Update: SAGE has published a response to this letter here.
Kim Jeffery, CEO of Nestlé Waters North America, sat comfortably on-stage. He had come to Burke Auditorium to discuss extended producer responsibility initiatives underway at his company.
During his talk Mr. Jeffery mentioned that Nestlé Waters is pushing for a national recycling rate for PET bottles of 60 percent by 2018. He praised such ambition.
Summarized below are two of the more memorable audience questions from that April 2 discussion:
- I have seen you speak before, Mr. Jeffery. I appreciate your transparency. It’s always a pleasure.
- It has come to my attention that medical groups are now viewing sugar as one of the most dangerous drugs in America. Why doesn’t Nestlé Waters use this fact more explicitly and effectively in its advertising?
The first question quite obviously is not a question. One of FES’s own tenured and named full professors posed the second question, opening ample space for Mr. Jeffery to continue praising what seemed the irreproachable conduct of the company that he leads.
The full hour passed in quiet deference. Nestlé co-sponsors the lecture series.
The FES mission is broad and pliant. It describes the need to “collaborate with all sectors.” There is no doubt that the private sector will be a central – perhaps the central – chrysalis in which evolution toward a more sustainable and just world takes place. But these changes won’t occur without prodding.
Nestlé has much to answer for, including whether streamlining the behemoth bottled water enterprise can ever constitute a genuine approach to sustainability; or how the company plans to deal with the steady and vehement social backlash in the small towns where plants are sited.
The company’s wealth and power both invite and justify a higher degree of scrutiny.
Our community must be open-minded but not credulous, respectful but not agreeable. I rarely see this distinction manifested in public forums, and for this failure I implicate alumni (myself included), current students, faculty and administration.
Disagreement often serves as crucible to progress. We should encourage more public disagreement.
I also believe that faculty, hired for their superior curiosity and insight, carry the greatest responsibility as agitators. This is their job. It is one reason why they have tenure. The administration should be overtly and actively supportive of this critical process.
This letter is not intended to pillory particular individuals or groups, but to raise an issue that I believe merits greater attention.
Martin Luther King Jr. differentiated “a negative peace which is the absence of tension [from] a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” To borrow from Dr. King, Nestlé epitomizes negative environmentalism, and Mr. Jeffery’s willingness to sit in Burke Auditorium and discuss the environment does not make Nestlé Waters an environmental ally, or even an agreeable company.
A failure to cultivate positive environmentalism, even if this entails tension and discomfort, is a failure of individual and institutional leadership.