In a world seemingly teeming with problems, perhaps one of the most important challenges of our time is the world water crisis. Worldchanging readers are deeply familiar with this issue, but most people living in the Global North have only a glancing awareness of the problem. Yet the worldwide scarcity of clean water and adequate sanitation diminishes the prospects of almost half of the Earth’s population. Commentators often note that a person dies every eight seconds from a water-related disease. They often fail to mention the terrible plight of hundreds of millions of people who survive but endure lifetimes of chronic debilitation and pain due to the absence of basic, clean water. The forces of climate change and global urbanization will only exacerbate this problem in the coming years.
There is work underway at numerous levels, particularly national governments and multilateral organizations. Similar to HIV/AIDS, there is no easy solution to this global crisis. It will require new systems, entrepreneurial innovation and multi-sector cooperation. Numerous governments, international institutions, private foundations and non-governmental actors already are striving to cooperate and create both top-down and bottom-up approaches to alleviate the problem.
To support these efforts and inject new energy into the equation, it is time for the private sector to take a seat at the table – perhaps even the head chair. As much as any of the other stakeholders, the global business community has a vested interest in a shared and stable future for our planet. It is critical for corporations to assert themselves and help to alleviate the present crisis.
A number of leading corporations already engage in environmental stewardship, resource conservation, and watershed preservation. We should applaud such activities – however it is urgent for incumbents to do more. In particular, it would be wise for those multinational corporations that reaped tremendous profits from water-oriented businesses to acknowledge their direct and public stake in the global water issue. Among all such players, the large beverage companies should step forward to demonstrate leadership by converting an ostensible problem into a historic opportunity – bottled water.
A $40 billion worldwide bottled water market, bottled water is the fastest growing beverage category in the world. It soon will eclipse carbonated soft drinks as the most widely consumed beverage in the world. Such extraordinary success has imprinted a bulls-eye on the industry that grows just a little bit more every day with each bottle sold. Critics blame bottled water for all imaginable ills. Some governments such as the state of California are even considering new taxation schemes to extract value from bottled water sales.
As they face this kind of negative targeting, beverage companies face a major opportunity to use their bottled water brands to change the game on global water issues. There are some notable corporate efforts to make a difference in this area. Though frequently criticized by activists, Coca Cola has received widespread praise from public health experts for the complexity and depth of its 70-plus humanitarian water and sanitation projects around the world. Proctor and Gamble has worked with USAID to bring clean water to communities through its PUR initiative.
However, rather than sing their own praises or attempt to counter the activists’ arguments, leading multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola, Danone, Nestle, Pepsico, Starbucks and Tata should turn the tables. They should seize the moment and use their products as a platform for action and education. In fact, there is no better time to do so than today, March 22, World Water Day.
Declared more than a decade ago by the United Nations, World Water Day lacks the profile of its older cousin, Earth Day. Some efforts already have been launched to use this day as a platform for social mobilization. The clever Tap Project led by UNICEF is discouraging bottled water consumption in restaurants across Manhattan in favor of direct donations to water-related initiatives. Others have joined the Think Outside of the Bottle campaign. Nonetheless, World Water Day should be viewed by the business community as an opportunity to embrace a new role and galvanize the public on the world water crisis.
Imagine if some portion (if not all) of the profits from every bottle of water sold in the US and Europe on March 22 were used to fund humanitarian water programs? Consider the impact if the packaging on ready-to-drink beverage products sold in the weeks pre- and post-World Water Day included educational information designed to enlighten consumers about the issues and suggest strategies to decrease water usage and help those in need get water? Think of the sea change in public opinion that could occur if the media spend of these corporations during this timeframe repeated a set of specific PSA-style messages and offered consumers with ideas on how to get involved and make a difference?
This would not be CSR per se, but a sophisticated and synchronized strategy that would awaken the sleeping giant of millions of consumers and channel its latent political will into action. Along the way, such a massive effort would shake the broader business community to its foundations. While the RED campaign would be well-advised not to dwell on its detractors and instead continue its work to raise dollars for the Global Fund, it currently encompasses only a handful of products, each an infrequent purchase, and it lacks any meaningful educational dimension. In contrast, imagine if a coordinated World Water Day campaign was not a one-time gimmick, but a seasonal effort replicated every single year by the leading companies in the sector.
Overnight, the bottled water segment of the beverage industry could transform itself from one of the most highly criticized to one of the most highly praised for using the symbols of its very success to achieve a higher purpose. Such breakout leadership by the market leaders inevitably would attract other companies in other categories to get involved – whether by their own volition or due to consumer pressure. Imagine if the global personal care industry embraced hygiene in a similar way or if DIY retailers and their suppliers tackled plumbing and sanitation. The knock-on effects could be staggering.
