Saving The Goose

I’ve been getting a lot of press calls recently about the potential collapse of the bottled water business. It’s not that hard to imagine why – it’s the kind of idea that reporters love: the goose turns out to be laying not a golden egg, but one that’s made of Uranium. And while I don’t think things are going to blow up, they aren’t going to blow over, either; the public’s growing awareness of the origin of its bottled water and its environmentally touchy status is causing something of a backlash that might hurt future growth.

It’s an issue that’s more nuanced than, say smoking, however. The issue isn’t so much the “egg” – the water – which still has that golden, healthy glow – as it is the “egg’s shell” – the PET bottle – which may be, as a reporter for a reputable Northern Florida daily suggested to me, manufactured by The Devil.

I find the current cultural backlash against the bottled water industry fascinating because both the growth of bottled water as a consumer good and the concerns about its environmental impact are coming from largely the same ideal of healthy living.

Carrying a bottle of water – a portable, pure, calorie-free hydration source – is something that tells consumers they are making a good choice for themselves. Its dollar value is derived largely through its convenience – whether or not the water is purer than that pouring out of the tap, it is hassle-free in its relatively cheap, ubiquitous availability and disposability.

But concerns that the empty container will end up occupying space in a landfill and that its manufacture and transport increases one’s “carbon footprint” are also valid. Healthy living means, for many, maintaining a healthy environment, and a healthy environment doesn’t have billions of water bottles stacked in the town dump like so many old tires.

So what is one to do as a retailer, a manufacturer, a consumer, an editor? Surprisingly, the industry itself may be on the right track. PepsiCo’s top brass might have seemed out of their collective gourds when they added their municipal water supply copy to their labels, but disclosure is the key, and their water’s purity doesn’t have any bearing on its convenience – particularly since raising the veil on Aquafina also did so for every other bottled water out there. When it comes to lessening impacts, by the way, Pepsi bottler have also bought up millions of dollars in pollution credits, Coca-Cola recently published a manifesto on its domestic recycling goals, while Nestle Waters North America announced 17 percent PET reductions in its top selling product containers.

These moves aren’t going to put a stop to the problems with resource consumption and junk creation that are the hobgoblins of PET usage. But they are indicative of companies that want to decrease the negative consequences of their products. That said, these moves don’t go far enough, and that’s where retailers, consumers, and editors need to take some responsibility themselves, encouraging these companies to reduce resource consumption even further, stop vilifying bottle bills and, long-term, develop and mainstream technologies like biodegradable packaging – the kind of packaging to which a healthy living premium can be attached. And don’t think that premium is something consumers won’t pay for – the success of the bottled water business as it stands right now is testament to the financial potential of the healthy living impulse.

Keeping things as they are now won’t kill the goose immediately. But if the industry and the retailing sides don’t act soon, it’s still shortsighted. All geese die. To keep getting the eggs, you breed new generations of geese. That sustainable perspective will keep the water business from laying an egg altogether.