Tastes Like Consumerism: The Ethics of Bottled Water

It’s not so long ago that the idea of buying and drinking bottled water seemed like a mad extravagance to most Australians, given that you can get it for free from the tap. But these days, bottled water is on sale at every café, restaurant and event, and in vending machines everywhere you turn. Most of us have bought a bottle of water at some point, even if it’s just because we were thirsty on the go, and watching our sugar consumption.

But when you apply pure logic, buying bottled water still seems, well, illogical … at least here in Melbourne, where our tap water is among the best in the world.

In a recent blind taste-test, the Age’s wine reviewer Ralph Kyte-Powell and Huon Hooke tasted 15 brands of bottled water, as well as both Sydney and Melbourne tap water. Their findings? Melbourne tap water beat almost half the bottled brands. ‘If you filter your tap water, it’s perfectly good and competitive with most bottled waters,’ said Huon Hooke, who admitted that the pair were ‘far from cynical’ about bottled water as a product.

And that’s a foodie’s point of view, based on taste alone. When you consider the cost (more than the price of petrol) and the environmental impact (including both energy consumed to make the plastic packaging and the subsequent waste), the idea of drinking bottled water seems stranger still.

’It’s one of the greatest cons ever pulled’

Bottled water is generally 2500 times more expensive than tap water. According to Peter Gleick, president of the California-based Pacific Institute, bottled water burns at least 17 million barrels of oil a year in the US alone, just in making the bottles themselves. And then there’s the added carbon impact of transporting it.

‘It’s one of the greatest cons ever pulled,’ Clean Up Australia chairman Ian Kiernan told the Age in 2007. ‘It’s just lunacy, there is no other word for it. We are squandering our oil resources.’

In Australia, only 35 per cent of bottles are recycled; 55 per cent go to landfill, creating thousands of tonnes of rubbish per year.

When it comes to imported water, there’s another issue at stake, too: the impact of diverting water from communities who need it to survive.

Nestle CEO: Water is not a human right

Fiji Water is one of the world’s most popular brands, and America’s leading imported water (though it costs nearly three times as much as the average supermarket bottled water and is shipped from the opposite side of the world). A Mother Jones reporter described the typhoid outbreaks that plague Fijians because of the island’s faulty water supplies, and the fact that the water in Rakiraki, a small town half an hour from the bottling plant, is deemed ‘unfit for human consumption’. Grocery stores there are stocked with Fiji Water, which sells for the same price as in the US. ‘Half the country has at times relied on emergency water supplies, with rations as low as four gallons a week per family.’

Nestlé, the world’s biggest bottler of water (controlling more than 70 brands), made headlines when chairman and former CEO Peter Brabeck claimed that access to water is not a public right, or even a human right; he views it as ‘the most important raw material in the world’ and says the idea of water as a human right comes from ‘extremist’ NGOs.

In the small Pakistani community of Bhati Dilwan, a former village councillor says children are being sickened by filthy water – and that Nestlé are to blame, after they dug a deep well that is depriving locals of potable water. ‘The water is not only very dirty, but the water level sank from 100 to 300 to 400 feet.’

Do you want bling with that?: $55 per bottle

Bling H20 is the most expensive water brand in the world: it comes in a bottle adorned with Swarovski crystals and costs $55 a bottle. (It also comes in plastic bottles for $20 per bottle, reduced from $24 after the GFC.) Apparently Paris Hilton feeds it to her dog. Created by a Hollywood producer, the brand was created because, observing actors on film sets, he ‘noticed that you could tell a lot about a person by the bottled water they carried’ and decided to create a product for the ‘super luxury market’. The success of the brand represents the bottled water market at the height of its ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ emptiness.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Bling H20 are the ethical bottled water companies, who donate all or part of their profits to improving water supplies in the developing world. In Australia, Thankyou bottled water donates all its profits. The company estimates that each bottle provides at least one month’s worth of safe water to someone in need - though it has also has also attracted controversy in the past year, due to its ties to the Planetshakers church and donations to Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian organisation that runs aid and development programs in the developing world ‘with the aim of demonstrating God’s love and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ’. One, which also gives away all its profits, was created in a London pub, by a group of friends reflecting on the fact that one billion people in the world don’t have access to clean drinking water.

So, are ethical water companies the way to go? Elizabeth Royte, author of Bottlemania, says no. ‘It’s kind of insidious, because it perpetuates the idea that it’s better to drink water in a bottle.’

Sally Loane of Coca-Cola Amatil, Australia’s largest producer of bottled water, doesn’t see a problem with it as a product. ‘There is a market for it. Consumers like the convenience of bottled water. A lot of people believe it tastes better. It’s nice and cold. That’s what consumers want, and that’s what we’re giving them.’