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The Story of EAU

From prestige product to health booster to environmental scourge, Joanne Chianello examines the backlash against bottled water

By Joanne Chianello, The Ottawa CitizenMarch 21, 2009

In the early 1990s, Evian had all its basis covered. Several years of trying to build its image around athletic, sweating bodies had paid off on both ends of the celebrity spectrum.

Diana, Princess of Wales, drank Evian after working out at her exclusive London club -- and was occasionally photographed dashing from gym to car, bottle in hand.

Meanwhile, a pre-family-values Madonna would drink the French water on-stage at concerts. Her controversial documentary Truth or Dare provided the kind of publicity a company just can't buy in a scene where Madonna pleasures a bottle of Evian.


Fast-forward to 2007. Jennifer Aniston suffered a smack-down in the blogosphere for endorsing a high-end bottled water, while Sarah Jessica Parker lapped up kudos for sipping a glass of New York City tap water in aid of a UN fundraiser.

And when celebs start backing away from the bottle, the rest of us can't be far behind. Indeed, municipalities across the country are banning -- or considering a ban -- on selling bottled water on city-run premises.

But in the meantime, bottled water has grown into a $60-billion industry worldwide. In Canada, sales topped $730 million in 2007. And yet, suddenly a bottle of water is about as au courant as Michael Jackson's Thriller -- still the world's bestselling album, but you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who will admit to ever owning it.

How did something that seemed so innocuous, wholesome even, turn into a guilty pleasure, a symbol of everything that's wrong with consumer society?


Here's the irony at the heart of the water wars. Tomorrow's UN World Water Day is meant to raise awareness of the 1.1 billion people in the world who don't have access to safe drinking water. Yet in the self-indulgent West, we're mired in an argument over our precious bottled H2O. In Canada, where our water is relatively healthy, especially in urban areas, almost 30 per cent of us turn to the bottle as our primary source of water, according to Statistics Canada.

Not long ago, bottled water was a foreign affectation. Before Perrier made it across the pond in 1976, the industry in North America was negligible. But the French water company brought with it a big marketing budget aimed at urban professionals, and hired Orson Welles, whose velvet tones confided that Perrier's "natural sparkle is more delicate than any made by man."

By 1988, Perrier was selling 300 million bottles a year in the U.S., and had been joined in tony restaurants by the likes of Evian and Vittel.

As Elizabeth Royte points out in her book Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It, at that time, people sipped bottled water "because it signified. Ordering imported water was classy; it improved the tone of a dinner party."

It wasn't until the 1990s that bottled water sales began to soar -- and continued to do so until last year. But the marketing message has evolved. It's still about status, but instead of classiness, bottled water became a symbol of health.

And no wonder. Consumers were being bombarded by public health warnings about obesity, fitness gurus expounded on the necessity to drink eight glasses a day -- a health claim that continues to be contentious -- and confidence that tap water was sufficiently pure was sometimes shaky. In Ontario, we were shocked in 2000 when seven residents of Walkerton died and 2,500 were sickened by tap water contaminated by E. coli bacteria.

But perhaps the biggest boon to the bottled water industry was the introduction of the PET plastic 500 mL water bottle in 1989. Light, cheap, durable and -- at least in theory -- completely recyclable, it helped make bottled water a convenience many of us couldn't do without.

Neither could companies with an eye to cashing in on the exploding trend.

In the late 1990s, Pepsi introduced its Aquafina brand of water, soon followed by Coca-Cola's Dasani. Both are filtered tap water. They've also been the two-top selling brands for years.

Swiss conglomerate Nestlé went on a buying spree, and now owns more than 70 labels, including Perrier.

There's a water for every strata of society, for every subcategory of socio-economic stream.

Missed breakfast? Chug a Vitamin Water, which made rapper 50 Cent a reported $100 million when he took equity in the company in exchange for an endorsement deal.

Need a balm for your guilt? Buy Ethos water at Starbucks -- 10 cents from every $2.50 bottle goes to a water fund for the developing world.

You can buy water from an environmentally protected glacier or artesian water from the islands of Fiji that boasts it has been "untouched by man."

There's a brand for your dog.

There's also water for suburban families. It's pretty cheap. Despite much ink spilled over celebrity-endorsed designer waters with ludicrous price tags, the majority of bottled water sold in Canada comes in cases of 24 500-mL bottles for $5 or $6.

But in the last few years, bottled water has been under attack. A greening society, a weaker economy and an inevitable backlash -- it's all threatening bottled water's future.

In hindsight, it looked like bottled water's days were numbered in 2006. By then, the restaurant industry's flirtation with the pretentious water sommelier had fizzled out. That was also the year that Bling H2O was launched. Selling upwards of $40, the bottle was adorned with Swarovski crystals and conceived of by a Hollywood "writer-producer." No trend-setter worth her organic bamboo yoga tee was going to buy into such obvious conspicuous consumption.

Sure enough, in 2007, Alice Waters announced she would no longer sell bottled water at her famed Berkeley, California restaurant Chez Panisse. Putting her money where her local-food mouth is, she said she'd forgo the profits of bottled water -- traditionally served with a healthy markup -- because of the environmental concerns associated with the product. It wasn't long before San Francisco decided to ban the selling of it on municipal properties.

