Ever wonder about those people who spend $2 apiece on those little bottles of Evian water? Try spelling Evian backward...
— George Carlin
Well, maybe folks aren't entirely naïve about bottled water's negative impact on the environment, but they may not realize just how damaging it truly is.
While most of the attention is focused on all of the plastic that our parched population leaves behind, the damage caused by the water bottling process is far more extensive than landfills full of far-from-degradable plastic.
It takes about 1.5 million barrels of oil just to manufacture the bottles the U.S. consumes annually, according to the Earth Policy Institute. That's enough to power 100,000 cars. And that figure doesn't take into account the huge amount of fossil fuels required to ship that cargo across the country.
Locally, the environmental impact can be seen more clearly and quickly. Across the U.S., privatization of local water sources for bottling has destroyed wetlands, lowered water tables, and threatened overall water supplies. These environmental tragedies often happen right in front of a hapless public, who can only sit back, mouths agape, and watch as their natural resources are divvied up without their consent.
So it's an encouraging sign that Nestlé Waters North America (NWNA) — the largest producer of bottled water in the U.S. — is currently holding public hearings to give citizens a chance to vent their frustrations and concerns.
The major concerns are primarily two-fold: citizens want a voice in how their local spring water is distributed, and they want assurances that their local ecosystem will be respected in the process.
NWNA does have progressive water-management techniques in place now (including systems that allow hydrologists and geologists to monitor water sources), but as citizens become more aware of water scarcity, they are becoming more skeptical of such arrangements.
And until now, Nestlé hasn't done a very good job of acknowledging those concerns.
"We want to protect the values [of the communities], but we could be better about understanding exactly what those are," admitted one Nestlé research manager.
That's why NWNA contracted the Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) to develop a framework for engaging the communities where NWNA operates. They set up an eight-month project to analyze NWNA's current business practices and determine how to better involve the community in the future, and use that feedback to manage natural resources more responsibly.
1. Community dynamics: Communities are not "blank slates." Rather, they are complex ecosystems of relationships with their own dynamics and history. NWNA's presence has amplified existing conflicts and shifted power in ways that have damaged collaboration and trust among community members. To build relationships based on trust and cooperation, NWNA must take these pre-existing community dynamics into account. By doing so, the company can ensure that its presence sustains, rather than undermines, the social fabric of the community.
2. Trust versus data: Ostensibly, the communities' main concerns with NWNA relate to the company's sustainable use of water. But our interviews revealed that before the communities can even enter discussions about water management, they want assurance that they will be able to participate in decisions about their water resources — and they want to know that NWNA will be held accountable for its impact. In other words, trust trumps data. While NWNA is committed to transparency regarding its water use and actual or potential impact on aquifers, the company will have more constructive dialogue about monitoring and management if it makes concrete commitments to community participation and accountability.
3. Governance: Few U.S. cities and towns have permitting processes that address the extraction and bottling of water. As a result, when NWNA seeks to establish a new spring site, the company's efforts test the strength of local regulations and the perceived legitimacy of related public processes. Rigorous, transparent, and participatory permitting processes, and the credibility of local officials who oversee those processes, often play a role in facilitating or inhibiting NWNA's ability to gain community support through "official" licensing processes.
4. The definition of "responsibility": Public expectations for responsible corporate use of natural resources are expanding. In the past, it was sufficient for companies to minimize the impact of their operations and make philanthropic donations. Now, more leading companies are seeking to provide a net positive benefit from their activities. Because water is widely perceived as a public good, the public expects even greater net benefits, which means natural resource companies like NWNA must be more creative about the package of benefits they offer to host communities, both in terms of resource stewardship and community development. Leveraging human and technical resources and relationships for the public good can open new opportunities to align corporate activities with community development and enhance the long-term viability of water resources.
The BSR report clearly outlines the disconnected struggle between natural resource extraction companies and the communities where they operate. In defining the obstacles between them, we can only hope for a better system of communication between the two parties, so that communities know exactly what is happening to their resources.
This entire process is a positive one. Even if NWNA doesn't implement 100% of the BSR recommendations, it is at least a step toward transparency.
And the fact that public outcry is loud enough to force such a study is encouraging.
But aside from the community concerns, perhaps the most nefarious aspect of the growth of bottled water companies is the whole idea of commercializing a basic human right: clean and affordable water.
"Water is essential to life on this earth and to the viability of local communities," said Ruth Caplan of the Sierra Club. "Nestlé is bottling communities' spring water without their informed consent. Nestlé profits while consumers pay more than a thousand times the cost of their local water."
So while Nestlé has started this outreach program to gain more consent for their actions, the fact remains that they're peddling a product for up to 10,000 times more than your local tap water.
And that product is contributing to serious environmental damage, no matter how much you green-wash it.
In the end, it comes down to a pretty easy consumer choice that sidesteps all of these environmental hurdles. A reusable water bottle, filled with filtered water from your tap.
It's way cheaper and environmentally sound. And at the very least, nobody can call you naïve.
UPDATE: In recognition of World Water Day earlier this week, Anne Leonard — creator of "The Story of Stuff" documentary, has released "The Story of Bottled Water". Check out the video below.