This is a final installment of the Triple Pundit interview with Michael Washburn, newly appointed Director of Sustainability for Nestlé Waters North America. To view parts one and two, click here.
3p: How much willingness is there among the people above you, would you say, to take action even if it does mean digging into their pockets a little bit? How important is sustainability relative to cost?
MW: It’s very important. I have been told that the doors of the senior executive staff are open to me at any time, that resources will be made available when I am able to make the right case. There are, and I know this from my time working with the forest industry, very real costs associated with fighting battles with your stakeholders. But it turns out, if you’re doing the right thing, then you’re probably going to avoid the battles, so that’s a win-win. And I have not seen any hesitancy, in fact, if anything, I sense impatience from some of the leadership around meeting the greenhouse gas target and getting into renewables.
People here believe strongly that we are a responsible enterprise and they want people to see that we take that work seriously.
3p: What about water quality standards and transparency? It would seem that would be something that would help you to make your case.
MW: Definitely. We’d like people to know about our testing and reporting procedures. When I toured out plants, I was amazed to see how much testing and filtration is done. Each bottling line is tested 200 times per day. Gallon for gallon, that is 60 times more frequently than most municipal water supply facilities.
3p: In 2005, the bottled water industry took in about $100 billion dollars, which is about three times the amount needed to meet the UN goal of adequate water for everyone. How do you respond to that?
MW: Well, first, I would draw the comparison between our company and other companies in the industry, I would draw the comparison between bottled water and other packaged beverages and I would take a look at water use writ large. I’m sure you know that water extraction for agriculture dwarfs any other single use (around 70%). And we do that inefficiently and we direct pollutants back in to our waterways as a consequence. So most of the water we consume in this country, we eat, rather than drink.
So, if the question here is ‘what’s the best way for society to invest in providing clean safe water to its people, vis à vis the UN, it’s not a question about the bottled water industry. It’s a much bigger question than that. It gets you into legal rights to access and public trust doctrine and a variety of other things. It’s a vastly complex arena and I think that the notion that if individual private consumers were not putting dollars on the table for a clean safe packaged beverage, the idea that those dollars would somehow get actively redirected into municipal investment in infrastructure, I don’t follow the rationale. This is a dynamic that involves citizens in a democracy engaged in governance to solve problems. But if you look at the big picture, we’re wasting a lot of water that isn’t contributing to human health and we’re not having a discussion about those uses, in terms of how they’re distracting from making sure people have clean safe access. I think that overall it’s a much bigger conversation than the bloggers often represent.
If we become better at communicating the differentiating factors of our brand, vis à vis our environmental and social record, maybe that will start to resonate with consumers. Maybe we can build some customer loyalty around what I think is a pretty compelling environmental story. And if we pull off some of the things that are on my agenda in the coming years, that story’s just going to get better. Every one of our customers is a potential advocate for what we are trying to do. And it’s a two-way street, if people have concerns about how we manufacture and produce our product, we need to listen to that and get better. At the same time, I would just like to see that debate happen in a fact-rich environment and not be driven by myth or perception.
bottling 200x per day and gallon for gallon test more than municipal water supplies.
3p: Finally, how do you respond to things like the city of San Francisco talking about banning bottled water from public events?
MW: I think denying people choice in how they access clean safe water does little to solve the broader environmental issue. We should offer them a range of options, inform them about the respective impacts, and make sure recycling is readily available to all. Water is a healthful and calorie-free beverage choice — and with problems like obesity and diabetes on the rise, improved access to water in all forms is critical to serving public health.
3p:Thank you Michael, for taking the time to talk with us.
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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