Lessons From The Greenwash Police

A few weeks ago I wrote about how the greenwash continues at Nestle Waters as their CEO Kim Jeffery Whines But Still Doesn’t Walk The Walk in a recent Businessweek article. Their Director of Corporate Communications “respectfully disagrees” with the charges.

I would have written about it sooner, but I just noticed this response from Jane Lazgin, Director, Corporate Communications, Nestlé Waters North America:

We’re pleased you agree we should be talking about our Eco-Shape bottles. Like you, we think reducing the plastic content in our bottles is an important step toward a lighter environmental footprint. The Eco-Shape half-liter bottle uses 30% less plastic than the average juice, soda, or other brand of bottled water containers. And, when more than 70 percent of what we drink comes in a bottle or can, why not choose the lightest beverage package?

By making our bottles lighter, we conserve resources and emit less carbon. Because of Eco-Shape, we avoided using 65 million pounds of plastic and reduced our PET greenhouse gas emissions by 8% this year alone. We continue to go even lower, and plan to find ways to use recycled plastic or renewable resources to make our bottles.

However, I respectfully disagree that the bottled water business is “inherently polluting and unsustainable.” We have an impact on the environment, like any consumer product company, and we’re working hard to reduce that impact through LEED-certified plants, efficient water use, source protection and packaging innovations (as Kim pointed out in his BusinessWeek interview). It’s because of steps like these that we believe we have the lightest environmental footprint of any packaged beverage company in the U.S.

Too many bottles end up in landfills – there’s no doubt about that. But we think the issue has less to do with the bottle, and more with the lack of recycling options. While water bottles account for less than 1% of the waste stream in the U.S., we believe that recycling options are woefully inadequate in our country. We are campaigning aggressively for stronger municipal recycling laws to make it easier for customers to turn our bottles in so they can be made into carpeting or fleece jackets, or even recycle bins.

We know we – our company and our industry – have more to do. Please take a look at our 2008 Corporate Citizenship report – our first – for more information on our future goals and past accomplishments. For us, as for any company, environmental improvement is a journey, not a destination.

Thank you,
Jane Lazgin
Director, Corporate Communications
Nestlé Waters North America

I’d like to respond.

Dear Jane,

Thanks for the response, but….water is just like any consumer product? In this country clean, drinkable water is free. And, in a world where it has become increasing clear that we need to promote production and not just consumption, what is it exactly that you are producing?  In most cases bottled water companies are simply processing (at great environmental costs, I might add) and then reselling municipal water that rightfully belongs to everyone. So, what exactly is the consumer benefit bottled water offers? Convenience. Yes. Status. Maybe. But, the reality is that bottled water has significant environmental costs all in the name of convenience and status. That seems like a paltry trade off.

I’d like to believe that companies know how to talk about their eco-improvements. The key is positioning. You should resist the temptation to position improved packaging as being good for the environment.  Less harmful does not equal good. So, if you still don’t understand why consumers are upset with you, its because, as mentioned, your ads tout bottled water as a source of environmental reduction and we all know it’s simply not true. And, your ads misrepresent an environmental achievement in order to divert attention away from environmental problems of bottled water. We all know that there is nothing about bottled water, other than eliminating the product category, that will sufficiently reduce the impact on the environment. Consumers will continue to resist this type of advertising because it diminishes the value of legitimate corporate environmental successes. If you care about the environment, that’s simply uncool.

Respectfully yours,

My advice to business owners remains: Businesses and marketing folks need to be honest about what they are selling. When you make an eco-advancement you should shout about it. But you should not use it to misrepresent, mislead or divert. Consumers will resist and then it will up to your Director of Corporate Communications to spend her time posting apologies on blogs across the globe.

What do you think?  Greenwash or not?


Photo: annoyingdesign.org

About the Author

Jennifer Kaplan writes regularly about sustainable food and wine, the intersection of food and marketing and food politics for EatDrinkBetter.com and is the author of Greening Your Small Business (November 2009, Penguin Group (USA)). She was been named one of The 16 Women You Must Follow on Twitter for Green Business. She has four kids, a dog, a hamster and an MBA - find her on .
  • Bravo! Of course it is greenwashing. Shameful and obvious greenwashing at that. But the companies aren’t likely to change their spots any time soon. There is too much money in it. The best way to solve the problem is to get consumers to stop buying it.

    As far as I’m concerned, PR and marketing people like the one you write about bear a large responsibility of the blame for this one. They need to hold themselves accountable. I wrote about this very issue from a PR and marketing perspective here. http://blog.koifishcommunications.com/2008/11/14/the-ethics-of-advocacy.aspx.

    In fact, if you want to send me her e-mail address (privately) I’d love to forward a link to this piece directly to her.

    Keep up the great work.

  • When I saw this bottle I had virtually the same reaction that you do. What turned me off (and actually made me do a spit-take as I was reading it) was the silly “Eco-Shape” name of the new bottle design.

