Bottled water: a social and ecological aberration

, by  Olivier Petitjean

The bottled water business has undergone spectacular development in recent years. This trend has recently begun to reverse, due to the economic crisis, but also because of the powerful protest movements that have developed, particularly in North America, against an industry that appears in many ways to be an ecological and a social aberration.

Adam Smith, the founder of classical political economy in the 18th century, when examining the question of value, underlined the paradox according to which water, which is something essential, is free of cost, whereas diamonds, that are not of much use, are worth a fortune. This simple observation is enough to illustrate how intrinsically nonsensical it is to sell bottled water for a significantly higher price than that of tap water. Yet in recent times, there has been a real boom in the sales of bottled water, even if one litre of bottled water is sold for the same price as a thousand litres of tap water or ten thousand litres of water from an irrigation canal. Bottled water consumption tripled in the United States between 1985 and 2001. According to some statistics, the number of bottles of water consumed has gone from 1.5 billion in 1977 to 12 600 billion at the beginning of the 21st century. Although countries such as France and Italy are still the biggest drinkers of mineral water per capita, they are progressively being overtaken by the United States or the emerging countries in Asia, the Arab world, and South America, where drinking bottled water is viewed as a sign of social success. At global level, the amount consumed doubled between 1997 and 2005. Sales of bottled water now exceed those of milk and beer, and the forecast before the economic crisis was that they would soon exceed those of soft drinks, the number 1 commercial beverage

The big multinationals have not missed the opportunity of jumping on the bandwagon that promised such substantial profits for so little work. The income of the industry in the United States for 2007 was an estimated 12 billion US dollars. Coca-Cola commercialises the Bon Aqua brand (Dasani in the United States), as well as the Pump brand in Australia and New Zealand, whereas Pepsi sells Aquafina, the American champion of bottled water. Danone is second in the global bottled water stakes (they sell the Badoit and Volvic brands...). France is one of the leading exporters of water. They are closely followed on the American market by the archipelago of Fiji, where the Fiji Water company (which is owned by Western capital) has become more powerful than the local State. Local farmers are better off pumping water to sell to Fiji Water than growing crops. This is similar to the situation in the oil or certain mining industries: but very few people could have imagined it would be extended to an element such as water.

A boom based solely on marketing

How can we explain such economic success of a good that is difficult to justify as meeting a fundamental need or bringing effective added value? The key to this boom are advertising campaigns and aggressive marketing practices of various shapes and forms, which have efficiently put forward a whole range of arguments: the fight against aging and obesity, youth, sportiness, beauty, quality of life and social distinction...

The first and most important of the themes promoted by the water merchants is health. The multinationals involved in the bottled water business constantly repeat that we should drink at least eight glasses of water a day, although this statement has no solid grounding, and is promoted by certain scientists who sit on the boards of institutes that are financed by the same multinationals. They have cynically taken advantage of the increased concern with the environment and water pollution. They claim that the water that they sell is purer and cleaner that the water in the public networks – even though scientific studies have shown the contrary on several occasions, and certain companies have been publicly obliged to admit that the bottled water came from the same network as the public tap water. In the same vein, Coca-Cola and Pepsi claim to protect people from obesity, on the grounds that if it were not for their bottled water, people would be obliged to drink soft drinks – that are commercialised by the self-same companies... As the public is obsessed by consuming “healthy” products, and given the growth of the market for bottled water, some American companies have begun to produce “purified” water. This is in fact tap water with most of the salts and minerals removed by reverse osmosis, to which salts of dubious origin have then been added to make it fit for human consumption!

Another factor that is necessary for the bottled water industry to succeed is to manage to convince consumers to change their habits, and change over from tap water to bottled water. One brand gave out free bottles to families to familiarise them with the product, and develop new consumer habits. Other firms target the office and civil services’ market and propose “classical and designer water fountains” – with mobile phones included as gifts, or “crystal clear water from a local spring”. Convincing consumers of the “value added” by a bottle of water, industrialists have rivalled one another in creativity. Every company now sells their own flavoured brands. Contrexéville – which holds the “slimming partner” market segment, sells guava-flavoured brands called “Eaux plus Beauté” as well as “Eaux plus Tonus” with ginseng. Water is being flavoured with lavender, elderflower, as well as using extravagant colours: flashy pink, blue lagoon, tropical green to mention just the Perrier fluo range. There is even Australian Cloud Juice, which is said to include “4 875 drops of rainwater”.

