Did Nestlé Use the Shutdown for Good PR?

The impacts of the government shutdown on the nation’s national parks have been widely reported: overflowing bathrooms, decimated habitat, and widespread litter resulted in parks that remained 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 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

Credit: NPCA Photos (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Credit: NPCA Photos (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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 around the world last year.3

Parks report that plastic bottles make up to a fifth of their entire waste stream. The bottled water industry has been trying to stop national parks from going bottled water free for nearly a decade.4 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. And, in 2017, the Trump administration finally did—just weeks after Trump’s Deputy Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt, who has ties to Nestlé, was confirmed.5

Top global plastic polluters. Credit: #breakfreefromplastic

Top global plastic polluters. Credit: #breakfreefromplastic

To make matters worse, Nestlé has single-handedly depleted water supplies around the country to profit from selling bottled water, causing damage to environmental ecosystems—including national forest land in Southern California.6 We’ve been working to stop Nestlé’s dewatering of the San Bernardino National Forest for four years, where it bottles water that it pays nothing for from public land. 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.

Credit: Charles Edward Miller (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Credit: Charles Edward Miller (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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 is trying to present itself as the solution to the very problem that it profits from. Herein lies the danger of corporate-driven solutions: they never address the broken systems that they claim to fix because corporations are invested 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. Most disturbingly, around 800,000 federal employees missed a second paycheck and turned to food banks, despite expectations that they continued to work.7 Small businesses couldn’t get loans, private companies didn’t go public, federal courts were running out of money,8 and economic losses reached at least 6 billion dollars.9 Needless to say, these are just a few reasons why a functional government matters.

Credit: AFGE (CC BY 2.0)

Credit: AFGE (CC BY 2.0)

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 profits. 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.10

Corporations leap at the opportunity to perform services for positive PR, inspiring positive brand affiliation, or to participate in a public-private partnership. These allow corporations to build relationships with public institutions that pay them for contractual work or eventually sell their public services to the most well-connected private entity, or highest bidder, when debts become too high to reconcile. When the government shuts down, it creates opportunities for corporations to step in. And once they’re in, good luck getting them back out.

However, ordinary folks have also been stepping up to volunteer their time to keep things running.11 These selfless acts should be celebrated and demonstrate what’s great in America: 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.

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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. “Parks Chief Blocked Plan for Grand Canyon Bottle Ban
5. “National parks put a ban on bottled water to ease pollution. Trump just sided with the lobby that fought it.
6. “U.S. Forest Service offers Nestlé three-year water permit for the San Bernardino National Forest
7. “The financial shock for 800,000 federal workers is about to get much worse as the shutdown drags on
8. “The shutdown’s effect on the US economy, explained
9. “US economy lost at least $6 billion during shutdown, S&P says
10. “The Stealthy Corporate Scheme to Privatize Pittsburgh’s Water System
11. “Here are all the ways volunteers, families and ordinary citizens are helping maintain national parks during the shutdown

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