Is Bottled Water a Dead Man Walking?

More articles on the controversy surrounding bottled water can be found here!

At the 2009 Net Impact Conference, Adam Werbach called Fiji Water a “Dead Man Walking,” stating that the company has greenwashed its brand and that it was only a matter of time before its actions caught up with the company (read a NY times article on Fiji here). While Werbach was referring to the way that Fiji Water was portraying its brand, he also broadly implied that the business of shipping water around the world is simply unsustainable. This brought up a lot of questions about the “health” of the bottled water industry in general.

The environmental arguments against bottled water are gaining more traction, and people are starting to question whether bottled water is really worth it, financially and environmentally. Recent sales reflect a drop in consumer demand for bottled water — Nestlé SA, the world’s largest food and beverage group, reported a three percent drop in its first-half profit last August, according to MarketWatch. In past years, Nestlé was growing in the double digits, as were most bottled water companies.

Overall, the bottled water industry in the United States has expanded at a phenomenal rate, though the market dipped slightly last year. According to data from Beverage Marketing, a U.S.-based data and consulting firm, retail sales of single-serving plastic bottles increased from 1.4 billion gallons in 2000 to 5.2 billion gallons last year, lifting their share of total bottled water volume from 29 percent to more than 60 percent. And, over the past decade, per-capita consumption of bottled water in the U.S. has more than doubled to about 200 bottles per year, per person, according to MarketWatch.

With these growth figures, it is difficult to say whether the recent slowdown is a true indicator of a longer-term trend.  While it may seem that the movement against bottled water is growing, this has often been far more pronounced in the media than in the sales data.

The “Refill Revolution”

Sales of reusable aluminum and stainless steel water bottles are up. Companies like Sigg and Klean Kanteen have grown tremendously over the past few years; Nalgene has experienced slower sales due to the BPA scare. Sigg increased production by more than 90 percent last year and expects it to increase to be about seven million this year (though a recent scandal regarding lack of transparency could change that).

But the bottled water industry is enormous, estimated at about $16 billion, and reusable water bottles are a mere drop in the bucket. It would take a mass exodus of people using refillable water bottles to take away the significant market share of the bottled water industry.

Bottled water companies continue to claim that their competitors are sodas and not tap water, but how can a sugary drink be a substitute for a fundamental life necessity?

The benefits of using reusable water bottles far outweigh the costs. Among these benefits are: energy savings and reduced emissions (processing, packaging, distribution) and reduced waste (less plastic in landfills equals less pollution).  Furthermore, tap water saves people lots of money –- bottled water is 1,900 times more expensive than tap water. Also, while it may be more convenient to grab a bottle of single serve water on the run, it is not so difficult to just bring along an aluminum water bottle and fill it when you’re thirsty!

One of the keys to reusable containers is making sure that people refill them. Several innovative organizations are springing up to try to encourage this move to tap water. Many restaurants in progressive cities such as San Francisco, Vancouver and New York simply don’t offer bottled water options any more.

The UNICEF-sponsored TAP Project, encourages restaurant customers to contribute $1 for the tap water they normally receive for free in order to help fund access to sanitary tap water for children around the world. This is very compelling when you find out that $1 can supply a child with clean drinking water for 40 days!

Other innovative initiatives like Refill Revolution — that tracks and records every time someone refills at a water fountain –- and TapIt Water -– a refilling network (complete with an iPhone application) to help people find places to refill in urban areas like New York City -– are helping consumers change their behavior.

Any solutions?

Reusable water bottles are a great step in the right direction, but how can bottled water companies fundamentally rethink their business models? I was recently brainstorming with a CSR professional at one of the big bottled water companies and we discussed the possibility of these companies switching their focus to Point-of-Use (POU) filtration instead of bottled water.

Although I don’t know how these bottled water companies can provide new solutions, I was impressed by the fact that this leading company clearly had a strong desire to adapt; I don’t think it suits any of us to be dismissive of large corporations who are trying to redefine the way they do business.

Any suggestions for bottled water companies? Feel free to comment on this post and suggest ways that they might move forward and become a more sustainable business that benefits the triple bottom line. It’s time that we as consumers start taking responsibility for our decisions and put more pressure on these companies. But, we can also offer guidance, so let’s give them some viable alternatives.

