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The battle over bottled vs. tap water

After negative media reports on the environmental cost of bottled water, the industry responds with greener strategies.

By Tony AziosCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 17, 2008

Greener Bottles: In response to consumer concerns, manufacturers are creating bottles from biodegradable plastics, such as these, said to break down in landfills more easily.

Courtesy of Tom Balla/Nature works

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For most of the past seven years, Kate Daniel was "a fiend for bottled water." Believing that bottled water was healthier and better tasting, the Tufts University junior would carry along a bottle wherever she went.

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But after she failed to identify bottled water in a blindfolded taste test sponsored by a group called Think Outside the Bottle, Ms. Daniel's confidence in bottled water faltered. "I felt slightly duped," she says.

Even as bottled water companies continue to see increased sales, the recent raft of negative media coverage and activist campaigns against the industry has caused a product once seen as fundamentally green and healthy to lose some of its luster. Now, brand-name bottlers are scrambling to reposition their products by upping their green credentials to fend off further consumer backlash fermenting in churches, college campuses, and city halls across the country.

"All big business is under siege, and at this point it would be remiss to not react to environmental concerns," says Marian Salzman, an advertising executive with JWT Intelligence in New York.

By now, most Americans have heard reports that point to the amount of oil it takes to produce and transport bottled water, in addition to the masses of plastic bottles that are used once and not recycled. But most American consumers don't seem to be changing their habits.

Since 2002, the US market has seen an increase in bottled water production of more than 9 percent per year, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation. After soft drinks, water has been the second-largest commercial beverage by volume since 2003. Production for 2007 is projected to be more than 9 billion gallons, with revenues clocking in just under $12 billion.

Despite buoyant profits, critics say it is only a matter of time before the tide turns against the bottle. Meanwhile, a chorus of state and local governments, social justice groups, and college students are turning up the heat on Big Water.

"There is no denying a growing degree of public consternation towards the [bottled water] industry," says Liz Gary, a Boston organizer for Think Outside The Bottle (TOTB), a campaign launched by Corporate Accountability International.

In response to their detractors, some water brands are attempting to revive their green images. For example, FIJI Water, the second-largest imported bottled water brand in the United States, recently announced plans to become carbon-negative by 2010 by using renewable energies and offsetting emissions through land-preservation projects.

"These companies are trying very hard, because being green in 2008 is not a political issue but a moral one," says Paco Underhill, the author of "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping."

Campus cleanup

Although one of the most targeted demographics for bottled water, teenagers and young adults appear to be scrutinizing bottled-water's impact. "Since [2006], we have seen interest soar from about 10 colleges with TOTB campaigns to at least 36 very active ones now all over the country," says Deborah Lapidus, national campaigns director for Corporate Accountability International.