Why couldn’t we contain Nestlé?

I have a very specific and intense hate-on for Nestlé, because even among terrible corporations, they’re especially terrible. They’re probably most famous for their repeated misdeeds with infant formula — essentially getting women in the Global South hooked on expensive formula via enticing free samples and misleading information — but they do a whole lot more than that. Nestlé is involved in unionbusting, worker abuses, child slavery, and, of course, resource exploitation. This really became a prominent issue this year as Nestlé execs defended the uncontrolled pumping of California’s water for the purpose of bottling, sale, and, of course, huge profits.

The bottled water industry is immense and Nestlé controls a huge stake in it. The multinational firm continues to benefit from the fact that people persist in buying bottled water despite knowing that it’s environmentally harmful and that it’s often taken from environmentally compromised regions. Even though carrying your own is more efficient and much better for the Earth, disposable water bottles are everywhere while thermoses and reusable are often nowhere to be seen, even in regions like Berkeley where everyone’s all allegedly love the Mother Earth I love trees nature is cool.

In California, the severe drought is really forcing a conversation about water use that should have happened twenty years ago, when it became obvious that the state’s water patterns were radically changing. In the last decade in particular, the fact that the state was riding for a fall had become painfully obvious. The determined decision to refuse to acknowledge the problem until the last possible minute has harmed the state, perhaps irreparably, especially thanks to the continued focus on individual rather than industrial water use. Agriculture eats up a huge percentage of the state’s water supply, but so does water extraction for direct to consumer sales.

Nestlé, of course, isn’t the only firm active in California. Many companies cleverly work on reservation lands, knowing that as sovereign nations, reservations aren’t required to account for their activities to the state. Many reservations are also extremely poor — thanks, systemic racism and discrimination — and thus they take on lucrative water contracts because of their tremendous financial appeal. When you need money to pay for schools, basic medical services, and the like, you can’t afford to be too fussy about where that money is coming from. Even if administrators know that depleting the water table is a bad idea, their hands are pretty tied.

The issue, of course, is that draining aquifers on Native land doesn’t just affect reservations. It also spreads across the water table, because water ignores boundaries. California’s aquifer is being depleted so quickly that it cannot recharge itself, and much of that water is going straight out to see, where it salinates and becomes useless. That’s not just a problem in terms of water loss, but also one in terms of gradual desalination of the ocean thanks to aquifer depletion worldwide, which has serious ramifications for the planet as a whole.

The State of California knows that allowing companies to bottle and sell water is a terrible idea, and that companies like Nestlé don’t even disclose how much water they’re taking, which makes the problem even worse. Yet, even as the issue became more and more prominent in the news, even as the governor reluctantly pushed water restrictions through, companies continued to be allowed to extract water.

On a purely legal basis, if a company is operating on reservation land, the state cannot interfere. Tribal autonomy is a key component of the reservation system — while indigenous Americans were forced to relocate to reservations in order to satisfy the terms of hungry Westward expansion, once on them, they were offered some degree of self-determination. The problem in cases like this, though, is that practices that affect the state as a whole can persist unchecked — and, of course, Nestlé is and has been active in areas other than reservations.

The company is also very fond of targeting low-income rural communities across the United States, once more with the allure of highly profitable water contracts. It’s hard to turn a company down when it offers a great deal of money for a resource that seems free and endless — at first, it might feel like you got one over on Nestlé. When the company starts exploiting the terms of that contract, though, communities start to realize that they’re the victims, and they have limited resources to turn to if they try to resolve the situation.

The problem of Nestlé isn’t one limited to California. It’s been going on for decades, and governments across the US have stood idly by while exploitative research extraction has occurred in low-income communities. The larger question is here is why none have made any moves, and why no one appears interested in controlling or stopping the company. Obviously, campaign contributions play a huge role — no intelligent politician wants to rock the boat when it comes to jeopardising campaign funds and support. But additionally, it’s painfully clear that regional governments don’t actually give a fig for low-income communities.

We can’t stop Nestlé because no one wants to, even when it has serious consequences for everyone, not just the communities where the company takes up shop. It’s telling that we care so little for our most vulnerable communities that we’re willing to almost actively hurt ourselves in an effort to avoid dealing with companies that are exploiting them.

Image: Nestlé Toll House, Aftab Uzzaman, Flickr