For another good article on bottled water, check out this article: Desperate Bottled Water Industry Battles Trend Toward Tap.


You can follow more of my water-related thoughts on Twitter at

Matthew Savage is the founder of Savage Sustainability, a sustainability and marketing strategy consultancy that helps companies grow and innovate, while achieving sustainability targets. He has 10 years of demonstrated experience in implementing complex solutions for large corporations and start-ups. You can follow more of his thoughts at or follow him on

23 responses

  1. Suggestions? That’s a tough one. Bans are likely to be a reality in the near future so companies making bottled water are going to be in a pickle. The future lies in re-usable bottles (until everyone already has a dozen) and in delivery – office coolers, filters, water fountains, etc. Can a bottled water company transition to offer those things? I don’t know!

    One thing is for sure – water is going to be a HUGE area of investment, innovation and growth in the coming decades. Anyone with ideas for using it more efficiently, delivering it, managing it, etc… stands to do well. Putting into branded fashion bottles and selling it is going to seem awfully silly soon.

  2. Bottled water companies continue to claim that their competitors are sodas and not tap water, but how can a sugary drink be a substitute for a fundamental life necessity?
    Bottled water is a convenience beverage. Have you visited a college campus lately? What’s in a back pack? A bottle of water or a high fructose laden soft drink and that’s the way is will stay until refill stations are available everywhere. Don’t we have enough obesity and diabetes problems?
    We didn’t think the billions of plastic containers …water bottles, soft drinks, power drinks, teas…etc, etc., were going away anytime soon. Something had to be done and quick. Our idea was to design a plastic container that was biodegradable, that could be recycled and should it end up in a landfill, biodegrade. Keep in mind the reality is that 150 billion beverage bottles are made each year, and 70-80 percent aren’t recycled……that’s a lot of plastic going into our landfills, stream and oceans.
    Recycling is an important part of the environmental equation, but truth be known it isn’t solving the problem.
    We don’t think the ENSO biodegradable bottle is the final answer for solving plastic pollution but waiting a change in consumer behavior is going to be an extremely slow process and something needs to be done….now.

  3. Pingback: Is Bottled Water a Dead Man Walking? | Global Water News
  4. Bottled water companies are swiftly moving towards more sustainable practices. For instance, the weight of many PET plastic bottles have been reduced by 27% percent in the past seven years. One large company notes that a 24-pack of the half-liter single serve bottles contains less than 8 ounces of PET plastic. As for plastic bottle recycling, data from the plastic industry indicate a 30.9% recycling rate in 2008, a 32% improvement over 2007.

    Savage’s position on shipping in confusing. Why are heavy, dark green glass wine bottles from around the world OK? Why is beer from around the world less of an issue that a healthy bottle of water? Natural water sources are historic, world-famous and highly distinctive. From Source Evian to Source Perrier to Source San Pellgrino, these fine waters have refreshed human palates for centuries. There is as much variation in the flavor of spring water as there is in cheeses or other foods. Yet you seem to deny the consumer even a basic choice in the most important beverage they can drink.

    Let’s discuss the refrigerator case in the convenience store. Thirsty customers stare at the glass doors and make a decision. Do they was a carbonated soft drink? A bottled coffee with sugar and cream? A fruit drink? A beer? Or a nice cold bottle of crisp-tasting bottled water? We compete with all those other packaged beverages. Customers who want lukewarm tap water can always borrow the restroom and refill their canteen but that is not a satisfying or viable means of hydration for many people.

    In your contemplation of the state of bottled water, have you considered that bottled water — be in spring or purified — tastes and smells far better than tap water. Consumers are loyal to bottled water because the taste and characteristics such as clarity are exceptional. Because it tastes so good, it’s natural for people to drink more of it, and that’s key to good hydration and good health.

    Bottled water has become an important and valued staple in many homes. There’s more to be done in the area of consumer recycling, and point-of-use filtration has a place in the modern office and home if that’s the consumer preference. For busy folks on the go, nothing tops the freshness, convenience and purity of bottled water.

