San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom passed an outright ban on the purchase of bottled water by city departments in July 2007; New York City officials heavily promoted tap water over bottled that same summer; and officials in Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Rome, Florence and Paris have taken similar actions. On top of being 500 times more expensive,32 bottled water comes with a heavy carbon footprint: from the oil used to make the plastic bottles most water comes in, to the carbon emitted during transportation and refrigeration, to the millions of bottles that end up in landfills. And the market is booming: the world spends $100 billion on bottled water every year; in the United States its sales are second only to carbonated soft drinks.33 The Worldwatch Institute has previously calculated that this is a similar amount to that required to ensure the whole world has potable tap water.
More than 25% of bottled water is treated tap water, including Pepsi’s Aquafina and Coca-Cola’s Dasani. In many parts of the developed world there is no particular health value in drinking bottled water rather than water from the tap. In fact, laws governing the testing of bottled water are much less stringent than those covering tap water: New York City tap water was analysed some 346,000 times in 2006.34 Given this fact, much of the advertising that claims bottled water is beneficial to health could be challenged.
Principally, though, the corporate responsibility problem lies with the bottles. According to the Earth Policy Institute, more than 17 million barrels of oil are needed every year to produce the 29 billion plastic water bottles used in the United States alone. Less than a quarter of these are recycled; the bottles that end up in landfills take four centuries to biodegrade.35 Add to this the emissions generated through pumping, processing, refrigeration and transportation, since 25% of bottled water is imported relative to where it is consumed, and its environmental impact per litre is estimated to be up to 300 times that of tap water.36
Kim Jeffery, president and CEO of Nestlé Waters North America, does not like the comparison with tap water. He argues that consumers don’t choose between bottled and tap water but between bottled water and other bottled drinks, which are sugar-loaded or otherwise unhealthy. In addition, he highlights that water is one of hundreds of beverages to come in plastic bottles. According to Jeffery, water bottles constitute less than 1% of municipal solid waste in landfills.
All of this raises the question: is it legitimate to target bottled water producers? Is similar attention being paid to really big water users, such as agriculture, or old and inefficient infrastructure? Part of the bottled water focus is due to the fact that large corporations are easy, cohesive advocacy targets. But of all drinks sold in plastic bottles, water is the easiest to replace instantly—in most industrial countries—it is quasi-ubiquitous, safe and cheap, and in this regard makes for an excellent advocacy target, since the public can act instantaneously.
Those pushing for extended producer responsibility would demand that companies take responsibility for their containers’ life-cycle. But producers have shunned deposit programmes and emphasised community recycling, for which they are not responsible and incur no costs. There are, however, signs of change: in September 2007, Coca-Cola announced its intent to build the world’s largest recycling plant in order to recycle and re-use the entirety of its plastic packaging in the United States.37 Unfortunately, there was no specified time-frame. Nestlé and Coca-Cola are reducing the plastic in certain bottle sizes by 20–30% to diminish plastic waste and the energy spent in making the bottles. Nestlé produces its own bottles on-site, so they don’t have to be shipped to the plants, which would add to emissions. An option that seems greatly ignored could be a shift towards materials that are more easily biodegradable, such as hemp- and natural fibre-based pseudo-plastics, which are made without resins and break down much more quickly than petrochemical-based plastics. Finally, producers could offer a re-usable bottle, or join in on the trend of directly encouraging re-use by selling water at a discount to those who bring their own container. Regarding emissions, the problem applies more widely than this industry; legislation and political pressure could encourage the use of modes of transport with lighter footprints.Legislators could offer consumers a real incentive for bottle return, e.g. a deposit law charging a small sum for each bottle on purchase, which is refunded on return. In the US, states that have deposit laws and community recycling have much better rates of return than the national rate, but they are in a stark minority. Again, there are signs of change: Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey has called for what amounts to a nationwide deposit law on single-use beverage containers, though his programme is still to be fleshed out, as it currently lacks crucial specifics such as management and sources of funding. A final way to target bottled water consumption is to look at it practically: people also buy bottled water because having a portable form of hydration is practical, since it’s not given that there will be a clean source of water wherever one is. In Bath, where council bottled water costs were running into the thousands of pounds annually and a ban on bottled water in all council offices was recently passed, activists have additionally called for the rehabilitation of public water fountains.
As with most environmental dilemmas, the problem is structural: it has to do with how we live and consume in daily and seemingly inconsequential ways. Campaigns such as London On Tap, which seek to raise awareness about our societal disconnect with the environmental and commercial systems we function in, are only a first step to jolt consumers towards simpler, cheaper and more environmentally friendly modes of consumption.
This is not to say that this is not a matter of corporate responsibility. Nestlé articulates its new approach to corporate strategy is one of creating ‘shared value’ for its shareholders and society. Its 2007 annual corporate responsibility report highlights a range of commercial initiatives that are generating revenues while addressing social problems.38 Such initiatives are laudable, but any reader of its report could justifiably ask whether this ‘shared value’ approach is really central to the Nestlé core business. It is difficult to see which social or environmental problem is being addressed, which social value being created, by the sale of bottled water in industrialised countries, rather than adding to existing problems of pollution and waste. The arguments offered by their CEO do not resonate with a ‘shared value’ approach. Given that many of the examples offered by companies of how they can address social challenges through business are in practice making less of a rate of return than that expected from the business as a whole, are not scalable, and are dependent on government or NGO subsidy through partnership, we may question whether they really embody a new strategy. Perhaps they could be more appropriately understood as an advanced form of an established strategy: effective public relations through corporate philanthropy.
(The references are available in the pdf download and hard copy versions of this annual review, available from Lifeworth’s bookstore.)
This section can be referenced as:
Bendell, J., and N. Alam, S. Lin, C. Ng, L. Rimando, C. Veuthey, B. Wettstein (2009) The Eastern Turn in Responsible Enterprise: A Yearly Review of Corporate Responsibility from Lifeworth, Lifeworth: Manila, Philippines.
(Page numbers for this section are available in the pdf download and hardcopy.)