In the countries of the South, the market for bottled water (both the multinational groups and local companies) is growing faster than anywhere else in the world. It is based on specific aspects: the genuinely or supposed poor quality of the water in the public distribution network, the fact that certain newly rich populations want to distinguish themselves from the rest of the population by their consumption habits.

Repeated scandals

The rapid development of the bottled water market has taken place against a backdrop of abusive commercial and entrepreneurial practice, and easily reaches beyond legal limits. This kind of practice has in turn led to repeated scandals, as far as the illegitimate seizure of water supplies by the multinationals in question, and also because of the quality of the water that is sold. The light that has been shed on the environmental impacts of bottled water has also contributed to discrediting this sector of the economy.

There are many examples of multinationals appropriating water resources to the detriment of local communities, not only in the countries of the South, but also in some of the rich countries, like the United States, where water ownership is still not much controlled by the State. This water is sometimes quite legally purchased. Coca-Cola bought two aquifers in the Amazon region in this way. In certain cases, the water merchants can buy a spring and purely and simply deprive local populations: this is what happened in the case of the Ben Smim spring, near Ifrane in Morocco. In other cases, limited rights to extract spring water turned into a reality of rapidly dwindling local resources, leading to the despair and the anger of local populations. This is exactly what happened in the case of a great many Indian Coca-Cola factories. But this is also an existing practice in the United States, where the inhabitants of many small towns like McCloud in California or Fryeburg in Maine have taken legal action against the licenses granted to Nestlé or Coca-Cola – sometimes with success. These examples of resistance to the multinational drinks companies are part and parcel of the global struggle against the privatisation of water, the appropriation of public resources to private profit-making ends (read The Misdeeds and Misfortunes of Water Multinationals in the Cities of the World).

The myth of the so-called superior quality of bottled water and its benefits to health has been seriously impaired. Successive studies carried out in the United States and in Europe and India have shown that bottled water is no more healthy or cleaner than tap water – if only because in many cases because the companies have simply bottled tap water and resold it at a high price after having simply filtered it and added substances like salts. This kind of practice is the speciality of Coca-Cola and Pepsi, who were late in entering the market. In the U.K., Pepsi was legally obliged to modify their labelling of the Aquafina brand to state that it used water from the public network. This was also the case of one quarter of the 103 brands of bottled water that were tested in the United States by the Natural Resources Defence Council in 1999. One third of the bottled water was also found to be contaminated either by arsenic, or by E. Coli bacteria. Likewise, the Nature review revealed in 2002 that in 11 bottles belonging to major European brands, the Norwalk-like Virus (NLV), which is known to lead to gastro-enteritis were found; this can only occur through faecal contamination.

In India, the CSE (Centre for Science and Environment) analysed the quality of 17 brands of bottled water commonly on sale in and around the Indian capital in 2002. These brands were commercialised by either local firms or multinationals like Coca-Cola or PepsiCo. Their findings are enough to give anyone gooseflesh. With the exception of Evian, which is imported from France, all the water that was analysed contained a ghastly cocktail of residue of pesticides at rates as much as 300 or 400 times higher than those authorised in the European Union. The residues that were detected were those of chloride-based insecticides like HCH (lindane) and DDT, which are well-known for their persistent qualities in the environment, as well as phosphorus-based pesticides that are neurotoxins – and this was particularly worrying – such as malathion or chlorpyrifos (Kinley, a Coca-Cola brand, contained 109 times the limit that is authorised in Europe.)

