Bottled Water Gets the Boot

As containers and costs mount, tap water is the rule in eateries.

But since the cap has been popped off the industry by consumers, activists, and a limping economy, sales have begun to go flat. In 2007, those 70 million daily bottles, when measured by volume, represented a 6.1 percent increase over the previous year — the lowest rate of growth since 1992. And Coca-Cola cut its outlook for the current quarter, blaming a weak North American economy that has bottlenecked water and soda sales — especially 20-ounce single-serving sizes.

Numbers aside, what has to be most distressing for the industry is that the cachet of bottled water, a product so iconic as to have recently been described by the New York Times as "an iPod for your kidney," is in danger of slipping away. Not surprisingly, the beverage business is strenuously attempting to keep protest from growing into a major backlash — and doing so by wielding the same weapon that stimulated the public's thirst in the first place.

Marketing: Now available in vibrant green.

Miami Mayor Manny Diaz drinks to his health.
Jacqueline Carini
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz drinks to his health.

"Sip with a clear conscience," reads recent promos for Fiji water, a "truly eco-friendly" drink. Zephyrhills' label boasts of being "a celebration of what's most natural about Florida." PepsiCo really pours it on, touting a partnership with a program "that transformed recycled Aquafina bottles into 100,000 fleece jackets for children." Dasani and Aquafina alone spent $43.4 million in advertising last year.

To be fair, more is being done than just superimposing eco-evocative words on images of glistening mountain streams. The big three nowadays all use lighter-weight containers. Aquafina says its 35 percent slimmer bottle prevents 45 million pounds of plastic from landing in the dump each year.

Coca-Cola's newly greened portfolio includes contributions to some 70 public water projects in 40 countries, construction of the world's largest plastic bottle recycling plant (expected to open next year in Spartanburg, South Carolina), and 142 hybrid delivery trucks, 10 of which debuted in South Florida last month (at a cost of $85,000 each). These might be drops in the bucket for the cola conglomerate, but encouraging drops — even if the motivation matches one of Eismann's: a matter of doing so before it has to.

Think Outside the Bottle is trying its best to make them feel as if they have to, and picking up powerful converts along the way. Manny Diaz is one. Though late to the recycling parade, the mayor arrived early and at the forefront of the national movement to do away with city spending on disposable bottles.

"Regular tap water is just fine," he says with a chuckle that suggests a stating of the obvious. "But we live in a marketing world." According to the city's purchasing department, the new anti-bottled policy resulted in a savings of more than $10,000 between November and July, compared to the same period in 2007.

In one of its clearest victories to date, TOTB pressured PepsiCo into agreeing to print "Public Water Source" on its Aquafina label. "If this helps clarify the fact that the water originates from public sources, then it's a reasonable thing to do," says Michelle Naughton, a Pepsi spokesperson. Ray Crockett, her counterpart at Coca-Cola, disagrees. "The FDA's definition of purified water does not require [disclosing] the source," he has been quoted as saying. "We believe consumers know what they're buying."

Or at least some do. Probably about the same percentage as those who know that Evian spelled backward is naive.

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