»If you want to earn money with water, you have to fulfill certain requirements so that you have social permission to do your work«
Achim Drewes, Nestlé
Reliable planning and definite rules—are these concepts important for your international activities as well, Mr. Adrion?
Adrion: We operate very much at the level of civil society, and we have comparatively little contact with governments or with local public institutions. The systemic problem that I see with regard to global regulations is that industries, including transnational food companies, exert their influence on these regulations through processes that are not transparent and that serve the interests of the industrialized nations. There is a danger that companies will always be a step ahead of governments and that they will exploit the existing gaps for their own benefit and to the detriment of the local population. This danger is especially great in Africa, where in many cases the competition laws and the local administrations are less developed than they are in Europe.
Drewes: I would like to differentiate that a bit. Civil society has very high expectations about the extent to which companies can help to solve global problems. I think that companies such as Nestlé definitely have the means at their disposal to make global challenges smaller and that it is our duty to make a visible and transparent contribution to the way specific issues are addressed. Moreover, when we develop a new plant site we adhere to high environmental standards.
Adrion: By that you mean Nestlé’s own standards…
Drewes: Yes. We regard them as minimum standards that are just as binding as legal requirements. More specifically, this means that we don’t release untreated water into the environment, for example. We build our own sewage treatment facilities, if necessary. Doing so can also have a positive impact on the surrounding region.
How do you assess such measures, Mr. Adrion? What do you think should be done?
Adrion: The creation of a sustainable world is the most important task that future generations will have to accomplish. And there’s still a great deal to be done. We are living beyond our means when it comes to the consumption of our resources, and that especially applies to water. If things continue the way they are going now, we won’t be able to avoid disaster for very long. Today we would already need the natural resources of four planets in order to meet our current demands. Do people really believe that increased growth is still the answer?
Drewes: We agree on one point. We are in a situation where consumption and agricultural production patterns are not sustainable. Although the Sustainable Development Goals are by no means perfect, they provide us with a framework that actually should help to get industry, civil society, and, last but not least, governments— which continue to have the most responsibility for development policies—to commit themselves to shared goals.
Adrion: I’m astonished to see the way you are now transferring the responsibility to governments. It would be wonderful if a company like Nestlé were to focus on these shared goals simply on its own initiative. In the final analysis, are you saying that you’re merely selling whatever customers want?
Drewes: No. Governments are clearly responsible for setting the goals of development policies, but everyone else, including industry, has to contribute to the achievement of these goals. The Sustainable Development Goals provide us with a shared set of objectives that is also widely accepted by the business community— which you are demonizing here. And this is an opportunity to achieve something together.
Adrion: I’m not demonizing the business community. I don’t want to make sweeping statements, but I do want to ask some questions. How did we get ourselves into this situation? And what do we have to do in order to improve this process in some way? How can we structure our economy in such a way that it becomes “fit for our grandchildren,” as Richard David Precht has put it? In this regard, I have my doubts whether global companies, which are ultimately controlled by anonymous shareholders, are sufficiently able to fully take the consequences of their actions into account. At the end of the day, they give their highest priority to their annual business results.
Mr. Drewes, in 2010 the United Nations recognized that water is a human right. The number of people who have access to clean water has increased significantly since then. Would you call that a success?
Drewes: Yes, even though it’s probably more the result of development processes than of the formal recognition that water is a human right. But it was a logical step to give the human right to water a special status, because it increases public awareness of this issue. However, this measure does not impose any specific obligations on the various players. We are trying to break down these obligations into specifics for our own activities. We do this by implementing community- based programs near our facilities or by having plants that are located in regions suffering from water stress certified according to the new standard of the Alliance for Water Stewardship.
Adrion: On the one hand, it’s a fact that the number of people who do not have access to clean water has been cut in half over the past ten or 15 years. But on the other hand, nobody knows how the overall climatic conditions will develop and what consequences these developments will have. Climate change is already having massive effects on the availability of water all over the world. We are already reaching the limits of our planet’s total carrying capacity, especially with regard to the water that is being used by agriculture and industry. “Virtual water”—in other words, the water that is consumed in the process of manufacturing products—plays an important role in this respect. We are currently not managing to use water sustainably within the overall framework of our consumption. In the future, this can definitely cause the number of people who have access to clean drinking water to decline once again, and it can also have many other negative consequences.
Mr. Drewes, does the Nestlé company, which is often subject to criticism as the main representative of its industry, believe that it has a special responsibility in this regard?
Drewes: Because Nestlé is the world’s largest food manufacturer, it’s always automatically the first target. As a result, we have to be able to deal with criticism. We have to find the right answers and make corrections whenever we do something that hasn’t turned out too well. In addition, we have to engage in a dialogue and partnership with civil society whenever there are difficulties. We’ve become pretty good at that by now.
Adrion: This is a step in the right direction, but it can only be a start. Major course corrections will be needed in order to create a sustainable world, and I fear that the pace of this change is not fast enough. For major companies, the primary concerns are ultimately to safeguard their supply chains, make profits, and generate further growth. And they can’t do that without gigantic amounts of resources. The responsibility for changing the situation is borne to a very large extent by the companies. We can only succeed if we work together with you. I’m optimistic that more and more companies will move into the forefront of this development. A major reason for that will be the pressure from us, the consumers. Another important reason will be the healthy common sense of the executives of the major corporations.
Hosts: Christof Endruweit und Marcus Müntefering