The environmental impact of bottled water is also highly problematic. The first issue is the use of plastic (which in over 85% of cases is not renewable) that leads to increased waste and pollution. According to the Sierra Club, this represents 1.5 million tons of plastic every year, most of which ends up at the bottom of the ocean or in dumps, but part of which is also incinerated, with a considerable impact in terms of air pollution. Producing bottled water also wastes precious resources. According to independent experts, it takes 3 litres of water on average to produce one litre of mineral water. But the quantity of energy required to make plastic, to deliver, distribute and recover water bottles is even more impressive. It is supposed to add up to 17 million barrels of oil, and that is without taking transport into consideration. It is supposed to take an average or 2000 times more energy to produce one litre of bottled water than to deliver one litre of tap water through the public network.

The achievemets of the movement against bottled water

The success of the bottled water industry at a time when people are becoming increasingly aware of the scarcity of water as well of the abuses that have partly enabled this success, have created a protest movement, initially at local level in the affected communities, followed by the global level via a vast public campaign. It is particularly strong in the United States and in Canada. In 2008 several films were released as well as campaigns that impacted political decision-making, particularly at local level. In the United States, Congress decided to iron out all the legislation relative to the bottled water sector, particularly that governing quality control, so that it would be as strict as that applied to the tap water. In the United Kingdom, the ecologists and other activists found a paradoxical ally in the water distribution companies (that were privatised in the 1980s) and they launched a campaign against bottled water in order to promote their “product”. (Similar initiatives were recently launched in France by the two big private water groups, Suez and Veolia, who are taking advantage of this to improve their public image).

One sign of the success of these campaigns has been that many North American restaurants have decided to stop serving their clients any other water than tap water. Furthermore, many cities announced that they were introducing measures aimed at limiting or stopping the use of bottled water. The municipal authorities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, New York and Toronto as well as the state of New York thus decided that their civil services would no longer buy bottles or water distributors for their offices or for the public events that they hosted, and would henceforth use only tap water. Many other towns and cities have since announced similar measures, and the Conference of Mayors of the United States adopted a resolution to this effect. The Chicago authorities decided to implement a tax of 10 cents on all bottles of water, entitled “tax on plastic”. A similar tax has been proposed by the state of Florida.

During the summer of 2009, Bunadoon, a small Australian town, hit the world headlines when it went as far as simply forbidding the sale of bottled water in the town. The population had been worried by the threatened installation of a water bottling plant that would use the same aquifer as the town. Many towns are launching campaigns to promote the water from the public networks. These campaigns are also being introduced in Europe, in cities like Paris. Venice decided to promote tap water to the local inhabitants and many tourists by using the same advertising techniques as those used by bottled water companies: branding the tap water, renaming it Acqua Veritas, with free distribution of carafes bearing the Acqua Veritas logo, advertising hoardings, with famous people proclaiming the merits of tap water, using the argument that Venice water is drawn from the same aquifer as San Benedetto, the favourite Italian brand of water...

Long before the economic crisis that further accentuated things, it was possible to see a change in trend in the sales of bottled water, at least in North American and European markets. In 2008 the sales of the four giants in this sector, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Danone showed a significant drop. The multinationals in question tried to turn the situation around by launching a lobbying offensive aimed at political decision-makers as well as running ever more aggressive marketing campaigns, using arguments such as the “right to bottled water” for municipal employees... Firms like Pepsi appear to have started to step back as fast as they committed to bottled water, placing their emphasis on other products. This is also to some extent the strategy of Coca-Cola that has decided to present themselves as a model of water management. Among the older actors, Danone also appears to have decided to keep a low profile, whereas Nestlé has launched a negative campaign, decrying tap water and its poor quality, as well as lobbying and threatening legal action.

- Larbi Bouguerra, Les batailles de l’eau : pour un bien commun de l’humanité, Enjeux Planète, 2003, p. 167-173 (this source has been partially reproduced in this text).
- Yves Eudes, « La Californie contre l’eau en bouteille », Le Monde, 1st November 2007.
- Luis Lema, « L’eau en bouteille, une aberration écologique de plus en plus décriée », Le Temps, 22 June 2008.
- Meraiah Foley, «Bundanoon Journal. Small Australian Town Stands Up for the Tap», New York Times, July 15th 2009.
- Elisabeth Rosenthal, «Venice Journal. City Known for Its Water Turns to Tap to Cut Trash», New York Times, June 11th 2009.

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