A battle is brewing in Vittel over Nestlé. The groundwater is running low in the French spa town and the multinational conglomerate is fighting for its rights to the commodity -- and for its reputation.
Monsieur Guy de la Motte-Bouloumié is sitting in his villa, located on a hill with a sweeping view. He has polite things to say about Swiss multinational Nestlé, which acquired his family inheritance, the Société générale des Eaux minerales de Vittel, almost 30 years ago. The bottled water, sold around the world under the Vittel brand, has been in the company's hands ever since, along with all the challenges that come along with the marketing of it.
In the times back when the Bouloumiés were in charge, locals weren't writing things like, "Stop, stop the drilling!" on hay bales on the road. They didn't wear yellow vests to protest the elites, and they didn't have the internet for putting together detailed protest pages. The times have indeed changed. People are feeling more anxious these days, and Vittel is starting to feel it too.
Monsieur de la Motte-Bouloumié is a relaxed man of 97 has coffee served on a silver tray. He was the first person to sell mineral water in plastic bottles - he essentially invented the bottled water industry.
Some things were simpler back when Monsieur de la Motte-Bouloumié was the patron of the Société des Eaux. People had the choice of accepting his decisions or not accepting them. In any case, capitalism had a face, and in Vittel, it was his.
Today's capitalism has a different, more abstract, form. Nestlé doesn't seem to be the kind of company to have face. But perhaps it does.
There is, after all, Monsieur Klotz, Christophe Klotz. "He does a very good job," says de la Motte-Bouloumié. His wife adds: "That's true. He does it his own way."
'I Am Nestlé'
A man in heavy boots stomps around a frozen meadow in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains, with a view of the pastures and hedges of wild plants. "I am Nestlé," he says without hesitation.
Christophe Klotz isn't a big man, but he is broad-shouldered, and his heavy boots suit him well. He would rather talk about the kinds of things people in heavy boots like to talk about, but he's mostly been discussing other things lately - stuff like the economy and ecology, and democracy and geology.
It's January. It has been almost a year since the outcry in Vittel first made its appearance in the headlines. French national daily Le Monde wrote how, "Residents want to keep their water." And the regional daily Ouest France described a "Battle over water between locals and Nestlé." Not exactly positive headlines.
Vittel is a town in eastern France with hot springs and 5,000 inhabitants. The town has become a microcosm for a global conflict over the ownership of water. The water table from which Vittel's inhabitants obtain their own drinking water is sinking dramatically. In 2017, 830,000 cubic meters (219 million gallons) disappeared. Nestlé was responsible for extracting 740,000 cubic meters of that water, which is sold in Europe, including Germany.
Nestlé is the world's largest food and beverage corporation, and water is a big business, one that spurs protests around the globe. Critics claim that Nestlé profits from the fact that some people are no longer able to access clean drinking water from their taps. Some argue the company may even be causing that shortage, only to turn around and sell its own brand of water to people in a plastic bottle.
The documentary film "Bottled Life," which came out seven years ago, portrayed Nestlé as a company that steals water in countries including Nigeria and Pakistan. Nestlé rejects these types of accusations on its home page, but its reputation hasn't improved. Calls for Nestlé boycotts, which have been making the rounds for years, can now also be heard for Vittel.
A lot of the questions about the company's practices are directed at Christoph Klotz these days. Klotz isn't a spokesman. He's an agronomist and biologist, and the head of Agrivair, a Nestlé subsidiary specializing in water and source protection. He views the nexus of Nestlé, nature, agriculture and tourism as a kind of "ecosystem" - "if you remove something from it, it all comes apart." If Nestlé were to leave Vittel, he warns that it could have "potentially dramatic consequences." Klotz says this "isn't blackmail, but simply the way things are."
"We recognize the situation," he adds. "We aren't hiding anything. Everything is on the table, everything is transparent."
Shrinking Groundwater Reserves
Geologically speaking, the situation is this: About 200 meters (around 656 feet) beneath the ground, sandstone layers that are millions of years old channel the groundwater that people are now fighting over. That water is exported to Germany by Nestlé under the brand name Vittel.
The drinking water supplied to residents of Vittel comes from the same layers, but these groundwater reserves are shrinking. The water table has been going down for decades, by up to 36 centimeters annually, and politically speaking, something has to be done about that....MUCH MORE