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A CRAZE FROM MARKETING HEAVEN

Bottled water and problems that flow

by Stephen Hesse

Having just spent several weeks in the United States, I can report with confidence that, more than ever before, Americans have their hands full.

In fact, it’s a wonder they get anything done at all. With a cell phone in one hand and a bottle of water or a cup of coffee in the other, they are also lugging groceries, messing with Blackberries, reading paperbacks and driving cars all more or less simultaneously.

Such extremes of multitasking no longer surprise me, and since Americans have always loved to chat, cell phones are a natural extension of that passion. In Japan, too, shoals of train passengers and pedestrians using keitai (cell phones) are the norm, but Japanese seem to prefer sending text messages than talking on their phones.

I’ve also become used to the American fondness for toting drinks while walking, shopping and driving: mugs of tea, boutique coffees, super-size-me sodas, kid-friendly juice packs and all manner of fluorescent-colored sports drinks.

But what caught my eye this time was the bottled-water craze.

For years people have been drinking spring water, mineral water and sparkling water, but what used to be a modest health trend has mutated into a worrisome marketing scam.

Convenience stores and supermarkets now carry a dozen or more water products at prices that run as high as similar-sized bottles of soda. Similarly, Coca-Cola vending machines sell cola, orange soda, and Coca-Cola’s Dasani brand of water — all at $1.50.

I may be old-fashioned, but this strikes me as a rip-off. After all, colas and other sodas are made with water plus sugar, coloring, flavoring and other chemicals. Hence they inevitably ought to cost more to produce than filtered tap water.

But Dasani is filtered tap water. Which means Coca-Cola is charging the same price for water as it is for water-based products that have considerable value added.

Clearly someone appears to be laughing all the way to their shareholders’ meetings.

According to Tony Clarke, author of “Inside the Bottle: An Expose of the Bottled Water Industry,” published in 2005, “As the senior vice president of Nestle Waters’ Global Marketing and Communications Division puts it: ‘We sell water . . . so we’ve got to be clever.’ “

Clarke is director of the Polaris Institute, an Ottawa-based organization that, as its mission statement declares, develops tools for research, education and action to help citizens’ groups bring about democratic social change and challenge the power of corporations in the making of public policy.

Selling water, it seems, is not about marketing a value-added product. It is about selling an image — much like a real-estate agent peddling a mirage.

“Inside the Bottle,” downloadable from the Internet, offers a close-up look at this mirage, and how the Big Four drinks companies in North America — Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestle and Danone (Dannon in the U.S.) — are getting rich selling water taken from public water supplies — and convincing us that we are better off buying what once was ours for free.

According to Clarke, a 1999 study by the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council, titled “Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?,” estimates that “bottled water is between 240 and 10,000 times more expensive than tap water. This, despite the fact that tap water, with very few exceptions, is a safe form of drinking water in Canada and the United States.”

Expensive or not, sales of bottled water in North America are now the fastest-growing segment of the beverage industry.

In the past 10 years, “consumption of bottled water has more than doubled in the U.S. alone, while in Canada it now outpaces that of coffee, tea, apple juice or milk,” according to “Inside the Bottle.”

In this report, Clarke levels 10 charges against Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestle and Danone that will change forever the way you view those seemingly benign bottles of water that line convenience store shelves. Below are a few of his main concerns.

One of the most egregious sins of the Big Four companies that he identifies is price gouging.

Clarke calls the price markup on bottled water “astonishing,” considering that Coca-Cola and Pepsi “draw the water for their products directly from municipal taps.” Even more shocking is that Danone and Nestle “pay little or nothing for the water they take out of groundwater streams and aquifers,” he adds.

Another of Clarke’s key concerns is the transformation of water. “Unlike other raw materials such as timber, minerals, oil and gas, which are transformed into identifiably new products, bottled water is simply water transformed into water [emphasis in original].

“The industry’s treatment processes do not guarantee that bottled water is safer than tap water; in fact, a number of studies have demonstrated that bottled water is often less safe than tap water,” says the report.

Hence contamination is also a concern.

“Several peer-reviewed scientific studies have found disturbing concentrations of toxic ingredients such as arsenic and mercury in their bottled-water samplings,” warns Clarke, who adds that “bottling plants face inspections only once every three-to-six years depending on the country, and regulations governing tap water are often stricter than those governing bottled water.”

Exploding use of plastic bottles is yet another concern.

“These containers release highly dangerous toxic chemicals and contaminants into the air and water when they are manufactured, and again when they are burned or buried. Yet these same plastic packages are becoming the fastest-growing form of municipal solid waste in the U.S. and Canada,” Clarke notes.

To make matters worse, the Big Four “actively oppose legislation aimed at improving recycling rates for plastic bottles and requiring beverage container deposits,” he adds.

Two more closely related problems are declining support for public water and corporate interest in privatizing water supplies.

“Ten years ago, most people relied on their municipal system for all their drinking water. Today, close to one-fifth of the population in Canada and the U.S. drinks bottled water exclusively — demonstrating how extraordinarily successful the industry has been in luring people away from tap water,” Clarke notes.

This switch is setting the stage for corporations to profit from taking over control of public water supplies. According to “Inside the Bottle,” the world’s largest for-profit water-service corporations, such as Suez and Vivendi (now Veolia) from France, and German-based RWE-Thames, are eager to privatize water.

“The bottled-water industry’s marketing of ‘safe, clean water’ undermines citizen’s confidence in public water systems, and paves the way for the water companies to take over underfunded local utilities. In return, public willingness to pay premium prices for bottled water enables water-service corporations to establish a top-dollar price,” warns Clarke.

How clever: Setting us up to pay through the nose for something that is essential for all life and ought to be managed by and for the public.

As the 1999 NRDC report notes, bottled water may be useful temporarily when tap water is contaminated; “In the long run, however, it is far better from an economic, environmental and public health point of view to improve public drinking water supplies than it is to have a massive societal shift from consumer use of tap water to use of bottled water.”

As my 12-year-old son pointed out incredulously in the U.S. as we sampled a lineup of eight different brands of bottled water, “Dad, they all taste just like water — why pay for this stuff?”

Why indeed?