Not to be outdone by American colleagues, famed Toronto restaurateur Jamie Kennedy stopped serving water that came in plastic or from far away. While he offers a locally sourced spring water in glass for customers who request it, he boasts of drinking tap water at home.

It's these kinds of reports that have fuelled the backlash. They are the reason why the same yoga studio that was willing to sell you a plastic bottle of water a mere five years ago now regrets to inform you that they are no longer available.

They're why the United Church of Canada deems plastic water bottles "immoral" as it considers water to be "God's sacred gift."

The shift in public opinion about the environmental consequences of plastic in general prompted some Canadian municipalities to ban the sale of bottled water from their properties.

Nelson, B.C. was the first to prohibit its sales in city buildings last May, followed by London in August and Toronto in December. School boards across the country are also starting to ban their sale to students.

Peggy Feltmate, the councillor for Kanata South and the vice-chairwoman of the planning and environment committee, is all for switching city hall and other municipal buildings to tap water.

"Ottawa tap water is great quality and has a great flavour," she says.

She says that too much plastic is ending up in landfills. And now that the economy's gone south, the price for recyclable materials, including PET plastics, has fallen. Currently, it's costing the city money to get rid of recycled waste.

The way Bottlemania author Royte says, there's been a shift in "a group of people looking inward at their own health that thought they were doing something good for themselves. Now our eyes have lifted from our navels," she says with a laugh.

Like eschewing plastic bags, rejecting bottled water is an easy call for anyone who wants to leave a smaller carbon footprint. Unlike any other consumer product, bottled water's replacement is readily and cheaply at hand: just turn on the tap.

Obviously, giving up our cars, or air conditioners, or holiday jet flights would help the environment more. Few of us, though, are ready to be so radical.

Indeed, many environmentalists recognize this. Consider that soft drink bottles are made with twice as much plastic as comparable water bottles, and that pop is a far inferior nutritional product. By most logic, activists should be trying to outlaw sugary drinks delivered in plastic.

But many of them are not. They know us too well. Coke Zero and 7-Up aren't flowing for free out of every faucet. It's one battle at a time, and water is an easy target.

"Is it going to be the thing that's going to transform the environment from bad to good? No," says Franz Hartman, executive director of Toronto Environmental Alliance.

"But it's very important symbolically."

Mark Jaccard, a professor with the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University, is all for any measures that in some way "reduce the throughput of energy and materials in our economy. It has to start somewhere. So bravo to those municipalities who are taking action."

But no argument is ever completely one-sided or uncomplicated by battling facts.

Remember those $5 compact fluorescent light bulbs we all bought because they used less energy? Turns out that while the old-style incandescent bulbs did use more energy, they also helped heat our homes in winter. A recent report by BC Hydro suggests that the new lighting will increase the province's greenhouse gas emissions by 45,000 tonnes a year.

By the same token, we bought organic food believing we were doing something good for us and for the planet. But it turns out we could help Mother Earth a lot more if we bought local sprayed apples instead of organic ones from New Zealand.

There's some of the same sort of conflict in this water debate, too.

Of course the city should promote our public water supply. But they also should have reported a 2006 spill of more than one billion litres of raw sewage into the Ottawa River -- which they failed to do.

Just this week it was reported that Health Canada will be testing 60 water-treatment facilities for possible contaminants that may raise the risk of cancer, as well as traces of pharmaceuticals.

Elizabeth Griswold, executive director of the Canadian Bottled Water Assoc., has a well-rehearsed list of reasons why bottled water isn't so bad.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the recent news, she doesn't say that bottled water is healthier than city water (although individual products' use of words like "pure" and "fresh" indicates otherwise).

Instead, she argues that the bottle competes not with the tap, but other commercial beverages. It's a smart tactic -- water is by far the healthiest choice of available bottled beverages.

The argument is already starting to take hold with some pundits across the country. If bottled water isn't available for sale at community centres and hockey arenas, won't we all simply turn to pop instead?

That's a big supposition at this point -- and a false choice, say critics -- although cities haven't helped the matter by not providing sanitary, functioning fountains in public spaces.

But as the debate over the bottle continues to rage, the problem appears to be solving itself. After years of double-digit growth, the world's top three bottled water companies reported declining sales of water in 2008 to some degree. Part of that might be due to a greener consciousness, and part of it might be just the inevitable downturn as a consumer fad peaks and begins to tail off.

More than anything, though, the decline in sales is a consequence of widespread economic woes, as the recession spurs the usual rounds of belt-tightening and general rethinking of what is a necessity and what is a luxury. The fact that we're so quick to drop the bottle when times start to get a bit tough probably says more about its true place in our consumption hierarchy than all the arguments over carbon footprints, health benefits and overflowing landfills.

$60 billion
Value of bottled water industry worldwide

Bottled water sales in Canada in 2007

1.8 bILLION litres
Total amount of bottled water Canadians drank in 2007

Canadians who drink bottled water as a primary source of water

Water bottles recovered by City of Ottawa for recycling in 2008

Water bottles city estimates went to the landfill

1 billion
Conservative estimate of single-serve plastic water bottles Canadians go through each year

Water bottles that end up in landfill sites each year in Canada

As published at: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/Technology/story.html?id=1414398


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