Water and Peace: Control the Water and You Control Everything

“A Matter of Survival” - Swiss-funded Global High-level Panel Report on Water and Peace, Geneva, 2017.

By Judith Stapleton

Last year’s high-level meeting in Geneva convened under world-wide pressure to address the planet’s spreading drought conditions and the human catastrophe they engender. In the wake of this meeting, Bloomberg Business Week published a story on September 21, subtitled: “Nestlé Makes Billions Bottling Water It Pays Nearly Nothing For”.

The story came on the heels of revelations from the tiny town of Elora, Ontario and, more publicly, from Flint, Michigan—made notorious by its homeboy Michael Moore, who revealed that Nestlé paid $200 for extracting water from Lake Michigan while people who live in Flint have water supplies so contaminated they cannot drink it.

Author of the Bloomberg article, Caroline Winter, said $343 million of the bottled water Nestlé sells comes from Michigan, where, ironically, “the company bottles Ice Mountain Natural Spring Water and Pure Life, its purified water line.”

She charges: “Where Nestlé encounters grass-roots resistance against its industrial-strength guzzling, it deploys lawyers; where it’s welcome, it can push the limits of that hospitality, sometimes with the acquiescence of state and local governments that are too cash-strapped or inept to say no. There are the usual costs of doing business, including transportation, infrastructure, and salaries. But Nestlé pays little for the product it bottles—sometimes a municipal rate and other times just a nominal extraction fee.”

But siphoning off the planet’s fresh water and selling it back to people as a commodity is not the only cause for alarm about Nestlé’s place in the world.

Nestlé puts all its drink products in plastic bottles, which have become the worst source of contamination in the oceans and wetlands of every landscape in the world.

In ocean cleanup campaigns run by Greenpeace just last year, Nestlé was overwhelmingly represented in garbage litter in Asia, Europe, and North America—with specific large-scale efforts in the Philippines (12), Malta (3), Canada (2), Indonesia (1), and Turkey (1). The media page on the Greenpeace web site shows graphic images of the massive invasion of shorelines by plastic—especially plastic bottles.

In the Philippine campaign, Nestlé was identified as “the worst polluter” in an 8-day audit of plastic debris found at Freedom Island.

Recently, Nestlé responded to mounting public pressure to address the growing plastic pollution crisis in a press release promising its “ambition” to make its packaging 100% recyclable or reusable by 2025.

Certainly, Nestlé is an economic powerhouse with vast ambitions—it wields a great deal of influence. In fact, it has convinced consumers even in cities and towns where the water supply is entirely safe and monitored carefully, to buy drinking water that is otherwise free and clean, and pay more for it than they do for gas for their cars.

Who are these people?

Nestlé is a Swiss multinational food and drink company headquartered in beautiful Vaud, Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva, but with tentacles in every little community anywhere on the planet where nobody is guarding the water.

By any measure, Nestlé is the largest food and beverage company in the world, and as such, bears the greatest responsibility for protecting the environment where humans and pets consume their products and discard their plastic packaging.

There are no clear targets to reduce or phase out its production of fossil-fuel made, single-use plastics. Instead, it announced its “ambition.”

For Greenpeace Head of Oceans & Plastics campaigns, Sarah King, “Nestlé’s announcement misses the mark on what is required to address the plastic pollution crisis its single-use plastic packaged products have helped to create.”

She said, “Its initiative will not meaningfully reduce its reliance on throwaway plastic. As the largest food and beverage company in the world, we need to see a higher bar set reflecting real commitment to reduction.”

With the public pressure that falls naturally from consumer choice, we could help motivate Nestlé to set that bar higher. The power to influence comes from the ways we spend our money.

A potent example of that power to influence a corporation’s place in the world, and the moral backbone we need to see in the corporations we support through the products we buy, is Patagonia.

Founder Yves Chouinard has a long history of doing good for the planet, and in the process, consumers have responded by enthusiastically gearing up for the outdoors and staying connected to Mother Nature. The company has thrived on this theme.

But in the era of Trump, and particularly since Secretary Zinke stole public lands by ripping up protections for American Monuments Parks, Chouinard and his company have been galvanized.

In the stunned oxygen-deprivation of the US post-election period, a junior employee at Patagonia suggested that the proceeds from their Black Friday sales be donated to all the grassroots environmental organizations that resist the Alt-Right Republican race to the bottom of the moral barrel—those organizations the hysterical Right-wing hates.

The audacity of the idea caused a ripple that turned seismic as it collected momentum up the company chain, and in short order, Chouinard made the promise on social media that, not just a share of the day’s revenue would be donated, but all the money they made that day. The previous year they had made $2.5 million on this Big Shopping Day. This 2017, it turned out to be $10 million dollars.

Consumers were so moved by this declaration to resist the Republican vortex circling the toilet drain that 60 percent of the customers were new to Patagonia. Says Chouinard, “It was one of the best things we’ve ever done.”

We may debate the happy convergence of Chouinard’s Zen state of mind in this decision and the great marketing strategy it turned out to be.

But the point here is to recognize that moral honesty is what the world wants now that we cannot sustain the delusions of infinite consumption. If Nestlé turned the tide on its corporate practice of plastics for profit and the planet be damned, all boats would rise, and we might just be in time to stem the tsunami of plastic pollution that is killing the life-force of this planet—the water.

For Chouinard, “What we say we’re doing, we’re actually doing. A lot of companies are just greenwashing, and young people can see right through it. Kids are smart, so we don’t talk down to them. Our marketing philosophy is just: Tell people who we are. Which is, tell people what we do, and don’t try to be anything more than that.”

Let’s make corporations stand up and be counted on the right side of history, and give up plastic bottles in the process.