It defies description to consider the potential power of such an ambitious and collaborative campaign – and the hope it would inspire among people around the world. Many players in the beverage industry already are working to address water issues, but the industry bears a special responsibility due to its handsome success. Let us hope that the corporations can seize the opportunity and leverage their good fortune to the benefit of those who need it most.
Yeah, and while we're at it... how about switching out those fossil-based bottles for compostable versions made from corn?
Bottled water is not sustainable. And privatizing water (by putting it in a bottle) is wasteful and immoral.
"At a small but growing number of sustainably inclined Bay Area restaurants, bottled water has become as much of an outcast as farmed salmon and out-of-season tomatoes. Instead of bottled water, diners now are served free carafes of -- gasp! -- tap water. It's filtered and comes still or sparkling, fizzed up by a soda-fountain-style carbonating machine."
Here are my reply: A Motion to Eliminate Bottled Water - http://www.for-legacies-sake.ca/issues/sustainability/bottled-water.lasso
"Imagine if..." the corporations saved the day. Nice pipe-dream, but I thought WorldChanging was about solutions?
I appreciate the idea of a self-imposed subject-specific tax (when people are thirsty and buying a bottle of water they might better appreciate the idea of supporting the more helplessly thirsty), but wouldn't all those companies get just as much done if they made an equivalent tithe, not tied to specific sales, to support the cause? Or stopped lobbying against corporate taxation, stopped using corporate tax shelters, started lobbying for responsible spending and more foreign aid, and and lobbying against pork spending? You can't get around the fact that gravity is the most efficient way to move water around, and yet millions of Americans burn fossil fuels to move fossil-fuel bottles of water. I have a friend who says every time he sees a bottle of water he sees a nice thick layer of light sweet crude on the top. Climate change is threatening several of the world's major rivers. The very idea of bottled water threatens the idea that all Americans have a right to clean, cheap drinking water--not to mention the fact that municipal water is often cleaner anyway.
Water--presumably good old municipal tapwater--is used to make, oh, coffee. How about if every corporation that serves coffee adds five cents to the price, and posts the educational posters and a donation jar at the cash register? Then I can support my sociall responsible business and get my caffeine in my sturdy, resuable stainless steal carafe.
I'm appalled that WorldChanging would promote something so blatantly wasteful, unnecessary, harmful to the environment and so beneficial to corporations at the expense of consumers' pockets as the bottled water industry.
If you want to help the environment, drink tap water. It's fine, in most Western countries anyway. If you want to help the poor with their water, save up the money you would have spent on bottled water and give it to an organization like WaterAid.
WorldChanging is a great site - but please be a little more critical about writing or accepting posts.
See ethos-water.com for a good sum-up of ethical bottled water sellers.
Not even clos. No cigar here. I think the negative impacts of bottled water outweigh the benefits. It looks like a pretty weak attempt at trying to be "karma-neutral."
I'm a bigger fan of ideas like the Tap Project (http://www.tapproject.org/) which gets NYC restaurant goers to donate a buck for the water they drink.
Along with Ethos, you also missed Belu water (www.belu.org) which also has a compostable bottle. They've even merited a counter-campaign website (belu.co.uk) which calls them profiteers.
My personal favourite is the Dutch version, Neau (www.neau.nl). It's simply an empty bottle that you refill from the tap...Sometimes the best ideas....
What great thinking. The notion of using the awful popularity of bottled water as a means of solving one of the worlds greatest challenges is brilliant.
Is the notion that corporations/industries could be better citizens and help to mitigate there negative impacts really that much more far-fetched than thinking that some underfunded public information campaigns are going to change the minds of consumers who have been thoroughly brain-washed for the past decade to believe that bottled water is what's best?
The point here is getting an industry to good by convincing them to do something in their own self-interest. Adding a few cents to a sale fits that bill. Giving up the fight against corporate taxation does not. Which of course is the unfortunate reality for all of us.
I am pleased to see that this post has elicited some strong responses from the public. It should – bottled water is big business and the world water crisis is a much bigger humanitarian problem. Some would say it’s the biggest issue facing our planet. At the same time, I would like to clarify a few points raised by the article and the ensuing comments.
First, it is illogical to state that Worldchanging is promoting bottled water by touching on this issue in a one essay. One might choose not to purchase bottled water and dislike the fact that this is a fast-growing, $40 billion worldwide enterprise, but writing about this actuality is little more than acknowledging an inescapable (albeit uncomfortable) reality. While I think it is unrealistic to imagine that you can shut down this global industry, I strongly believe that there is tremendous room for improvement and innovation. This post was inspired by this sentiment.
I wanted to provoke a discussion about whether the leading corporations could channel some portion of their considerable financial and marketing resources toward a related issue in the public interest – alleviating the global water and sanitation crisis. Despite the varied criticisms posted in response to this essay, no one has provided a clear and thoughtful argument against this goal. I would invite someone to explain how this can be a bad idea, particularly a reader from the Global South who has lived with the consequences of unclean drinking water and inadequate sanitation services.
