“Between 2005 and 2016, Nestlé has taken over 4 billion gallons of our water for pennies and sold it back to us for huge profits,” Caroline Winters reported for Bloomberg Businessweek in September, 2017. Although the commodification of water is not a new story, Nestlé has taken water commodification to an extreme, as documented by Winters’ Bloomberg report, Jessica Glenza of the Guardian and in a subsequent report for Citizen Truth by Joseph Mangano.
While residents of Flint, Michigan, face home foreclosures for failing to pay steep prices for poisoned tap water, Nestlé has paid just $200 for the right to extract water from nearby Michigan springs in order to produce its Mountain Natural Spring bottled water and Pure Life, its purified water line. Sales of those two Michigan-sourced products were worth $343 million for Nestlé in 2016, according to Bloomberg.
In San Bernardino, California, where drought has been an ongoing problem, Nestlé pays the US Forest Service an annual rate of $524 to extract about 30 million gallons, even during droughts.
Winters wrote that Nestlé has come to dominate the bottled water industry by “going into economically depressed municipalities with the promise of jobs and new infrastructure in exchange for tax breaks and access to a resource that’s scarce for millions.”
The company also targets communities in states with weak water laws. For example, Maine and Texas “operate under a remarkably lax rule from the 1800s called ‘absolute capture,’ which lets landowners take all the groundwater they want.” In states with stricter “reasonable use,” such as Michigan and New York, property owners can extract water as long as it doesn’t unreasonably affect other wells or the aquifer system.
When the company meets grass-roots resistance on legal grounds, it taps deep pockets to fight protracted court battles to obtain rights to use local water. For example, in Fryeburg, Maine, Winters reported, Nestlé fought for four years “to successfully appeal a zoning board resolution” to build a facility for its Poland Spring line. In 2016 it gained rights to extract water for at least the next 20 years.
The commodification of water based on exploitation of weak water laws is not the only problem with Nestlé’s bottled water. In June, 2017, the Guardian reported that, “A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute” with that figure expected to rise another 20% by 2021, “creating an environmental crisis some campaigners predict will be as serious as climate change.” As Joseph Mangano reported, “The very production of these bottles expends precious resources. It costs millions of barrels of oil to make the world’s water bottles used for drinking, and three times the water that goes into these bottles is consumed by the process. That’s a lot of pollution contribution for one industry.”
Caroline Winter, “Nestlé Makes Billions Bottling Water It Pays Nearly Nothing For,”. Bloomberg Businessweek, September 21, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-09-21/nestl-makes-billions-bottling-water-it-pays-nearly-nothing-for.
Jessica Glenza, “Nestlé Pays $200 a Year to Bottle Water Near Flint – Where Water is Undrinkable,” the Guardian, September 29, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/29/Nestlé-pays-200-a-year-to-bottle-water-near-flint-where-water-is-undrinkable.
Joseph Mangano, “Nestlé’s Billion-Dollar Bottled Water Hustle,” Citizen Truth, March 22, 2018, https://citizentruth.org/Nestlés-billion-dollar-bottled-water-hustle/.
Student Researcher: Mallory Curtis (University of Vermont)
Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)
Editor’s Note: For prior Project Censored coverage of this topic, see “Popular Resistance to Corporate Water Grabbing,” story #4 in Censored 2016, and “Water as Commodity or Commons? Issues from the 2009 World Water Forum,” Chapter 14 in Censored 2010.