Did Nestlé Use the Shutdown for Good PR?
Overflowing bathrooms, decimated habitat, and widespread litter: the impacts of the government shutdown on our nation’s national parks grow each day that they remain open without staff oversight and management.1 In response, individuals, organizations, and corporations have volunteered to help out with the clean-up. One of these volunteers is Nestlé Waters North America, which released this statement last week:
“At Nestlé Waters North America, we believe that even one bottle or can that is not recycled properly is one too many. When we heard about the need in our national parks, we wanted to help.”2
Nestlé then provided financial donations and employee volunteers to assist in cleaning up parks impacted by the government shutdown. What Nestlé’s press statement doesn’t address is that this company’s commitment to creating single-use products like bottled water makes it one of the largest contributors to the problem. In fact, clean-up audits organized by #breakfreefromplastic found that Nestlé’s packaging was among the most frequently littered brands in nearly 200,000 pieces of plastic gathered and itemized around the world last year.3 Even as Nestlé advertises altruism, it belies the fact that it greatly contributes the global production of 20,000 plastic bottles every second.4
Parks report that plastic bottles create up to one-fifth of their entire waste stream. Even so, the bottled water industry has been trying to stop national parks from going bottled-water-free for nearly a decade.5 In fact, a Nestlé-backed lobby group, the International Bottled Water Association, spent years lobbying Congress and the Department of Interior to rescind the National Park Service’s bottled-water-free policy. In 2017, the Trump administration finally did—just weeks after the confirmation of Trump’s Deputy Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, who has ties to Nestlé.6
Nestlé’s marketing scheme is clever but transparent. It continues to obstruct policies and laws that would eliminate plastic waste and protect public, natural spaces. Nestlé attempts to present itself as the solution to the very problem from which it collects massive profits.
Nestlé has single-handedly depleted water supplies and damaged ecosystems around the country, including on national forest land in California, to profit from selling bottled water.7 This demonstrates the danger of corporate-driven solutions: they never address the broken systems that they claim to fix because corporations invest heavily in safeguarding what benefits their own economic interests—the broken systems themselves.
The feud between President Trump and Congress created a 35-day government shutdown—the longest in U.S. history—and reports continue to surface detailing the wide-reaching effects of a government in crisis. These go beyond overflowing trash bins in our national parks. Around 800,000 federal employees missed a second paycheck and turned to food banks, despite expectations that they continued to work.8 Small businesses couldn’t get loans, private companies didn’t go public, federal courts were running out of money,9 and economic losses reached at least 6 billion dollars.10 Needless to say, these are just a few (more) reasons why a functional government matters.
Functional government also matters because, in its absence, already minimal checks on corporate power become nonexistent. Moreover, broken and dysfunctional government systems open the door to corporations like Nestlé whose interests inherently intertwine with an ulterior motive: increasing their own power and wealth. They offer false solutions to profit from problems much larger than overflowing trash bins in national parks, like taking over crumbling water infrastructure systems in major cities like Pittsburgh.11
Corporations leap at the opportunity to perform services that inspire positive brand affiliation, or to participate in public-private partnerships. These partnerships allow corporations to build relationships with public institutions that pay them for contractual work. This can lead those institutions to eventually sell their public services to the most well-connected, highest bidding private entity when debts become too large to reconcile. When the government shuts down, it creates opportunities for corporations to step in. And once they’re in, removing them becomes infinitely more challenging.
We at Story of Stuff have been working to stop Nestlé from dewatering the San Bernardino National Forest where it siphons free water from public land for bottling. It has embedded itself on this land and taken water for over a century. Last year, we forced Nestlé to renew its 30-year expired permit to operate legally within the forest, but we continue to fight for greater environmental protections and to end this egregious use of public water.
Ordinary folks have been stepping up to volunteer their time to keep parks clean and other public services running over the past few weeks.12 These selfless acts should be celebrated because they demonstrate true altruism: people coming together for the common good, working to help others and build community. When services are performed for the public good and not for profit, whether by volunteers during emergencies, or (ideally) by functional, democratic governments, real solutions that tackle some of our greatest problems truly begin to take root. Watch our animation The Story of Solutions to learn more about real solutions and how to change systems so that they work better for us, and not corporations like Nestlé.
1. “National Parks Getting Trashed, Vandalized During Government Shutdown”
2. “Keep America Beautiful and Nestlé Waters North America Partner to Clean Up National Parks During Government Shutdown”
3. “Coca-Cola and Nestle among worst plastic polluters based on global clean-ups”
4. “A million bottles a minute: world’s plastic binge ‘as dangerous as climate change’
5. “Parks Chief Blocked Plan for Grand Canyon Bottle Ban”
6. “National parks put a ban on bottled water to ease pollution. Trump just sided with the lobby that fought it.”
7. “U.S. Forest Service offers Nestlé three-year water permit for the San Bernardino National Forest”
8. “The financial shock for 800,000 federal workers is about to get much worse as the shutdown drags on”
9. “The shutdown’s effect on the US economy, explained”
10. “US economy lost at least $6 billion during shutdown, S&P says”
11. “The Stealthy Corporate Scheme to Privatize Pittsburgh’s Water System”
12. “Here are all the ways volunteers, families and ordinary citizens are helping maintain national parks during the shutdown“