Nestle’s CEO wants consumers to know one thing: For him, using up millions of gallons of water in drought-stricken California is strictly business and business is booming.
The embattled head of Nestle Waters North America defended his ongoing use of water in the rapidly drying region by saying if he didn’t use the water, one of his competitors would. Throughout an interview with a hydrologist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, CEO Tim Brown insisted on a twisted free market view that says as long as profits could be made, profits should be made:
“If I stop bottling water tomorrow, people would buy another brand of bottled water. As the second largest bottler in the state, we’re filling a role many others aren’t filling. It’s driven by consumer demand, it’s driven by an on-the-go society that needs to hydrate. Frankly, we’re very happy [consumers] are doing it in a healthier way.”
Brown fails to mention that his idea of “hydrating” is via steeply priced plastic bottled “purified” water which wastes an estimated 30-50 percent more water than tap, whereas California residents currently being asked to forego showers and follow an unprecedented mandatory water rationing might view hydration as a much more basic need to get water, any water, to their homes.
Throughout the interview with AirTalk, one gets the sense that Brown comes from the “greed is good” school of thought that says profits justify the means. Nodding to consumer demand to justify sucking up water in a region that can’t afford to lose any, he feels that the invisible hand of the free market has absolved him of any guilt. He certainly doesn’t feel guilty about his company being caught red-handed stealing water from places they haven’t had permission to go for over two decades.
But contrary to Brown’s belief that his competitors would be just as underhanded, one such company – Starbucks – has already announced that it is withdrawing its bottled water plants from California and moving them to Pennsylvania. (As a Pennsylvania native who grew up slogging through puddles and waterlogged grass, I can safely attest that the state has more than enough water to share.)
Interviewer Jay Famiglietti asked the obvious question of Brown:
“An acre-foot [nearly 326,000 gallons] is enough water to supply an entire family for a year. So, in this time when we’re being asked to flush our toilets less and less, we have to ask the question: Is this really an environmentally, ethically correct thing to be doing right now?”
Again, Brown avoided getting into ethics. Instead, he managed to turn the tables by claiming bottled water companies are being unfairly targeted. In fact, he insisted, it’s others that need to be doing more to avoid wasteful water use.
“Everybody in every facet of water in California has to find better design, better use, better ways to be more efficient. We have to look at design and how we touch water in a water scarce environment. There’s been 17 droughts in the last 48 years. We’re in this one, there will be more, and we all have to look at how water is going to move throughout the state.”
We should admire Brown’s optimism. California isn’t just going through a typical drought that comes and goes from time-to-time. It’s experiencing a crisis unparalleled in modern history. It has gotten so bad that scientists are measuring California’s water reserves in months, not years. Ironically, one of the “designs” that would immediately improve the way we “touch water in water scarce environments” would be to get rid of bottling companies.
For Nestle’s part, the company says they are planning to invest in “zero water” technology that will rely on reused water from their milk processing plants to be recycled into clean bottled water, saving millions of gallons of water a year. It remains to be seen what the time table for something like that would be.
If you’re wondering which bottled water to avoid in the grocery store, Nestle’s California drought water is sold under the Arrowhead 100% Mountain Spring Water brand. If the environment isn’t enough incentive for Nestle, maybe plummeting sales will be.