- Bottled water sales are skyrocketing, but backlash against the beverage is also brewing.
- The CEO of Nestlé Waters North America, Fernando Mercé, acknowledged the “challenges” created by negative perceptions of the bottled-water industry at a conference on Friday.
- Mercé says that Nestlé plans to double down on dealing with plastic packaging and water sourcing responsibly.
- Nestlé aims to have 50% of its bottles made from recycled plastic by 2025, as well as address criticism against the company’s water-sourcing practices.
As sales of bottled water have grown, a backlash has also been building.
In 2017, the carbonated-soft-drink category declined 1.3% by volume, while bottled water grew 6.2%, according to industry publication Beverage Digest. But, that doesn’t mean the bottled-water industry is free from criticism.
Activists have pushed to ban bottled water due to concerns over plastic bottles’ wastefulness and pollution. Companies have been criticized for paying minimal fees to communities where they source water. And, some people have said the entire concept is a “scam” perpetuated by companies situating bottled water as a preferable choice to soda, instead of as an environmentally inferior option to tap water.
As it is the maker of the largest bottled-water brand in the world, Nestlé Pure Life, Nestlé is feeling the backlash – and taking action.
“The challenges, I think they are real,” Fernando Mercé, the president and CEO of Nestlé Waters North America, said of the backlash against bottled water during Beverage Digest’s Future Smarts conference on Friday.
“I think you have to first, make sure that as an organization, you behave in a responsible way – that you are treating both the sourcing of water and the packing in the most responsible way you can,” Mercé continued.
A game plan towards responsibility
- Jim Young/Reuters
Mercé said that Nestlé is taking aggressive action on packaging, as backlash against the use of plastic is a growing concern across the beverage industry. Mercé said that even his own children are discussing worrisome statistics about the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans.
“Plastic is a huge issue, there’s no doubt about it,” Mercé said.
One part of Nestlé’s solution is to increasingly transition to using recycled plastic to make bottles.
Nestlé rolled out its first 100% rPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate) bottle earlier in 2018. On Friday, Mercé said that Nestlé plans to move to 25% rPET bottles by 2021, and 50% rPET packaging by 2025.
Mercé provided a less explicit game plan on sourcing, which has caused some high-profile public-relations issues in recent years.
Nestlé faced boycott threats in 2016 after the company purchased a well in Ontario that a small Canadian township had been trying to buy. The Swiss company was also criticized that year for increasing the amount of water it was pumping from a source in Michigan, 120 miles from Flint, a city known for its water crisis.
Nestlé has said it works with communities to find solutions in sourcing. And, its response to the Flint water crisis shows how the company may try to prevent future backlash and change its image looking forward.
In April, Gov. Rick Snyder announced Flint would no longer receive free bottled water from the state, despite continuing concerns. Since then, Nestlé has donated more than three million bottles of water to the city, pledging in late November to continue to donate water into 2019. The company has highlighted these donations in ads that ran earlier in 2018.
The question of whether the beverage industry needs to do more on issues such as sustainability loomed large at the conference. Muhtar Kent, Coca-Cola’s former CEO and current chairman – who is stepping down from the role in April 2019 – called on conference attendees to take action such as creating biodegradable bottles and collection systems.
“We have got to do a lot better in waste, we have got to do a lot better in innovation, we have got to do a lot better in social value creation,” Kent said. “I plead to the industry to do a lot more in these areas.”