I recently sat down with Nelson Switzer, chief sustainability officer at Nestlé Waters North America, to discuss how his company measures impact, and why businesses need to advocate being responsibly minded

Nelson Switzer is chief sustainability officer for Nestlé Waters North America, whose role is to further the company’s commitment to creating shared value by focusing on water stewardship, responsible packaging, community investment and engagement, collective action,  and business decision-making. Switzer spends a lot of his time working with Nestlé’s executive and leadership teams, which seek to understand the environmental, social and community impacts of its activities in order for them to be addressed.

The role is not just about risk management, but also leveraging and helping build credibility with its stakeholders in the market.

Liam: You are involved in our Responsible Business Summit New York where there is a strong emphasis on companies defining their purpose. What does purpose mean to Nestlé Waters North America?

Nelson: Purpose is that intersection between what you are good at, what you like to do, what you can do, what you have an opportunity to do and ultimately why you do what you do. We are committed to water as healthy hydration. We are committed to giving people easy access to water where and when they need it, on-the-go. And, we are committed to the importance of water stewardship and sustainable water resource management for the long-term. When we think about purpose, we think about why we do what we do.

Liam: Something that’s coming up a lot in our conversations is companies measuring the social impact of their efforts. How have you had success in the healthy hydration work and access to water programme in terms of social measurement?

Nelson: We are really at the beginning of our journey.What we are working on is the ability to measure the social value we are creating, which we can then use to inform decision-making. We ask, for example, how we are enhancing the livelihood of a community.  You operate in a community, and you build a plant. And now you have hired 200 new people who live in that community, and all of these people who are employed with income, who are paying tax, feel a different sense of empowerment. The enhanced ability of a community to make investments, whether it’s in education or capital, or purchasing local products, shows the big opportunity in terms of the social value we can create. We are now developing methodologies for measuring that benefit.  

Liam: Something I’ve picked up on in recent years is Nestlé Waters North America has been rather vocal about clearer rules around water resource management and recycling issues, amongst others. Why this proactive approach?

Nelson: We take our role seriously as those who are fortunate enough to be stewards of a shared natural resource. We have a very clear commitment that we are not interested in working in a watershed in which the system is not sustainable. The challenge is that a lot of people really don’t understand what it means to have a water system, or aquifer, or watershed, or the challenges surrounding it. One of the reasons we are vocal is we want to make sure people can ask questions. People need to be knowledgeable to feel inspired enough to do something.

Liam: I recall reading about the EPR push you drove in recent years. From my understanding, it was tied to some goals you set up to increase recycling PET which is obviously very topical. You set the goal to increase from 30% to 60%. Can you tell us more about how you achieved this and some of the steps along the way?

Nelson: Obviously, the bottle is a challenge in terms of recovery.We want to make sure that this very valuable commodity comes back in the system so it can be recovered, recycled and reused. The challenge has been that recovery in the US is one of the lowest rates anywhere. It has been sitting at about 30%, so the CEO around 2008 said: “What change could we possibly make and how could we make it?”  His vision that EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) could potentially be a very powerful tool that government could use to encourage gross recovery of this material in the market, made it come together for us. It was the desire to increase rate of recovery that led to the EPR push. It’s something that every government should consider. I think it was a little ahead of its time.

Liam: What do you see as the greatest challenge for Nestlé Waters North America and what obstacles are you having to overcome?

Nelson: I think the great challenge is hyperbole, confusion, and accountability. We live in an era now where information travels at the speed of light. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell what is real and what is not real. And because messages can travel so quickly, and because they can be amplified so spectacularly, it’s difficult to rise above that din to really get your message out like that. That’s probably one of the biggest challenges that corporations face today: how do you rise above the din? How do you demonstrate to people that your message is credible?

Liam: In terms of looking five years ahead, what would you say would be the biggest opportunity for Nestlé Waters?

Nelson: I think the biggest opportunity for Nestlé Waters is partnership. It’s not working in isolation, not working alone. Instead, we aim to work in partnerships to manage spring water sources and the natural resources we use for long-term sustainability. 

Nestle Waters  plastics  water management  EPR 

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