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August 6, 2007

Can the Backlash Against Bottled Water Last?


We are, according to headlines, supposed to be more aware of environmental problems today than we were last year. As the period at the end of that sentence, we’re told that people are being more eco-friendly with their spending decisions, and that going green is good for companies hoping to stay in the black.


This has spread out into our lives in a number of different ways, including the attack on what a few years ago was a darling of the beverage industry – bottled water.


Today, bottled water is a product under fire, and officially the victim of a backlash. It’s a double-pronged assault, both on the product itself and also on the perception surrounding it.


Bottled water is one part water, four parts perception. The primary reason people buy it is because they don’t trust tap water. To this, there is almost no truth.


New York City’s water, for instance, rates among the highest quality – in terms of taste and safety – of any place. Consumers regularly pick it over the bottled stuff in taste tests.


Clever marketing has probably played a role in creating this misperception. Bottled water brands are given names, and supported by logos that call to mind images of artesian wells buried deep in pristine forests, or snowmelt streams tumbling down mountains. It’s more expensive, it evokes pretty pictures in the mind, so it must therefore be superior (which, of course, isn’t true).


For instance, a few years ago, Perrier started to sell water under the label Ice Mountain. The brand’s logo features the name, written in frosty-looking letters, laid over a glacier-covered mountain. The label, now owned by Nestle, was originally meant to be sold in and around the Great Lakes region, but today you can find it hundreds of miles from its source.


One of the primary sources for Ice Mountain is from a geographically flat inland Michigan community. The closest mountains are an eight-hour drive southeast to West Virginia, and the closest mountains with year-round snow cover are in Montana. In addition, another source for the company’s water is a municipal water system (the city pumps the water from the ground, and then sells it to Nestle). Probably not coincidentally, the company’s web site lists as its source the “water cycle” and not a private deer-hunting preserve hidden among the potato fields of mid-Michigan.


Some of this perception is fueled in part by labeling rules. Most bottled water labeled as spring water comes actually from wells, but FDA rules say that as long as an aquifer discharges to the surface, water pumped from it can legally be labeled “spring”.


The backlash against this has come on a couple of different fronts, including cities that see bottled water as a threat to their municipal water systems.


San Francisco banned city government from buying bottled water, and a number of posh bistros around the city boast that if you want water with your meal, you must drink tap water. Other cities are considering bans or have launched campaigns touting quality and safety. Municipal water systems are generally more tightly watched than are bottlers.


The backlash against bottled water started in the environmental movement. Local groups have long opposed bottling facilities for fear of the impact they would have on local streams and lakes.


When Perrier built its first Michigan facility, it was after they’d lost a public relations battle in Wisconsin. Their mid-Michigan bottling facility was itself the target of lawsuits, the most prominent of which was just settled by the state’s Supreme Court. Although siding with the bottler in terms of who could bring suit, the high court didn’t dispute the facts that the facility had caused local water levels to drop.


There is today no environmental issue that isn’t in some way included in the global warming debate. At a time when consumers are becoming more aware of where their food comes from, it’s begun to dawn on people that for a drink that offers no calories, an awful lot of energy is expended moving it to the marketplace. This means burning fossil fuels in transportation (in addition to making bottles) for virtually no nutritional benefit.


The question is whether this backlash will peter out as do so many consumer fads (the idea that consumers are becoming legitimately more environmentally conscious is highly debatable). That, in turn, will depend greatly on whether increased exposure about environmental problems is genuine, or itself just the product of headlines.


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