  • I agree with the other comments. No water bottles is best. Reusable water bottles (steel, aluminum, recyclable plastics) are better (yes we sell those :))

    However, let me place my neck in the hangman’s noose and say companies like Nestlé make a heck of a lot of water bottles, and people buy a heck of a lot of water bottles, so if Nestlé and the rest are going to stay in the water business – and again I think it is nuts to pay for water – then making a bottle that uses less plastic is a step in the right direction.

    Think of the good that could be done if Nestlé and the rest stayed on this path and eventually produced a 100% recyclable or some type of zero footprint bottle, not only for water, but soda, teas, medicines, or any of the other tons of packaged liquids sold each year.

    That would be helpful. Everyone needs to be part of the solution, even if the reason they are part is because they are selling water to people silly enough to buy it.

    The question I put to Nestlé is, if this new bottle is step one, what is step two?

  • Thanks for all the great comments. And, John, I really appreciate your moderated views. I guess its silly to think we’re going to make bottled water go away. Nevertheless, I teach marketing to undergraduates and one of the most compelling case studies we use is the history of bottled water. When you realize that the explosion in bottled water sales is a pure marketing feat because companies like Coca Cola, Pepsi and Nestle used marketing to create a “need” for bottled water and that the explosion in bottled water consumption is directly correlated to the invention of inexpensive bottles, then it makes you wonder whether bottled water companies will ever introduce any additional packaging innovations that don’t reduce their costs. Maybe a zero waste bottle is in our future, but I just don’t see the economics of it any time in the near future.

    Check out this video we show students

  • Great call. I had to laugh at Nestle’s attempt to appear green.

    I came across a recent press release, “The Film Nestlé Doesn’t Want You to See”:


  • I tend to see this two fold. One aspect is education, a process in which people gain an understanding of how all their actions affect the planet.

    Second aspect addresses the need for all companies to work on reducing the footprint of all their products. Both of these objectives need to continue in parallel.

    In the end, the smarter consumers will choose the best solutions on the market and both sides succeed by adapting products to meet consumer demand.

  • I am Jane’s colleague from the International Bottled Water Association in Alexandria, VA. Excuse me, Jennifer, did you say drinking water was FREE? No water bills where you live? No infrastructure issues? Must be nice.
    Anyway, it’s the middle of day, and you’re running erands and you’re thirsty. You can buy a coffee or a cola but you want something healthy and refreshing, so you buy a nice cold bottle of water. Zero calories. Major hydration — it wakes you up! Any attempt by anyone to get people to drink less water is not in the public interest. Why are you targeting the packaged beverage with the smallest possible carbon fooprint? And it is clear people drink more water when they drink bottled water! At the end of day, there’s GREENSMOG…where anti-corporate types hide behind “saving the earth” to bash businesses because they hate capitalism.

  • Frankly, Nestle’s greenwashing logic suggests it’s better to produce a plastic bottle and recycle rather than not produce in the first place.

    That’s twisted.

    Another overlooked aspect of Nestle’s impact is its somewhat predatory stance towards small rural towns – the source of most of its “spring” water brands.

    Nestle’s sued the tiny town of Fryeburg, Maine five times to try a force the town to OK a truck loading station in a residential area (you should witness the PR spin on that sad episode).

    In Florida, their lobbyists successfully pressured political appointees to override water district scientists to permit an extraction more than 3x the recommended rate from the drought-stricken spring (running at its lowest flow rate ever recorded), then employed less than half the originally promised jobs to the state.

    In McCloud (CA), they subpoenaed the private, personal financial records of opponents – a clear attempt to intimidate which ultimately failed.

    I could go on and on with unpretty examples, but recognize the company’s not simply greenwashing its environmental footprint, but also its moral one.

    Tom Chandler/StopNestleWaters.org

  • Dianna Harper

    You are fussing about the bottle water industry. Have you ever smelled the tap water or tested it. The shower burns you eyes and you want us to drink it? No way. And for those of you who use filters. What do you do with them when they need to be replaced? Throw them in the trash? The problem seems to be not the industries bottles ending up in the land fills. I agree this is bad. Maybe, you should hipe up recycling instead of downing good water.

  • Pingback: Boxed Water, Anyone? : Sustainablog()

  • Pingback: Greener Bottled Water? Really? : Sustainablog()

  • This is some terribly uncreative marketing. Anybody with half a brain could understand that buying plastic is wasteful. Using your tap water requires 2000 times less energy than it takes to make and recycle a plastic water bottle.

    Corporate Accountability International has a great “Think Outside the Bottle” campaign http://stopcorporateabuse.org/category/sitecategories/water you should all check out and support

  • Pingback: The Red Flags of Greenwashing | Ecopreneurist()

  • Pingback: The Red Flags of Greenwashing - Enviro Rides()

  • Pingback: Are vitamin-fortified Kit Kat bars in our future? – Eat Drink Better()