By: Nick Engelfried
August 15, 2010
After years of rapid growth in US bottled water sales, it seems this commodity long eschewed by environmentalists may finally be losing public favor. According to a report released this summer, US bottled water sales declined for the second year in a row during 2009, while revenue decreased for producers of the commodity. While the economic recession no doubt had a hand in the decline, years of work from environmental and consumer groups may have helped set the stage for bottled water’s abandonment. It seems more and more consumers are finding out what many non-profit organizations have been saying all along: that bottled water is a luxury which takes a toll on both the planet and consumer wallets.
The first several years of the twenty-first century saw beverage companies like Nestle, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo successfully market bottled water to millions of US consumers, raking in a profit in the process. Yet simultaneously a national movement was growing to counter marketing by the bottled water industry. Non-profits like Corporate Accountability International have mounted educational campaigns claiming bottled water is of no better quality than water from the tap. Meanwhile bottling and re-selling water uses energy and resources unnecessarily, while raising serious questions about the morality of privatizing a life necessity.
Every year the manufacture and transport of bottled water in the US consumes about 30 million gallons of oil, while three out of every four plastic water bottled produced end up being thrown away instead of recycled. These statistics have prompted many environmentalists to join the campaign against bottled water. Meanwhile other groups and individuals are concerned about the product’s effect on human health. A report from 2009 showed bottled water to actually be less regulated than tap water, raising concerns that greater oversight of the industry is needed.
At the same time awareness has been growing around the world that privatization of water supplies could have a serious impact on communities all over the planet. Late last month the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution stating that access to water should be regarded as a human right, and that all nations should work to provide sanitary water supplies to the public. “The General Assembly vote is a clear victory for the water justice movement,” said Kelle Louaillier of Corporate Accountability International, soon after the vote took place. Passage of the UN resolution was spurred in part by the fact that close to 900 million people around the world lack access to safe drinking water today.
Even after years of public education and campaigning, the shift away from bottled water in the US did not really begin until the economic recession of 2008. Total volume of bottled water sold in the US declined 1% that year, and dropped another 2.5% in 2009. Economic hard times have been largely blamed for bottled water’s dip in popularity, but this assumption may miss the wider point. Were it not for years of education, and studies showing the health and environmental impacts of bottled water, consumers might not so readily have crossed the item off their shopping lists once money became tighter.
The question now, for those who see privatized water as problematic, is whether the decline in bottled water sales will continue even as the economy recovers. This may be the real test of whether the drop-off in popularity is just a temporary phenomenon brought on by recession, or a sign of a real shift in public perception of the bottled water industry.
Photo credit: Nick on Flickr,