The Ethical Nag: Why are you still buying bottled water?

Here is a great new post from Carolyn Thomas' The Ethical Nag: Marketing Ethics for the Easily Swayed.

A few years ago, the hit musical play called Urinetown opened at our local Belfry Theatre in Victoria.  In this unusual creation of playwrights Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, the world is turned upside down when the water supply completely runs out. With the pervasive theme of water on the minds of all Belfry staff, General Manager Mary Desprez decided to “do something truly radical”. Mary told the trade journal Equity Quarterly in its Fall 2008 issue that, because of growing public awareness that bottled water costs up to 1,900 times more than tap water and uses up to 2,000 times more energy to produce and deliver:

    “I put a water fountain in our lobby, and we stopped selling plastic bottles of water.”

Just Say No to Bottled WaterJust Say No to Bottled Water

Mary explained that this radical decision was a long time coming, but it was something she had always felt strongly about.

    “One of the things that drives me nuts is the idea of bottled water. People fill up plastic bottles with tap water and then truck it across the country so people will buy it. It’s such a waste of resources.  Water has become a commodity, which is scary.”

The response of some theatre patrons to her decision - a very negative backlash – surprised Mary at first.  But it didn’t surprise me, or my fellow Belfry Theatre volunteers.

I’d been working the Belfry concession as a volunteer since 1986. In all those years, I’d personally never encountered any theatre decision – not even wine or beer price increases – that struck a nerve as much as denying our patrons their God-given right to purchase plastic bottles of water. Some people were rude. Others were downright angry at us. But over time, even the most disgruntled whiners among our patrons eventually calmed down a bit.

Even better, the Belfry went on to receive a World Water Watch Award the following year for investing in the water fountain (a $2,500 expense). And the theatre also now sells reusable metal bottles at the concession to Belfry patrons.

Maybe these whiners were finally becoming grudgingly more educated about the many benefits of carrying their own refillable metal water bottle.  For example:

    * City tap water is rigorously inspected, and can have no confirmed E. coli or fecal coliform bacteria. Bottled water regulations include no such prohibition (a certain amount of any type of coliform bacteria is allowed in bottled water).
    * City tap water from surface water must be filtered and disinfected. In contrast, there are no government filtration or disinfection requirements for bottled water.
    * Most cities using surface water have to test for Cryptosporidium or Giardia, two common water pathogens that can cause diarrhea and other intestinal problems. Bottled water companies do not have to do this.
    * City tap water must meet standards for certain important toxic or cancer-causing chemicals, such as phthalate (a chemical that can leach from plastic, including those plastic water bottles); some in the industry persuaded government regulators to exempt bottled water from the regulations regarding these chemicals.
    * City water systems must issue annual “right to know” reports, telling consumers what is in their water. But bottlers successfully killed a “right to know” requirement for bottled water.

Growing awareness of facts like these have had a dramatically negative impact on the marketing of bottled water. Valerie Bauerlein, writing last summer in the Wall Street Journal, reported that bottled water makers had recently stepped up an aggressive price war to win back customers who have turned on the tap to save money and reduce environmental waste.

Need more ammunition to convince you to finally stop purchasing plastic bottles of water?  Read this World Heath Information Fact Sheet about bottled water.