These are tough times to be a chief sustainability officer of a bottled water company in the US, operating in many regions facing water scarcity and drought, making water an increasingly limited — and valuable — resource.
This is the situation that Nelson Switzer finds himself in, as the newly appointed vice president and chief sustainability officer of Nestlé Waters North America, a company whose brands include more than 15 water and tea labels such as Arrowhead, Perrier, Nestea and S. Pelligrino. The company is working to reduce its water use but still faces scrutiny for sourcing its bottled water from California, plagued by ongoing drought.
Last year activists petitioned the California Water Resources Control Board to shut down Nestlé Water’s water bottling operations in the state. Also last year Nestlé Water’s parent company invested about $7 million into a milk factory in Modesto to transform it into zero water factory, meaning the plant will not use any local freshwater resources for its operations. The project should save nearly 63 million gallons of water each year, equivalent to 71 percent of absolute withdrawals in 2014, the company says.
Nestlé is also a member of sustainability advocacy organization, Ceres BICEP, and was one of 223 companies to sign a letter in support of the Clean Power Plan because “the new standards will reinforce what leading companies already know: climate change poses real financial risks and substantial economic opportunities and we must act now.”
Before Nestlé Waters, Switzer help senior environmental management and sustainability positions at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Centrica, Royal Bank of Canada, and Asherleaf Consulting, a sustainability practice he founded. Nestlé Waters Tim Brown says Switzer’s experience will help him solve the company’s environmental challenges, from water and resource stewardship to improving the environmental sustainability of packaging.
Environmental Leader caught up with Switzer to discuss his plans for Nestlé Waters and the sustainability challenges ahead. Below are his edited comments.
Q: As Nestlé Waters North America’s newly appointed vice president and chief sustainability officer, what’s your no. 1 order of business?
A: As chief sustainability officer, I hope to continue the important work that has made Nestlé Waters North America an industry leader in corporate sustainability and water stewardship. My first priority is to engage and listen to our stakeholders, both internal and external. It is important for us to ensure we understand the concerns and priorities of our neighbors and operators, regulators and legislators, activists and civil society groups, consumers and customers, employees and partners, among others.
We have made it a priority to engage with stakeholders — those whose decisions can affect our ability to operate and solve problems — at the local, regional and federal levels. This is the best way to understand the issues that affect us both and help us guide our practices in the spirit of continuous improvement.
Q: Bottled water is expected to become the most consumed beverage in America within the decade while at the same time water scarcity is affecting much of the US. How do you reconcile reducing water consumption with increasing bottled water production?
A: As the leading producer of bottled water in the country, we have a responsibility to do so in the most sustainable way. As the population increases, so too does the need for fresh water to meet the growing demand from communities, food producers and industry. Add to that the need for sanitary systems that also rely on fresh water and the coefficient on the front end of the water balance equation grows quickly.
That is why it is important that we work on several fronts: 1) to maintain efficient use of water in our processes; 2) to protect and preserve the spring sites under our stewardship and; 3) to support partnerships and collective actions that reclaim and restore the quality of water sources.
Nestlé Waters is one of the most efficient producers in the industry. The company has done a good job balancing helping consumers live a healthy lifestyle with striving for sustainable water management practices that support our environment, communities and people. As bottled water consumption increases, we must work to protect our spring sources and the land that surrounds them.
Across the country, Nestlé Waters has a team of natural resource managers who are responsible for managing our spring sources for sustainability. Their work includes regular monitoring and data analysis to ensure our water use does not have adverse effect on the source or the surrounding environment.
Beyond our own operations, we also are committed to supporting water projects in the communities where we operate. One example is our $1 million pledge to help construct a groundwater treatment plant in the Cucamonga Valley Water District of California. We also support a number of watershed clean ups from California to Washington, DC with partners such as Inland Empire Waterkeeper and the Anacostia Riverkeeper.
Q: What are some of the technologies and/or other initiatives NWNA uses to reduce consumption?
A: Our parent company Nestlé has been a global leader in water stewardship. For example, the company is taking technology successfully deployed elsewhere in the world and applying it in California. It is working to transform a condensed milk factory in Modesto to a “zero water” facility.
For Nestlé Waters, nearly 80 percent of the water we withdraw is consumed by our consumers. The balance is associated with the processes we use to provide that water — and while we believe we are the most efficient in the industry, we maintain maintenance, monitoring and measurement programs to help us identify opportunities to further reduce water consumption. We continue to explore new technologies and systems that may help us enhance our performance.
In terms of technology, California has proven to be a testing ground for how we can further reduce our water use. We have made upgrades to many of our bottling plants there that, combined with landscaping changes, are projected to potentially save about 55 million gallons of water annually in our operations.
To address carbon emissions associated with our operations, we have prioritized our opportunities for improvement, which have led us to focus on energy consumed in our bottling plants by enhancing our processes and exploring alternative energy supplies, and through distribution by reducing distance to consumers, using alternative transport, exploring new technologies, optimizing payload and working with carriers.
We have also been working on the impact of the PET bottles that deliver water to our consumers. For many years, Nestle Water’s bottles have been reduced in PET volume and weight, which has led to reduction in raw materials, both recycled and virgin content, and the associated carbon impacts and overall lifecycle impact. That said, we are continuing to explore new technologies and processes in the PET space to drive these aspects down further.
Q: What environmental sustainability lessons learned and/or best practices do you bring with you from your previous posts?
A: The top three lessons/best practices I bring with me from my previous roles include:
- Ensure there is a system. While it is critical to set a North Star, it is equally critical to ensure people understand what it means to translate sustainability from its philosophical ground through to a corporate management system — and then to build and operationalize that system consistently with objectives, goals, key performance indicators and metrics. The greatly enhances the ability to prioritize, build and maintain trust with internal and external stakeholders and measure the benefit of programs and initiatives to enable better decision making.
- Clarify roles and responsibilities and hold people accountable. Finding those who have both the commitment and resources to assist in delivering to the strategy is paramount — and being clear with them up front what the expectations needs to be part of the process. However, this must be done in the spirit of partnering and teamwork.
- Leverage the great work already being done. Regardless the company, there is always great work going on that has enabled environmental and social performance improvements. Seeking out these successes and using them as a launch pad can be a very effective tool at gaining buy in and building trust with internal stakeholders —those who will be responsible for elements of the strategy and plans
Q: How are you going to use these to improve NWNA’s sustainability performance?
A: By following a three-step process.
- Understand: interview internal stakeholders to learn the business and the perception of sustainability.
- Assess: examine how the sustainability team supports business objectives.
- Design: assemble a sustainability plan to enhance company performance.