I would not dispute that tap water in developed countries is a reasonable alternative to bottled water. I pointed out the Tap Project for this very reason. I also highlighted the Think Outside the Bottle campaign developed by Corporate Accountability International, an watchdog group strongly opposed to bottled water.
I also would be delighted to see more manufacturers and retailers adopting aggressive recycling programs to combat the wastage generated by discarded ready to drink beverages, whether bottled water, soft drinks, packaged smoothies, etc. Too often these businesses simply defer to local municipalities and their regulations. It is long overdue for industry to take the lead, a point that I should have included in my original post.
I also hope that the market leaders will commit to R&D to support the development of bio-degradable packaging solutions. Natureworks PLA has gotten a fair amount of attention for its product and deserves praise as the first mover, though its product suffers from some serious flawas that have impeded its growth. Based on my conversations with others in the packaging industry, I am confident that we will see additional breakthroughs in this field in the near future.
Dreaming and imagining and investing thought power into wild and wonderful ideas that inspire is where all real change begins. I sugggest a brainstorming on the topic and no stone left unturned; all ideas are encouraged. Ask children who are uncensored full of joy, empathy and enlightenment before they hit the misery of guardedness that comes with adolescence. Now is NOT the time to be cynical. Now is the idea for ideas and managing change in small chunks and bites. Perhaps you cannot stop truck loads of bottled water; maybe those truck can be imposed with rules that they only use biodiesel. Perhaps for every $1.00, $.50 must go to saving lives with clean water initiative (but which one?) We need water watch-dogs. My home does not have a water catchment system; and now after reading this I am thinking about learning about this possibility. If every community had a "green learning center: where you could get educated and assist on teams for such projects; then one family at a time could convert to solar/wind power; catchment systems; biodiseal conversion; etc. More people need to be educated on the topics to know about the WHY of it all and then they could move into the how of it all. We all need to support each other through these changes.
inescapable (albeit uncomfortable) reality
How is it inescapable? It is a market created by marketing. It is growing b/c people are working hard to grow it. Why should we participate in that? Why shouldn't we actively try to ungrow it and grow something else? I'd rather grow a market in plumbing maintenance and good, long lasting reusable bottles. 5 years ago it would have been ridiculous to dream that possible, but it would also have been impossible to dream of this conversation.
I wanted to provoke a discussion about whether the leading corporations could channel some portion of their considerable financial and marketing resources toward a related issue in the public interest
Sure. They should do it. But as a first world consumer *I'm* still making a better choice not drinking bottled water at all, and saving my money to make my own direct donation. And recognizing that if their marketing is creating more plastic bottles, then it might end up doing the world more harm than good. And I really would get excited about a company that did the things I mentioned. One of the reasons I don't hate on Starbucks as much as my compatriots--why I even shop there fairly often---is because I know it does a lot of philanthropic and environmental work that's not purely sales-driven and sometimes not even well publicized. I wasn't kidding about my other requests--build me a transparent company that operates like that and I will be one loyal customer.
Listen, I buy plenty of bottles. I bought one today, having forgotten my reusable bottle before a long trip. I'd love it if more of my money was going to causes like this. But I do not want to encourage more marketing of a product I should be buying less of. (And it's not just about the packaging but about the shipping!!) If it makes you feel any better, if given the option, when I do buy water, I more often buy Ethos water instead of another brand. But I really don't want anyone asking me to buy more.
I find figures on the web for $10 B in annual American bottled water sales. 1 day's worth = around $28 million. Let's say the profit margin is 10%--that's a $2.8 million donation. 30%? $8.4 million. Compare that to around $5 billion in Coca Cola's profits, or around $7 million in the CEO's annual pay.
Now let's say that the sales revenue only represents 10 billion bottles of water, and that the market of regular buyers is in the 10s of million range. If pro bono marketers can convince 100,000 people to buy 50 fewer bottles of water each year, and donate those $50 bucks to water development, they're already solidly in the range of your proposed donation. They've also cut on their consumption of fossil fuels and their production of waste. That seems like a much more efficent marketing campaign if your goal is raising funds--and one more possible in the of the WorldChanging context.
particularly a reader from the Global South who has lived with the consequences of unclean drinking water and inadequate sanitation services.
Well, I have spent my last year living with those consequences even after leaving those conditions. It sucks.
if we were still talking about just heading toward a sustainable, industrial future, i'd be okay with this argument. i don't think it fits as well with the pollution emergency scenario, because i don't think bottled water is something worth saving in the short term, to keep the long term risk under control.
There's already a company in Canada trying to do something like this called Earth Water. They're based in Edmonton, and all of their profits go to water programs sponsored by the UNHCR. They seem to have their hearts in the right place, but I'd have to agree with the other people here that there are fundamental questions of sustainability posed by bottling water that can't be answered just by spending the profits well.
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