Nestlé continues to bottle water in California during the worst drought on record. Many of you are well aware of this, so I won’t go into too much detail – you can catch up on it here. Rather than a session of hand-wringing and frustration I want to understand the company’s perspective on the situation in order to address it.

So, briefly, here are a few quick facts and figures on the situation:

Why are Nestlé still bottling water in drought-impacted regions?

On their website Nestlé say that halting bottling operations will not significantly help the California water crisis because it’s only a small percentage of the amount that Jerry Brown wants to conserve by imposing water restrictions.

If Nestlé were to shut down all of its plants in California the resulting annual savings would be less than 0.3% of the total the Governor says the state needs residential and public users to save.

Following that logic, individuals might wonder why they are letting their grass die in order to save a few gallons when Nestlé doesn’t think it’s worth saving 700 million gallons. The State believes it’s worth cutting off the water supplies in beaches and parks to save one fortieth of what Nestlé removes for bottling.

Arrowhead water, bottled by Nestlé from various springs in California including Strawberry Canyon in the San Bernardino National Forest.
Arrowhead water, bottled by Nestlé from various springs in California including Strawberry Canyon in the San Bernardino National Forest.

The true cost of bottled water

And that’s not even taking into account the true cost of bottled water – the energy and water that goes into packaging and transportation. Drilling and refining the oil that’s converted into plastic bottles or burned in trucks that haul the water bottles across the country actually takes a whole lot of water. From Ertug Ercin of the Water Footprint  Network:

“Packaging makes a significant footprint,” he says, adding that three liters of water might be used to make a half-liter bottle. In other words, the amount of water going into making the bottle could be up to six or seven times what’s inside the bottle.

So the 700 million gallons turns into almost 5 billion gallons when the true cost of water is considered. And that’s besides the energy use and climate impact of bottling and transporting the water.

Environmental Impact of Nestlé water

And it’s also important to note that by the amount of water Nestlé removes from the San Bernardino National Forest is a significant percentage on a local level.

In 2014, we used 95 million liters (25 million gallons) of water, which represents less than 10% of measured flow by the US Geological Survey monitoring gauge located at the base of two canyons – Strawberry Canyon where our springs are located, and neighboring Coldwater Canyon.

Their permit for water bottling expired in 1988 and it turns out that no state agency is monitoring the amount of water taken or the ecological impact of its removal.

According to Steve Loe, a biologist who retired from the Forest Service in 2007, removal of the water from the forest has impacted the ecosystem significantly, likely contributing to the disappearance of native fish species.

Social Impact of Nestlé water

It’s sadly ironic that, a four hour drive northwest of the San Bernardino forest, the wells in the small Californian town of East Porterville are running dry and an increasing proportion of the population rely on bottled water. The town’s water needs (population ~ 7000) would be met several times over by the amount that Nestlé takes from aquifers and bottles into plastic.

So, what was the response of the Nestlé Waters North America CEO Tim Brown to all of this? In a radio interview on AirTalk, Mr. Brown was asked whether he would ever consider moving bottling operations out of California. His response:  

“Absolutely not. In fact, if I could increase it, I would.”

“If I stop bottling water tomorrow,” said Brown, “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.”

The two Mr. Browns
The Two Mr. Browns. Left: California Governor Jerry Brown, who called for necessary statewide water reductions. Right: Tim Brown, CEO of Nestlé Waters North America, who said that if he could increase bottling of CA water during this drought he would.

So there you have it. And Tim Brown is not alone in assigning blame to consumers. Following an evaluation by Oxfam of the social and environmental impacts of the “Big 10” food and beverage manufacturers, the response of the companies was summarized as follows:

The problems of the food system, they say, are caused largely by governments, traders and consumers.

Nestlé: bottled water is driven by consumer demand

To sum up the situation of Nestlé bottling California water: They are doing it legally (although their permit did expire 27 years ago); so far the state government hasn’t stepped in to stop the practice (nor are they monitoring it); Nestlé doesn’t have plans to stop, reasoning that “it’s driven by consumer demand.”

Logically, although protests and petitions may also be effective, the most effective means of action is to cease the consumer demand. This can be done in several ways:

  1. Make a personal commitment to stop buying bottled water and perhaps other products from Nestlé if you feel strongly about the issue.
  2. Publicly voice your opinion though product reviews (for water or other Nestlé products) and briefly explain why you are awarding your green star rating.

That’s just my opinion and the whole point of the Green Stars Project is to establish a democratic rating system for products and services, based on social and environmental impact. You may be perfectly fine with Nestlé’s practices or the idea of bottled water in general. So please cast your vote by including a green star rating in whatever you review next!

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