  5. Tom, thanks for writing. I enjoy a Pellegrino once in a while – there is a distinction between some of the highest quality waters that have been around for a while, especially the bubbly stuff. But you just can’t say the same for the massive proliferation of bottled water brands that have landed in our laps in the last 10 years. I think Penn and Teller nailed it in their stunt shown here:

    You are correct about the shipping of wine, however, being a source of hypocrisy, but perhaps it’s a matter of scale. If people have some French one once in a while, it’s not such a big deal, but the monumental consumption of bottled water, driven by marketing and paranoia is much bigger phenomenon and its very absurdity is what gets people riled up.

    I find it deeply troubling that people don’t trust their own taps, which we’ve paid a lot of money for in taxes, and in most cases (except in the desert) is perfectly good, healthy, water which, if chilled and bottled would be indistinguishable from most of the main bottled brands.

    Something’s gotta evolve here. Maybe it’s just marketing. Read about what Venice is doing with Acqua Veritas.

  6. Thanks for the great article!
    You may also be interested in my interview with ‘Tapped’ Documentary Director, Stephanie Soechtig, on this subject.
    ‘Tapped’ features the virtually unregulated business of bottled water and its lifecycle, including health, environmental, and human rights issues. Documentary interviews include community members, politicians, scientists, and government agency representatives.
    Consumer education on the bottled water issue needs improvement, and their team is encouraging movie screenings of it’s documentary. I was fortunate to have seen the complete documentary, and it made a huge difference for me. In the Green Software Unconference Silicon Valley I founded, I made sure there was NO bottled water.

  7. I applaud all of those who took the time to submit comments, it’s important that we discuss environmental issues. The answers aren’t as easy as banning something…I travel a lot and quite frankly the water coming from the tap isn’t always safe to drink….even here in the U.S. If your city has great water then you are lucky, but there are a lot of people who can’t tolerate the chemicals that municipalities put into their water systems. I believe there is a need for bottled water; however, there really isn’t any excuse for not having our beverages in biodegradable plastic beverage bottles. Biodegradable plastic bottles can be used, recycled and reclaimed and that’s better for our environment. Needless to say, my opinion is that all plastic and particularly plastic beverage containers should be biodegradable. After saying that, you should know that there is a big difference between biodegradable, degradable and compostable. Educated consumers should learn the differences and decide for themselves which is better for our environment. If you want more information on plastics and biodegradable plastic please visit our FAQ section on our web site.

  8. The key service provided by bottled water is portability. Even the most ardent environmentalist can be caught buying a bottle when on a road trip or running to catch a plane. However, a huge percentage of the bottled-water consuming public has no need for portability because they’re consuming the bottles at home or the office.

    This is where there’s an enormous opportunity for bottled water companies: To provide a product that has the same attributes as conventional bottled water, but without the waste and extra expense of providing water packaged in plastic. I’ve suggested some strategies here:

  9. At the present time, biodegradable containers of anything are an eco-red herring.

    The infrastructure for separating bio-plastic is virtually non-existent, and nothing biodegrades in any meaningful way in the anaerobic conditions of our landfills.

    I'm all for stimulating the market for these types of plastic replacements, but let's not kid ourselves that everyone is incorporating these bottles into their compost heaps…

  10. Without question the bottled water concept is not sustainable on a large scale due to transportation cost, pollution from disposed bottles and damage to fragile aquifers. While the industry will always be with us, it make take a 50% reduction in size to make it viable.

  11. I'am an owner of an Iowa beverage container deposit redemption center.
    Iowa is currently recovering over 85%- 93% of the 2 billion soda,hard liquor, wine, and beer sold in this stateeach year.

    If we had a national deposit on all beverage containers, we could very quickly have a massive impact on the environment, create thousands of jobs, reduce landfill space, save and protect our rivers and streams, and much much more.

    But for years the very companies that are creating the problems, and claiming to want a solution, spend millions to block this very simple, and effective way to eliminate the problem.

    Alas, at this time Iowa does not require deposit and return on the juice, tea, coffee, non-carbonated sports drinks, or bottled water that have become so common in the last few years. which could be resolved quickly if our legislators were concerened with doing what is right instead of making their corporate supporters happy.

    Oh, by the way, No, I do not buy bottled water. I have a $20.00 water filter on my tap at home, and in our shop, and take great pleasure in letting customers in the shop believe they are getting bottled water.
    I have done probably 50 taste tests with our customers. Tap or bottled? filterd tap wins about 90% of the time.

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