Nestle SA started bottling in 1843 when company founder Henri Nestlé purchased a business on Switzerland’s Monneresse Canal to provide healthy, accessible, and delicious refreshment to the consumer.
According to Euromonitor International, there are thousands of bottled water companies worldwide—there’s even Trump Ice—but Nestlé is the biggest globally in terms of sales, followed by Coca-Cola, Danone and PepsiCo.
Nestle Waters, the Paris-based subsidiary, owns almost 50 brands, including Perrier, S.Pellegrino, and Poland Spring.
The Romans were among the first to see water as more than a basic need. They ranked theirs by taste; Aqua Marcia, from a spring about 60 miles outside of Rome, was among the best. In the 19th century, some of the first mass-market brands were S.Pellegrino and Vittel, now owned by Nestlé, and Evian, a Danone label.
Last year, U.S. bottled water sales reached $16 billion, up nearly 10% from 2015, according to Beverage Marketing Corp. They outpaced soda sales for the first time as drinkers continue to seek convenience and healthier options and worry about the safety of tap water.
Nestlé alone sold $7.7 billion worth worldwide, with more than $343 million of it coming from Michigan, where the company bottles Ice Mountain Natural Spring Water and Pure Life, its purified water line.
The Michigan operation is only one small part of Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage company. But it illuminates how Nestlé has come to dominate a controversial industry, spring by spring, often going into economically depressed municipalities with the promise of jobs and new infrastructure in exchange for tax breaks and access to a resource that’s scarce for millions.
Where Nestlé encounters grass-roots resistance against its industrial-strength guzzling, it deploys lawyers; where it’s welcome, it can push the limits of that hospitality, sometimes with the acquiescence of state and local governments that are too cash-strapped or inept to say no.
There are the usual costs of doing business, including transportation, infrastructure, and salaries. But Nestlé pays little for the product it bottles—sometimes a municipal rate and other times just a nominal extraction fee. In Michigan, it’s $200.
Compared with the water needs of agriculture and energy production, the bottled water business is barely responsible for a trickle; in Michigan, it accounts for less than 1% of total water usage, according to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)
The United Nations expects that 1.8 billion people will live in places with dire water shortages by 2025, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under stressed water conditions.
Supply may be compromised in the USA, too. A recent Michigan State University study predicts that more than a third of Americans might not be able to afford their water bills in five years, with costs expected to triple as World War II-era construction breaks down.
Nestlé isn’t the only bottled water company operating in Michigan, but it’s the most controversial. Pepsi and Coca-Cola bottle municipal water from Detroit for their Aquafina and Dasani brands, respectively; they pay city rates, then sell the product back for profit.
Nestlé has been preparing for shortages for decades. The company’s former chief executive officer, Helmut Maucher, said in a 1994 interview with the New York Times: “Springs are like petroleum”. You can always build a chocolate factory. But springs you have or you don’t have.
Bloomberg.com / ABC Flash Point Water News 2018.