I had the opportunity to speak with Michael Washburn, who just recently hired on with Nestlé Waters as director of sustainability. Prior to this job Michael came from an NGO background, with senior positions at both the Wilderness Society and the Forest Stewardship Council. He has a PhD in Forest Policy from Penn State. We spoke for close to an hour, so what you see below are excerpts from that conversation which will be presented in three parts.
Triple Pundit: Hello Michael. Congratulations on your new position. Given your environmental background, you must have been a little skeptical. What convinced you that Nestlé is sincere in their sustainability efforts?
Michael Washburn: After my departure from the Wilderness Society, I was looking for some more challenges across a broad spectrum of issues. During my interview process with Nestlé Waters, I made it a point to be vivid in my commitment to the environment. Everyone that I tested that with resonated with it, saying, “that’s what we want.”
3p: You mention challenges. What do you think are the biggest challenges you face as you take on this job?
MW: The biggest, most visible footprint that the company has right now, I think is the plastic package, and from the CEO right on down, Nestlé Waters believes that the best way for us to really add value to society is ultimately have those bottles, recollected, recycled and made back into some productive use, ideally back into bottles again. That is no small deal given the complexity of state and local legislation or the lack thereof around the country. Today, collection rates are not high, a lot of the material is shipped offshore and with it go what would otherwise be domestic jobs. We don’t have the capacity to attract investors to build what we need to process that material. So there are challenges both in collecting the material and in getting parties involved to process it. We share that commitment with a lot of other entities both inside the industry and outside. That is probably the biggest thing I’ve been asked to work on.
Energy is another area, reducing our use, becoming more efficient and trying to move the company over time to renewable energy.
Then third, making sure our spring sites are appropriately tended and that we’re engaging communities in a respectful, constructive fashion, providing jobs and being a good neighbor.
3p: In your short time there, have you run into people who are angry at the company?
MW: People do get excited about this issue, and I understand as an environmentalist, the idea that resources shouldn’t be unnecessarily used. But if you think about bottled water in the context of other packaged beverages that you might find in a grocery store, every one of those things is in a package and it has water in it, and everything except the bottled water has lots of other stuff in it. And a lot of the impacts come from that other stuff, particularly on the sugar side.
So if we want to have a discussion about unnecessary resource use, we should talk about jet travel, the entertainment industry, and things like that. But I don’t think that’s where society is, I don’t think we’re in a place where we’re prepared to say, “let’s get rid of ____.”
So I set aside the question “should the industry go away” because that’s not a realistic question to me. And then when you look at the state of municipal water systems in this country, and elsewhere, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that this industry is a benefit to people and we’ve got some other problems to solve. My point of view is, let’s have a rational conversation about how to balance society’s needs with efficient resource use. We all agree that we’re not doing this as efficiently or in as closed-loop fashion as we’d like, so let’s talk about moving it to that.
Certainly if you listen to the president speak you can see that even he is concerned about infrastructure that is failing. And given the fiscal climate it seems unlikely that not a lot is going to be done about that in the short term. As a citizen I worry about that. Meantime in Scottsdale, where I live, and where my family drinks bottled water, there was a piece in the paper about arsenic in the Phoenix municipal system. But the notion that if we suddenly stopped drinking bottled water, we could turn around and instantly fix that system, is a connection that I struggle to make. We have to bring attention to that problem for sure, and if we see opportunities for the company to engage in that discussion, I think I would be inclined to do so, but that’s not my primary mission.
3p: Do you think there are other ways to address the problem besides having more people drink bottled water?
MW: Yes. In addition to selling half-liter individual serve packaged bottles, we also sell home and office delivery five gallon bottles and we also manufacture reverse osmosis five gallon residential filters that people can purchase and install if they want to get clean fresh water that way. If you look at where we’re headed, we see ourselves as a “healthy hydration company,” and we’d like to get to a place where we give people as many options as possible. One new model is currently being tested: a dispensing type vending machine that would dispense purified water or possibly spring water into your own reusable bottle.
That’s being tested on college campuses, the idea being, we’ll guarantee that the water’s clean, you put it into whatever package you want to put it in. So there are a lot of ways to crack this nut and over time we’re going to evolve to try to address those issues. There are two models currently under test: one that dispenses filtered tap water and the other that contains several large containers of spring water. We don’t really understand the market dynamics of it yet. Our CEO spoke at the Net Impact conference and was told by the students there, “we’re fine with your water; we just don’t like your bottle.”
So this is an attempt to respond to that. In the prototype, there are three choices, for small, medium and large, as opposed to a gas pump type of thing where it is metered out continuously.
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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