When we work with companies to integrate sustainability into their operations, we usually provide actionable advice that corporate managers can put into practice the very next day. Yet, in some ways, focusing on the tactics means losing sight of the “lived experience” of the individuals who are trying to envision and advocate for a new way of doing business. Indeed, achieving sustainability is a cultural transformation that reshapes the way corporate managers think about their daily responsibilities.

It is with that idea in mind that we began our second phase of work with Nestlé Waters North America (NWNA), the largest U.S. producer of bottled spring water, which enlisted BSR in September 2009 to help develop an updated siting and community-engagement framework for today’s business context. The eight-month project involves analysis of NWNA’s existing practices and the design of a framework for engaging communities at current and future spring water sites.

In an earlier edition of the BSR Insight, we shared our findings from the first phase of the project. The second phase—which we kicked off in January—involved a two-day “design charrette” aimed at developing a framework for NWNA’s interactions with communities during siting that reflects best business practices while aligning the community’s wants and needs with NWNA’s business objectives.

Building Capacity to Gather Community Insights

For the charrette—which brought together NWNA staff and external stakeholders with expertise in community engagement, watershed management and conservation, and economic development—we organized participants into small teams to tackle specific questions related to NWNA’s engagement strategy for spring water sites. We then gathered as a group to challenge each other’s ideas.

Small-group teams addressed the following challenges:

  • Community assessment: identifying key community stakeholders and understanding their values and concerns
  • Timing: determining when to do outreach and engagement to balance transparency with inherent uncertainty during the process of site selection and development
  • Communication: building relationships with stakeholders that facilitate open communication about information of interest to them
  • Internal capabilities: articulating the skills and experience needed internally for community relations and how this might be developed or obtained

Throughout the day, the external stakeholders provided powerful insight into NWNA’s challenges. During the conversation on community assessment, one stakeholder pointed out that NWNA needs to change its site-selection focus from an emphasis on the water resource to an emphasis on the community. “This requires a fundamental shift in how you staff this process,” he said. “It means there’s a broad role that’s missing in the organization right now.”

Another participant noted that while the company engaged public officials and local leaders early in the process, it is now reaching out more broadly, which means NWNA has less control over how communities will react to its presence. “Before you do a lot of things, the community is being brought in and beginning to change the way you do things,” he said. “It requires a leap of faith to believe that this will be better.”

At the start of the second day, we invited reflections from participants. Their comments indicated a profound shift that had taken place in the thinking of the NWNA staff:

“Suddenly, I realize I’ve got this room in my house that’s been empty the whole time I’ve lived here.”

“Communication isn’t just about publishing better information sooner. It’s about involvement. How do we get the community involved at some level much earlier in the process?”

“The siting of a plant is not just an environmental issue, it’s a sustainability issue. The social aspect hasn’t been the company’s focus, but it should be right in the middle.”

Applying the Framework

Going forward, NWNA plans to refine the ideas developed during the two-day charrette and then pilot the framework at existing sites. The company will be able to use these tools to build trusting relationships with communities as a foundation for addressing on-the-ground issues such as the conservation of water resources or economic opportunities.

In the end, our work with NWNA underscores the fact that transforming “business as usual” into a more sustainable model is both a question of changing practices and changing mindsets. NWNA’s new understanding of community engagement around its siting process will be a critical complement to the new tools, processes, and resources we defined at the design charrette and will be developing over the coming months.