Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Tuesday Talking Points Memo: The Bottled Water Backlash

There's a backlash against bottled water and the companies that produce it percolating in the U.S. The proponents and promoters of this backlash are an interesting and varied group of people, organizations and companies. They include concerned citizens, environmental organizations, writers, companies that make and market tap water filtration equipment and reusable water bottles, and city officials, among others.

The anti-bottled water coalition has picked up enough steam in recent months that the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) launched a media advertising campaign last week designed to counter the critics claims. On August 3, 2007 the IBWA placed full-page newspaper advertisements in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle to "bring balanced, positive and factual bottled water information to consumers and community leaders," says Joseph K. Doss, the IBWA President and CEO. The IBWA also is launching an aggressive public and governmental relations campaign to counter the claims being made by the bottled water critics. The text of the IBWA full-page advertisement is available at http://www.bottledwater.org/.

The coalition against certain aspects (primarily environmental aspects) of bottled water are equally organized despite being what seems like a desperate group. Today, articles critical of the environmental aspects of bottled water appeared in at least three major national newspapers: The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor and the Chicago Sun Times.

In the Los Angeles Times story staff writer Alana Semuels reports on how water filter manufacturing and marketing companies and companies that produce refillable water bottles are involved in the bottled water backlash. She also talks about various environmental aspects of the issue and what some bottled water companies are doing from an environmental standpoint. Her story is here:http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-water14aug14,1,6295983.story?track=rss&ctrack=1&cset=true

Additionally, the Huffington Post, a popular online news, information and opinion website, published Ms. Semuel's article from the Times today. The Huffington Post has reader feedback posting on the site, and by early this afternoon numerous readers had posted their opinions on the issue. You can get a sampling of those opinions here:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2007/08/14/the-bottled-water-backlas_n_60343.html

In today's issue of the Christian Science Monitor writer Tom Standage offers an opinion piece with an historical flavor. Standage says drinking bottled water, when municipal drinking water is readily available right out of the tap, is not only "daft, but decadent." He argues bottled water not only doesn't taste any better than most municipal tap water it's also harmful to the environment do to all the plastic waste created. (The top three selling brands, and many other brands, of bottled water are merely filtered municipal water.) In his piece he urges consumers to "kick the bottled water habit" for the reasons he details in the article. You can read the entire piece here:http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0814/p09s02-coop.html

I'm not sure where this issue is going but it's clear the lines have been drawn between the anti-bottled water folks and the bottled water industry. To address the environmental concerns bottled water companies are doing many things such as encouraging plastic recycling programs, creating plastic water bottles that use less plastic in their construction, and funding research into alternatives. Many critics, even the mild ones, argue however that the industry isn't doing near enough, and at a fast enough pace. Meanwhile the critics range from the mild--who just want the bottled water companies to do more environmentally--to the vociferous like Standage who want consumers to give up bottled water all together.
Americans are in love with their bottled water though. Not only has it become the bottled beverage of choice when they are in their cars, at the gym, on picnics, or in the office; but it's consumed regularly at home, even though the water tap is right there in the kitchen. Additionally, it wasn't too many years ago when health professionals began singing the praises of bottled water because its easy availability was allowing many consumers to switch from soft drinks to bottled water, therefore making it a healthier beverage alternative for Americans.

And lets not forget disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the California earthquakes, the Indonesian Tsunami and many others. Bottled water (and canned) rushed to the scenes at these disasters without question was a life saver. American consumers also savor their freedom of choice, and are likely to paraphrase the National Rifle Association's famous credo if anyone tries to take their bottled water away. Their statement would go something like this: "I will die before I let you pry this cold plastic bottle of water from my warm hands."

Another very interesting aspect to the bottled water backlash is that city officials are getting into the act. Many of them are saying today's phenomenal bottled water sales are resulting in far less use of municipal water, which they say has made less money available to them to upgrade their city water systems. Total bottled water sales are currently more than $15 billion annually and are growing by 20-30% a year. Further, they are saying all the waste from the discarded plastic water bottles costs the cities extra money because the bottles contribute to litter, which the cities pay to have cleaned up. Additionally they argue all the plastic bottles going into municipal landfills costs the cities extra money because it's making them have to expand the landfills at a faster rate than projected.

In Chicago, City Alderman (same as a city council person) George Cardenas has proposed a city tax of 10 to 25 cents on every bottle of water sold in the city. He claims there is a $40 million shortfall in Chicago's water and sewer funds in part because of a decline in water usage. The Alderman wants to use the proceeds from the bottled water tax to address the shortfall plus to provide funding for similar city infrastructure and service needs.
As this anti-bottled water backlash grows it is going to effect retailers as well as the bottled water companies. In my view bottled water companies need to considerably step up their pro-environmental efforts. They need to excelerate their involvement with cities, offering grants to community plastic recycling programs. Bottled water companies also need to invest significant funds in research and development programs in order to find ways to use far less plastic than is currently being used in the construction of the plastic drinking bottles. Further, they should use already recycled plastic when possible, and research alternative, more environmentally-friendly methods of packaging. They need to make a firm financial commitment not only to stave off the critics but also because it is the right thing to do.
Retailers can use their buying power to influence the bottled water companies to take these above steps and more. After all retailers live at the point of product purchase and are often the ones to feel the heat when it comes to such environmental concerns. The last thing retailers want is to face legislation, for example, that requires them to allow consumers to return plastic drink bottles to their stores to be recycled.
Environmental responsibility is not only a good (and the right) thing to do it can pay economic dividends for companies as well. The best outcome of this anti-bottled water backlash will be if the bottled water industry does all it can to be environmentally responsible and innovative, and the critics join them in these efforts rather then merely criticizing from the sidelines.

No comments: