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Nestlé Makes Billions Bottling Water It Pays Nearly Nothing For

The company’s operation in Michigan reveals how it’s dominated the industry by going into economically depressed areas with lax water laws.
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Illustration: Silja Götz for Bloomberg Businessweek

In rural Mecosta County, Mich., sits a near-windowless facility with a footprint about the size of Buckingham Palace. It’s just one of Nestlé’s roughly 100 bottled water factories in 34 countries around the world.

Inside, workers wear hairnets, hard hats, goggles, gloves, and earplugs. Ten production lines snake through the space, funneling local spring water into 8-ounce to 2.5-gallon containers; most of the lines run 24/7, each pumping out 500 to 1,200 bottles per minute. About 60 percent of the supply comes from Mecosta’s springs and arrives at the factory via a 12-mile pipeline. The rest is trucked in from neighboring Osceola County, about 40 miles north. “Daily, we’re looking at 3.5 million bottles potentially,” says Dave Sommer, the plant’s 41-year-old manager, shouting above the din.