‘Expect the Cost of Water Tomorrow to Be Higher than Today’: Q&A with Nestlé Waters’ Nelson Switzer

by | May 16, 2017

“Governments are starting to recognize that water should be treated more responsibly. In some areas they are increasing the cost to deliver water or to regulate water sources so they have enough money to protect groundwater sources. There may be an increased input cost for our business,” says Nelson Switzer, chief sustainability officer of Nestlé Waters North America. “The amounts we pay for water today might be different from what we pay tomorrow, and we expect it will be.”

As part of its effort to increase water savings, the bottled water company helped start the Alliance for Water Stewardship, a global membership-based collaboration that promotes the responsible use of freshwater through a new International Water Stewardship Standard. Other members include organizations like the WWF, The Nature Conservancy, and corporations from water-focused industries.

Switzer will be speaking about the AWS at the 2017 Environmental Leader Conference next month. We recently caught up with him to learn more about this emerging international framework and what it could mean for businesses.

What does the Alliance for Water Stewardship mean for Nestlé Waters?

The Alliance for Water Stewardship is a collaboration established to champion water stewardship around the world. What’s come out is this standard using the International Organization for Standardization framework. It walks organizations through the ability to certify a facility to a water stewardship standard — in our case, a water bottling facility. We want to understand its level of efficiency, how we’re engaged with stakeholders, what we’re doing ensure the sustainability of the spring source or the catchment on which that facility relies.

A standard was missing from the marketplace. We were already doing the lion’s share, but this allowed us to formalize it, document it, and track it more rigorously.

How did Nestlé Waters get involved with the AWS?

Several years ago, we were part of the original group that identified the need so we seeded it and sat on the working group. In forging deeper relationships with groups like The Nature Conservancy and WWF and experts in water stewardship, we recognized the opportunity to provide certification, validation or verification that we were working to the highest order of excellence when it came to water stewardship. We adopted a commitment to this standard. Earlier last year we publicly released a commitment to certify our West Coast facilities. We recently completed a first audit of our facility in Ontario, California.

Were there challenges in developing the standard and implementing the standard?

There were various interests, public and private, all trying to work using the ISO system. Everybody was able to agree on the need. That was probably the easiest part. The toughest was negotiating to figure out the key elements that everybody could agree upon. Some criteria have greater implications for one sector and may be different for another. The biggest challenge with implementation was that nobody has done this before. We’re the first in North America.

What insights have you gained from this process?

We looked at other standards, what they had done, and the lessons they learned. For example, Forest Stewardship Council certification. We saw the strength. You pick up a piece of lumber stamped FSC-certified and there’s great value because people know that’s coming from a certified forest, a certified mill, a certified transportation system. We don’t have that for an AWS-certified facility. There needs to be an agreement around how to increase the demand and the participation in the market.

What is the long-term vision?

We think that AWS, if adopted by enough facilities and water users, will help secure water sources. That means ensuring the sustainability, the equitable access, and sharing of those sources.

The standard doesn’t speak specifically to measurements that each facility must have, but it does require that you are aware. For example, making sure the watershed is not being over drafted. There might be 40 other users in that watershed. You might be operating sustainably, but other users might not. So how can you work within that watershed to ensure that it reaches a state of sustainability? That’s impactful.

How do you define a sustainable state for the watershed?

You want to ensure that the basin or the catchment — the area on which the precipitation falls, the snow melts — is protected, and that you have more recharge going in than withdrawals coming out. Water itself is a renewable resource. As long as you protect the catchment area, water should always flow.

Isn’t water limited, though?

Water is limited. The amount of water that we have on the Earth today is the same that we have had for millions of years. We cannot create water, but the good news is that we cannot destroy it. Can it be polluted? Yes. Has it been? In many cases. However, as long as we protect the water systems, the water systems will filter our water, will recharge, and will continue to feed the systems that need it.

The challenge: Is there enough water to service everything — all the people, the industries, the environmental demands? If we manage the system appropriately, the answer is yes.

Whatever change happens, as long as it is equitable across the board so that it applies to all industries and all people, I think we’ll see a shift in how people use and regard water. We’re going to see a new sense of value for water that has never been there before.

Nelson Switzer will be speaking at the Environmental Leader Conference in Denver June 5-7, 2017. His track, Quenching Water Risk Using the New Alliance for Water Stewardship Standard, starts at 11:05 am on June 6.

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