Exit Interview: Kim Jeffery, Nestle Water

Exit Interview is an occasional series profiling sustainability professionals who have recently left their job.

Joel Makower: You were president and CEO of Nestlé Waters North America until last month. What did you oversee?

Kim Jeffery: In 1992, Nestlé did a hostile takeover of the European water interest of the Perrier Group, and they got us along with it. I had been one of the early employees of this company starting in 1978. When I joined the company, there were about 30 people and we had $20 million in revenue. We ended up becoming 50 percent of Nestlé’s global water business. Last year, we were $4.7 billion in revenue.

Makower: You spend a lot of your time — more so than most other CEOs — talking and thinking about sustainability. How much of your job did that become?

Jeffery: It became a large part, Joel. Since we made our first acquisition in 1980, which was Poland Spring, we inherited 485 acres of watershed land and a beaten-down 50,000-square-foot plant. The idea was that we were going to be in the domestic spring-water business. In order to do that and stay in business, we had to maintain the pristine nature of the resources that we were purchasing.

So it was natural to me, but it really didn’t become a large issue until around 2006, when Corporate Accountability International started ganging up on us for environmental waste and the fact that people don’t need bottle water; they could have tap water.

We’d been doing lots of really good stuff all along the way. We built the first LEED-certified food or beverage plant in America in 2002. We started lightweighting our packaging 15 years ago, but we weren’t telling anybody about it. I had always operated under the idea that I wanted to just do good stuff and stay quiet; let the good works speak for themselves.

But that’s the one thing I missed: the expectations of our society were evolving so rapidly, that if you don’t talk about this stuff, nobody knows you're doing it.

Makower: When you did talk about it, did you find that the public receptive?

Jeffery: At first, no. As I said, we had done a lot of good work. But when people accused us of being an environmental villain, I had to scratch my head and say, “You know what? I don't know whether I am or not. I haven’t measured my carbon footprint. I don't know what my impacts are in terms of quantifying them empirically.”

So I didn’t have good answers for awhile. I had never done a life-cycle analysis of bottled water against other beverage products. I didn’t know how much carbon we were emitting in the air every day. I didn’t know how much oil we consumed every year.

I set about to learn so that I could respond to these people. I honestly wasn’t prepared for it, and so I had to go out and get smart on this stuff. And the smarter I got and the more I learned, the more I dove into some of the issues that we have.

I mean, our carbon footprint is de minimis. It’s about 2 million metric tons of CO2 a year, and we’re at the 7.5 billion mark of CO2 emissions as a country. We use about a million barrels of oil a year for all of the plastic bottles we make. That’s 1/100th of 1 percent of total oil consumption.

Our major lightweighting push started in 2005. By the time people started attacking us, we had this bottle that was 30 percent lighter than the last bottle we had used. We pioneered lightweighting packaging for the entire beverage industry. Everybody is doing it now.

All these things combined so that when I had my act together, we really started to get traction.

Next page: Do facts really matter?