Are You Still Drinking Bottled Water?

Declining sales and a new lawsuit are plaguing the bottled-water industry, but it's fighting back with some savvy marketing. Here's how to see through the hype.

January 18, 2011

Turns out bottled water is readily available without the bottle: It's called tap water.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—2010 was a rough year for the bottled-water industry, beginning with a decline in overall sales and revenue, and ending with a lawsuit for deceptive marketing practices against one of the industry's most illustrious brands.


Revenues for bottled water were down 5 percent in 2009 from the year before, a considerable blow to an industry that had seen steady sales increases for a decade. The economy hasn't really helped either. A February 2010 Harris Interactive Poll found that to save money 34 percent of people have switched to carrying reusable water bottles instead of buying bottled. And the year concluded with a class-action lawsuit against Fiji water, due to its claims of being "carbon negative."

THE DETAILS: Fiji brand bottled water is one of the most expensive brands on the market, selling for anywhere from $4 to $8 per bottle. But in terms of its environmental cost, the price tag is much higher, considering that it travels nearly 16 hours from the Fiji bottling plant just to reach the U.S. West Coast. To prevent that environmental cost from sullying its image, in 2008 the company started claiming its product is "carbon negative"—basically, that it pulls more climate-changing greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere than are generated by pumping, bottling, and shipping its water around the world. But the lawsuit states that those claims are deceptive and misleading, in large part because Fiji is taking credit for carbon reductions that haven't happened yet.

To be "carbon negative," the company purchases carbon offsets, which are controversial credits that allow a company to claim that it is offsetting its own greenhouse gas emissions by funding projects like wind farms, solar generators, and tree-planting projects. The problem, and one of the claims made in the lawsuit, is that Fiji is spending money on "forward offset credits," which fund projects that don’t exist yet, and may not exist for several decades.

WHAT IT MEANS: This isn't the only instance of a bottled water company greenwashing its product, says Kristin Urquiza, campaign director for the Think Outside the Bottle campaign organized by the nonprofit Corporate Accountability International. She points to Coca Cola's 2008 campaign to become the world's first "water neutral" water bottler, pledging to replace all the water used in beverages and their production, but not being specific as to how the company was planning to achieve that goal. And in 2007, Nestle Waters North America, bottler of 12 different brands of water, claimed that it reduced water usage in its manufacturing process by 1.3 percent yet increased production by 10 percent. "Bottled water has one of the largest carbon footprints of any bottled product out there, and companies are devoting their marketing budgets to greenwashing, trying to win back the public to their products," says Urquiza.

One of their most effective strategies is consistently undermining the public's trust in tap water, she says. "In 2000, the VP of marketing at Pepsi said, 'when we're done with our marketing campaign, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes,'" she adds. Of course, the irony is that, according to the nonprofit Food and Water Watch, 50 percent of bottled water is simply bottled tap water that's undergone additional filtration. Put another way, 50 percent of the industry wouldn't exist if it weren't for tap water provided by public utilities.

A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that tap water is much better monitored than water bottlers. The report noted that between 2000 and 2008 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for the safety of bottled water, devoted 2.6 full-time staff positions to inspecting bottled-water facilities. The report also says that the FDA increasingly relies on states to do most of the bottling-plant inspections. And state regulations vary widely, with some requiring water bottlers to use government-certified laboratories to conduct water-quality tests, and others not. "Compare that to the EPA," says Urquiza, "which has literally thousands of employees at the federal, state, and municipal levels overseeing water systems," all of which adhere to a standardized set of test requirements and maximum contaminant levels that aren't required for bottled water.

It's true that tap water suffers from an image problem, especially when reports of hazardous chemicals like hexavalent chromium appearing in water supplies come to light. But there's little guarantee that bottled water will be free of those contaminants either.

Steel yourself against bottled-water marketing claims, and quench your thirst without shelling out $4 for a bottle of exotic tap water:

• Filter it. The same water-filter technologies that water bottlers use—reverse osmosis, distillation, and carbon filtration—are available for home use. Although expensive, reverse osmosis removes some of the most notorious chemicals, such as hexavalent chromium.

• Don't pay for it inadvertently. We're all tightening our financial belts, and based on current political debates, we want our politicians to do the same. According to Food & Water Watch, Congress spent $190,000 on bottled water in the first quarter of 2010. "To date, more than 100 municipalities have cut spending on bottled water from their budgets," Urquiza says, and so can our federal government. You can sign a letter asking your congressional leaders to stop spending public money on bottled water here.

• Don't fall prey to convenience. Convenience is the number one reason people choose bottled water, according to the GAO report. And when you're on the go, it is a better alternative than calorie-laden sodas or sugary fruit juices that contain no fruit and very little juice. But the key is to make sure you never need the bottled stuff; carry a reusable water bottle with you whenever you can, or even stow a few extras in your car so you don’t find yourself in a bind.