The Story of Stuff Team Takes on Bottled Water

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

For anyone trying to explain what sustainability is to a semi-curious relative or a completely out of touch co-worker, there could hardly be a better place to start than Annie Leonard’s twenty minute web video The Story of Stuff. The video features Leonard standing in front of an animated white board on which clever line drawings appear while she explains in extremely clear and simple terms the far-reaching connections between our everyday consumer choices and the manifold environmental and social justice problems that derive from them. The short video has received well over a million hits on YouTube.

Now Leonard, with the support of five leading sustainability advocacy organizations, has produced a new video, The Story of Bottled Water, which is scheduled for release on March 22nd, which happens to be World Water Day.

As in The Story of Stuff, The Story of Bottled Water, gives us a short (7 minute) behind-the-scenes look at the bottled water business and raises the question of how people in this country have been duped into buying a half a billion bottles a week of what is really nothing more than tap water for a price that is roughly two thousand times higher.

One of the outrages the film points out is the way that the bottled water we buy is often drawn from municipal water systems that we’ve already paid for with our tax dollars.

“Cities and states are spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on bottled water, and that’s not to mention what’s spent to deal with all the plastic bottles that are thrown out,” said Leslie Samuelrich of Corporate Accountability International, one of the groups that co-produced the video. “It sends the wrong message about the quality of the tap. What if we instead spent that money supporting public water systems or preventing water pollution in the first place?”

The video explores the bottled water industry’s distorted attacks on tap water safety and its use of seductive, environmental-themed marketing to cover up the mountains of plastic waste it produces. One bottled water marketing executive is quoted as saying, “When we’re done, tap water will be relegated to taking showers and washing dishes.”
Rarely has there been such a blatant messaging disconnect. While dozens of environmental groups are campaigning against bottled water, Nestle took out a full page ad in the Toronto Globe and Mail which stated, “Bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world.”

Other myths the video debunks are: that bottled water tastes better (surveys show otherwise), bottled water is safer (less regulation), or the idea that bottled water companies are simply meeting demand. Heard that one before? In fact, ten to fifteen percent of the cost of bottled water goes into advertising (that’s high). And as for the idea that bottled water is somehow green, the film points out that roughly 17 million barrels of oil are used to produce and transport the bottled water consumed in this country annually.

For a more in depth look at this issue in the broader context of water privatization, I recommend the excellent feature length documentary FLOW: For Love of Water.

From the tone of the video, you would think that people would have to be crazy to buy bottled water given the absence of any clear benefit over what already comes out of the tap for free.  And perhaps they are. But that’s not the choice that most people are making when they walk into a sandwich shop for lunch or stop for a cold drink at a gas station along the road. They are choosing between that bottle of water and the other soft drinks standing in the cooler next to it. And given the high levels of sugar and high fructose corn syrup in many of those, we are looking at a lesser-of-two-evils scenario. Sugary soft drinks get a free pass in the video, even though they have all of the same environmental problems of bottled water, plus they contribute significantly to the obesity and type II diabetes epidemics that are sweeping this country. According to Coca-cola, the carbon footprint of Coke in a comparable container is about the same as bottled water. Most of the footprint come from the packaging; cans are significantly lower than bottles.

Sales of bottled water have already been declining, a result of both the recession and all of the negative attention that watchdog groups have been providing.
Now the bottled water companies, particularly in Europe are fighting back by going on the offensive, arguing that all the negative press has pushed consumers not towards their kitchen faucets, but rather into the seductive arms of sugary soft drinks. A spokesman for the National Hydration Council, a British trade group representing several major European bottled water companies said, “Rather than turning on the tap, people are turning to sugary drinks, and the switching equates to pouring an extra 1,700 tonnes of sugar and 6.8 billion calories into [England’s] diet.” Be careful what you wish for.

So,  bottled water is only a small part of the larger problem of soft drinks (in 2007, bottled water accounted for 14% of the overall $69 billion soft drink market). Worldwide 72 billion cases of soft drinks were sold that same year.

But this is a good place to start. Considering America’s longstanding love affair with soft drinks, getting people to give up Coke and Pepsi is going to be a long uphill battle indeed.
The Story of Bottled Water takes on the problems associated with bottled water in a direct way that at times wanders into blunt oversimplification. For example, the idea that the enormous boom in bottled water sales was entirely the result of a massive advertising campaign fails to factor in the growing awareness of health and nutrition at the time, which made the market ripe for a cheap, healthy alternative to sugary soft drinks.

I’m not sure we have the perfect answer yet. One thing we can be sure of; no matter what we say or do, people are always going to get thirsty.


Is bottled water bad? Read more here.

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact:

6 responses

  1. This is Tom Lauria from the International Bottled Water Association. The United States bottled water market is truly consumer driven. This is, in large part, because people are making healthier beverage choices. The strength of this consumer self-generated demand is illustrated by the relatively modest amount spent on bottled water advertising. The 2007 bottled water advertising expenses totaled only $54.5 million. For comparison purposes, $637 million was spent on advertising carbonated soft drinks (over ten times that for bottled water), and advertising expenses for beer totaled $1 billion (approximately 20 times that for bottled water).

    I wonder if your readers know that plastic is derived from an oil by-product? The sludge leftover from gasoline production finds a second life as useful, light-weight plastic material. Currently, bottled water containers' have the highest recycling rate of any plastic product — 30.9% That's not high enough but heading the right direction. Because of significant light-weighting of our plastic bottles over the past eight years, bottled water has one of the smallest carbon footprints of ANY packaged beverage.

    Years before I began my job here, I discovered how delicious bottled water tastes, crisp and refreshing. I still also drink tap water, of course — it's literally indepensible for all aspects of modern life. Those “taste-testings” in the Leonard video were all conducted by anti-bottled water activists. Many people don't enjoy the smell and taste of chlorine or the turbidity of tap water; the cloudiness that sometimes occurs. For whatever reasons, bottled water (properly recycled) has a legitimate and viable role to play in human hydration.

    1. Tom: How are water bottles segregated in recycling streams to determine their rate of recycling over other PET bottles? My understanding is that most MRFs are single-stream these days. And even if they weren't they wouldn't be segregating PET based on what was carried? Did a third party conduct some kind of study that determined water bottles have a higher recycling rate?

    2. “The United States bottled water market is truly consumer driven.”

      I think that's only partly true – clearly, the multi-million dollar marketing efforts by Coke and Pepsi have helped. Dasani anyone?

      What tap water needs is better marketing. Check out what they've been doing in Venice:

      A professional, celebrity filled marketing campaign to re-brand tap water, and you can get a fancy bottle to take it around with you if you want. Imagine what that could do in the US?

      Some US Cities, especially in the desert west, have terrible tap water, and it's likely that poor quality drives some people to choose bottled water, but in cities with excellent tap water (including New York and San Francisco) it makes a lot more sense for people to fill up a bottle, if they must carry water with them. Even where water is lousy, companies like Brita have a great business opportunity – why not give away a stylish bottle with a Brita filter and make people feel good when they carry it around, telling the world about their greener choice?

      Some consumers willfully chose bottled water for various reasons – lousy tap water being the most legit, but sheer power of marketing, paranoia, laziness and vanity are pretty high up there in terms of the driving factors. Whether or not it's right or wrong to market to vanity is subject to debate, but I feel like a more interesting “solution” to our over-consumption of plastic bottles might simply be better marketing for tap water. That way we can avoid the preachy videos, and government intervention, and just let the best message win.

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