic waste, energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, the environmental effects of water extraction, water privatization issues and a range of social problems generated by the industry. Could such “road blocks” deter long-term growth for corporate bottled water empires? Nestlé thinks not.

According to a 2009 document entitled “The Future of Bottled Water” authored by Nestlé CEO Kim Jeffery, the company’s broad portfolio of bottled water products, including Poland Spring, Perrier, Arrowhead, Deer Park and Zephyrhills, are well-positioned to recover from the present economic slump. “Bottled water is perfect as it is,” the company says. “[There are] limited opportunities to innovate.”

This company is clearly not of a world-changing mindset. Nestlé takes the position that the bottled water industry is unfairly portrayed as a “villain” by environmental activists and an angry public, and that “environmental facts do not support this.” Really, Nestlé?

In a press release and video web site launched last week, Nestlé attempted to express to the public the environmental virtues of bottled water. “Bottled water is actually the most efficient choice of any packaged beverage available to consumers,” the company insists. “Bottled water is a very small user of our water resources...Plastic represents less than one percent of solid waste. While water bottles can be recycled, not all Americans have access to curbside recycling...To sum it all up, bottled water is a healthful choice, can cost less than 20 cents per bottle, and has a lighter environmental impact.”

Of course, not everyone sees things through the corporation’s rose colored lens. Take the 5,400 local citizens of Salida, Colorado who recently banded together in order to fight Nestlé off and protect its local water resources and land. Or what about the residents of McCould, California, who claim their town was torn apart by Nestlé’s operations in the area? Nestlé makes no mention of such stakeholder concerns in its press release or video web site, both which set forth to “set the record straight.”

Nestlé has a public relations problem. The problem isn’t just that Americans around the country are hanging signs in their windows and entryways reading: “Stop Nestlé” or “Nest-Leave.” Nestle’s public relations problem is its sterile, detached response. The company seems to be under the impression that people will read its communications in an isolation chamber, devoid of context, clue, cultural condition, and (yes, Nestlé) fact.

Let’s start with the hard data. According to Food and Water Watch, bottled water produces up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year. That plastic requires up to 47 million gallons of oil annually to produce. And while the plastic used to bottle beverages is of high quality and is demand by recyclers, over 80 percent of plastic bottles end up in land fills. That’s why the Pacific Rim Garbage Patch, the floating vortex of waste that’s twice the size of Texas, is comprised mainly of plastic. It’s also why so many sea creatures die every day from ingesting plastic, and why plastic waste has become one of the chief concerns of our Nation’s top environmental groups.

On the cost side of things, consumers pay a huge markup on a product even though as much as 40 percent of it comes from a tap in the first place. Stakeholder communities also pay. Food and Water Watch says Nestlé has an unfortunate reputation for moving into communities, taking water for next to nothing, selling it for a hefty profit, then leaving the locals to deal with the residual environmental and social externalities, and moving on. “Next!”

None of these issues are substantively addressed in Nestlé’s press release or on its video website. Through bullet points, select interviews and clip art snippets, the company only superficially confronts the environmental impacts of bottled water. Nestlé avoids all controversial content, including details related to ongoing rifts with local communities around the country. The company’s corporate tone of voice, detached message and superficial approach to “issues outreach” demonstrates an indifference to the wider public’s ardent support for environmental reform and social justice. The pitch is all wrong.

Nestlé broke every cardinal rule in social media, stakeholder engagement and transparency with it’s one-sided, “set the record straight” public relations effort. There is no meaningful opportunity to interact with the company, no way to leave a comment. My bet is, the only folks convinced by Nestle’s “bottled water is good” message will be those who manufactured it.

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