Bottled water industry wages PR battle against tap water movement

Plastic bottles of water

More than 2bn litres of bottled water were consumed in the UK in 2010 – 33 litres per person

Worried by an eco backlash, the bottled water industry is waging a PR battle to turn the public back onto plastic bottled water

Bottled water is the totemic bête noire of the environmental world, a multibillion-dollar industry that takes what in the west is clean and readily available from the tap, packages it up in non-biodegradable plastic and sells it back to consumers at hugely inflated prices.

And yet sales continue to rise. In 2010, more than 2bn litres were consumed in the UK – 33 litres per person, a figure projected to rise to 40 litres by 2020. More than 40bn litres were sold last year in the US, in plastic bottles it took 17m barrels of oil to manufacture; the industry there is worth $22 billion a year and sales are increasing at a rate of 5.4 per cent annually.

The strong growth is down to an aggressive marketing campaign by companies fighting to purify a product that – clear mountain spring water notwithstanding – has been tainted by accusations that it is unnecessary, wasteful and environmentally costly.

Last month, the Natural Hydration Council (NHC) – an industry body formed by the UK’s three biggest hitters: Nestlé Waters (makers of Buxton, Perrier and San Pellegrino), Danone Waters (Evian and Volvic) and Highland Spring – handed its lucrative public relations account to Pegasus PR, whose clients include Pfizer and Bayer.

Pegasus’s role is to ensure the NHC’s ‘authoritative voice in the hydration debate is heard more clearly’ and consolidate the successes of its predecessor, Munro & Foster, tasked in 2009 with preventing bottled water from being compared to tap water.

The NHC was formed in 2008 to prevent declining sales: 2,240m litres of bottled water were drunk in 2006, 2,125m in 2007 and 2,005m in 2008. Price, negative blind tastings (consumers prefer tap or perceive no difference) and campaigns such as those run by London’s Evening Standard, to encourage people to ask for tap water in restaurants, all played their part.

But by 2009, domestic consumption had bounced back to 2,040m litres, then to 2,050m litres in 2010; 2011 figures are expected to be around 2,100m litres.

The NHC insist they promote all forms of water consumption, including tap and bottled water. Although its eight NHC members are all bottled water companies: Danone Waters (UK & Ireland) Ltd, Highland Spring Ltd, Waterbrands Ltd, Nestlé Waters UK Ltd, Brecon Natural Waters, Iceni Water, Ty Nant and Wenlock Spring.

Bottled water - the 'healthy option'

The upward trajectory coincided with a change in tack from the NHC: rather than battling the tap, its purported target has become the soft-drinks market, on a mission to protect health and encourage hydration. Every bottle of water drunk is actually a sugary liquid avoided, runs the argument.

This move not only allows the industry to occupy the moral high ground in health terms, but also to lay claim to being the greener option – quite a coup considering the 3m plastic water bottles that go to landfill in the UK alone every day.

‘Carbonated soft drink or juices or teas and coffees...have considerably higher carbon footprints’ than bottled water, Danone Waters CEO Trevor Waters has asserted. In 2009, NHC director Jeremy Clarke called it ‘the cheapest, greenest, healthiest drink on the shelf’.

In the US, the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) trade association routinely points out – as it did in 2008 when Toronto City Council chose to prevent plastic bottles from being sold on municipal premises – that ‘less healthy beverages [are] packaged in a denser grade of plastic at twice the volume of bottled water’.

The IBWA is also attempting to make the issue a constitutional one through its consumer arm, Bottled Water Matters, a ‘pro-bottle’ internet campaign aimed at encouraging Americans to stand up for their right to bottled water.

According to its video: ‘There are people who want to take your choice away, people who want bottled water off store shelves because they think it’s unnecessary, but you know that’s not true.’

Tapping into the lexicon of activism, it exhorts concerned citizens to ‘let your legislators know they must not support policies that will limit or restrict [the availability of bottled water]. Your opinion... can make change happen; can influence elected officials in your state and in Washington DC.’

US universities ban bottled water

The campaign is also a response to a new movement gathering impetus among US students. More than 90 US universities – including Harvard, Brown and Vermont – have banned or are intending to ban bottled water on campus. New students are being given stainless-steel bottles and asked to refill from filtered water taps. Meanwhile more than 100 towns and cities have voted to ban bottled water to reduce waste.

Such campaigns are taken seriously because the industry’s biggest markets are the US and Europe, says Res Gehriger, the Swiss journalist and filmmaker behind Bottled Life: The Truth about Nestlé’s Business with Water (, which explores Nestlé’s commercialisation of community-owned water sources in the developing world.

Nevertheless: ‘Nestlé’s marketing is doing a great job to alter consumer behaviour, to make bottled water a part of people’s lifestyles. Poland Spring is sponsoring the New York Marathon, Vittel is sponsoring the Tour de France – Nestlé Water’s brands are omnipresent.’

Gehriger also reveals that natural disasters are increasingly becoming business and PR opportunities. Nestlé Waters North America is particularly active in the aftermath of catastrophes such as earthquakes or hurricanes, donating plastic bottles of water following the breakdown of municipal water supplies. The initiative is a ‘good thing’, he says, but still indicative of a company that takes every opportunity to offer its products as an alternative to tap.

‘I think the bottled water industry will grow and more people will make the switch from tap to bottled water, those who don’t trust the water quality in their towns. The onus is on municipal water companies to improve standards. Lagos in Nigeria has completely failed to provide its citizens with clean water and cholera is rife – like New York at the turn of last century, until the moment it made water distribution its top priority. The problem nowadays is that there is an alternative – you can buy water in bottles – so the quality of municipal water lowers.’

With emerging markets in Southeast Asia and Africa having seen double-digit growth in recent years, ‘increasingly there is no incentive to improve things’.

This article has been amended after the National Hydration Council confirmed that its current contract with Pegasus PR is not a multi-million pound contract but worth less than £100,000.

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