Nestlé: Draining America Bottle By Bottle: Nestlé builds an empire at the expense of rural communities

Nestlé's headquarters by the waters of Lake Geneva in Vevey, Switzerland.  Photo provided by Nestlé
Nestlé's headquarters by the waters of Lake Geneva in Vevey, Switzerland. Photo provided by Nestlé

“At what point did water go from being a public resource and a basic human right to being a commodity?”— Deborah Lapidus, national organizer for Corporate Accountability International

Swiss-owned Nestlé is the Walmart of the bottled water industry. Like the mammoth retailer, Nestlé is a volume powerhouse: it already controls a third of the bottled water market in the United States and is expanding.

There is a reason: huge profits. Perhaps you recognize its products: Arrowhead, Calistoga, Deer Park, Perrier, Poland Spring, and Ice Mountain. The bottled water market in the U.S. is the largest in the world, with more than 8.82 billion gallons sold in 2007.

Thirty years ago, the bottled water industry barely existed. Who would pay for something you could get for free? Now, Americans spend more on Poland Spring, Fiji Water, Evian, Aquafina, and Dasani than on iPods or movie tickets, according to Fast Company magazine.

The water for Pepsi’s Aquafina and Coke’s Dasani comes from municipal sources. Nestlé’s source is spring water. At first glance, that might seem like a better option—treated tap water versus natural spring water. Unless, of course, it’s your spring Nestlé is tapping.Nestlé’s bottled water empire targets small towns across America and buys the right to pump from their local springs. And it turns those towns into the Hotel California: once it checks in, it never checks out. The result: the Swiss conglomerate now controls a third of the American market for bottled water.

In addition to massively lowering water tables around the country, Nestlé has left a trail of suspicion because of its business practices. When a local water official questions the effect Nestlé can have on a water supply, that official may hear from local politicians who argue that jobs now are more important than the environment or water supplies a decade from now.

This is how it works: Nestlé, using its vast resources, approaches small, often rural communities and then takes control of what is often their only natural resource. It promises these communities jobs in exchange for water rights and other necessary permits. But what soon becomes clear to many local citizens is that when the plant is built, promised jobs are often filled by outsiders or temporary workers. Opponents argue that beautiful landscapes are destroyed and the local spring, often very special in a small town, soon becomes a shadow of itself or off limits altogether. Sometimes Nestlé even pumps water from springs that are already in drought-stricken areas. With its vast power and the promise of huge profits per gallon of water extracted Nestlé does whatever it takes to convince politicians and community leaders to turn control of this natural resource over to them.

  Protesters in Kennebunk Maine fight Nestle with the help of Corporate Accountability International.  Photo provided by Corporate Accountability International
Protesters in Kennebunk Maine fight Nestle with the help of Corporate Accountability International. Photo provided by Corporate Accountability International
“Nestlé is riding on the hopes that people in the community will see them as a spur for economic growth,” said Deborah Lapidus, national organizer for Corporate Accountability International. “So Nestlé targets rural, economically depressed communities and makes all kinds of promises about jobs and economic renewal. These are promises that they often don’t fulfill.”

Jane Lazgin is the director of corporate communications for Nestlé Waters North America Inc. She disagrees with Lapidus and said Nestlé typically provides 60 jobs when they first open plants and 250 later on, and that these jobs go to people who live within 30 miles of the plant.

However, Ruth Caplan, campaign coordinator for the Alliance for Democracy’s Defending Water for Life, said, “The fact of the matter is that there are very few jobs that are created and often they bring in people with particular expertise from out of town.”

Jon Keesecker, senior water organizer for Food and Water Watch, which released a report critical of Nestlé’s bottled water industry in 2008 called “All Bottled Up,” said more people are becoming aware of what Nestlé does and how bottled water is not better than tap.

“More and more people are coming to understand that companies like Nestlé withdraw this water for next to nothing and then sell it at huge profits,” he said. “As the people become more educated about what’s happening, there is a growing critique of the bottled water industry in general and bottled water as a product.”

When you think of Nestlé what do you think? Gerber baby food, Cheerios, Lean Cuisine, Jenny Craig, Haagen-Dazs ice cream, Purina pet food?

“You’re coming up against a lot of corporate power,” Caplan said. Her organization helps local communities fight Nestlé’s overtures. “I think given that we’re up against this immense corporation, we’re doing very well.”

Nestlé determines where to build their plants through studies done by a team of ten geologists and consideration of taste and how viable the springs would be for drinking water.

Nestlé spokesperson Lazgin said they also make sure there would be no negative impact on neighbors. It is a near constant process of looking for new plant locations to keep up with market demand. “For the most part, it’s measuring consumer demand and it’s also a policy we have to diversify our spring water forces so that we never rely on only one source and we can draw from several sources at a lower level.”

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Lazgin said when Nestlé finds communities in which they want to build plants, they ask for input from residents, answer questions about the plant, and understand their point of view.

“It is our responsibility to openly communicate with communities and, of course, abide by all their regulatory requirements, laws, rules, and imposed procedures that control how we withdraw water and how much we withdraw and how we operate our bottling plant.”

But citizens across the United States who have battled Nestlé say this has not been their experience. Instead, Nestlé has met with local officials without telling residents, not informed them of plans to build their plants, not allowed residents to attend “public” meetings, and withdrawn more water than residents think is necessary and good for the environment.