Nestle’s Director of Sustainability: “I asked a lot of hard questions.”

Michael Washburn is convinced, at least. Having put his green credentials on the line in leaving The Wilderness Society to work for a bottled water company, he’d better be.

“This is my first job in a corporation and there’s a certain amount of skepticism coming into it,” Nestle Waters’ new director of sustainability said. “I asked a lot of hard questions in my interview.”

Apparently, Washburn was satisfied, because when Nestle Waters released its 2010 Corporate Citizenship Report on March 22nd — to coincide with World Water Day, naturally – he was willing to take a few questions.

Nestle’s report indicated it is aiming for several environmental goals and 17 performance targets. These include supporting watershed improvement projects, making it easier for consumers to access water quality reports and develop a new bottle made of 100 percent recyclable or renewable materials.

Washburn said the business side of the company’s sustainability initiative serves a dual role. He said any company of Nestle’s size can risk misfortune in terms of pollution, which he termed brand risk, but that being a good corporate citizen meant helping to alleviate possible environmental detriment and improve the brand image.

“It’s at once altruistic and mercenary,” Washburn said. “The minimum thing a brand should do is take the risk off the table.”

But he also said one of the reasons he joined Nestle after earning a doctorate in forestry and spending a decade working for environmental non-profits was that he felt their commitment to being sustainable was real.

Taking part in the trend of corporate responsibility, Nestle aims to promote high quality water as essential for human and environmental health, but also says tap water isn’t perfect and can become contaminated in emergency situations. Washburn said Nestle tries to encourage clean water in the pipe, as well as in the bottle.

“We engage with officials that protect clean water at large, and we have 15,000 acres that we own and protect,” he said. “Do I think we need to scare people to sell our products? No.”

Washburn said the largest issue he was facing is bottle recovery and recycling, and Nestle aims to increase the recycling of United States PET beverage bottles. Currently, he said, 30 percent of plastic bottles are recycled, and they’re looking to double that by 2018. Nestle is also implementing a fund to encourage and fund municipal recycling, which was too expensive for some communities.

“We need to adapt our recycling to the way people live,” said Washburn. “That’s the single biggest issue I’m looking at — getting those bottles back.”