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Letting the 'greenie' out of the bottle?

Every consumer packaged goods company (CPGC) has a stake in the debate over whether bottled water is bad for the environment.
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FILED IN:  Sustainability  > Strategy

In these shifting times, bottled water is a metaphor, embodying lessons and challenges associated with the Green Movement.

Simplified, the attack against bottle water is that: the majority of
its plastic bottles end up in landfills; the bottles consume oil in
their production; and the availability of tap water makes the bottled
version an expensive, wasteful, unnecessary alternative.

So, what insights might CPGC’s derive from this battle?

No scorecard nor other single metric is haven.
It's not unreasonable to
speculate that bottled water would score respectably using the Wal-Mart
scorecard metrics. The bottles are designed to be as lightweight as
feasible, and are recyclable. The product has good transportation
characteristics in terms of density and package/product ratio.
Comparatively speaking, bottled water is no-frills. If it is
vulnerable—scorecard grade notwithstanding—what consumer packaged
product isn‘t?


When packaging is singled out as an environmental menace.
Water good:
bottle bad. Green, like any movement, is analogous to a pendulum: the
arc will have its extremes. As such, some green advocates have never
met a package that they do like. Packaging is ubiquitous, and therefore
an easy, convenient target. Too often, short shrift is given to the
fact that packaging makes possible the mass production/mass
marketing/mass consumption that underpin our standard-of-living. CPGC’s
should embrace the philosophy that packaging forever has to justify its
existence and that sustainability is an eternal objective never

Comparisons can be misleading.
Some opponents of bottled water pit it
against tap water. Wrong comparison. Bottled water is an alternative to
other beverages. But even head-to-head vs. tap, bottled might be
preferred on the bases of taste, content (for example, no fluoride),
etc. The fact that bottled water is in step with adjunct issues, such
as the fight against obesity, all-natural ingredients, and sugar-free,
carries little sway with some critics. CPGC’s should anticipate what
comparisons might be made of their products, as well as understand that
attacks will have their inconsistencies and disconnects.

Perception affects credibility.
Some brands sport labels depicting
ice-capped mountains, pristine brooks, or the like, even though the
actual source is municipal water. Critics decry it as deceptive, and
although it’s not germane to environmental issues, they use it to
portray the practitioners as untrustworthy. There’s an army of
watchdogs, eager to accuse greenwashing or other uncomplimentary
charges. CPGC’s shouldn’t unwittingly supply ammunition.

Technology can be misstated.
Corn-based bottles have been touted as an
alternative to PET. Various hurdles must be cleared, however, before
that alternative is viable. They include: a small supplier base;
competition with ethanol; development of sources resistant to drought
and pests; premium prices; and, yet unknowns regarding long-term
shelf-life performance. CPGS’s should know how arguments about
technology factor into the evaluation of their products’

Size matters.
According to the International Bottled Water Association,
U.S. bottled water sales topped $10 billion in 2006. And, given the
costs of water and the modest investment needed to enter the industry,
giants (Pepsi, Coca Cola, Nestle) down to small bottlers are making
handsome profits. Many green advocates equate industry size and carbon
footprint, without regard to other factors, using attacks that
substitute profiteering for profits. CPGCs, of course, must pursue
growth and profits, but in these times with the understanding that
their success can subject them to certain criticisms.

Convenience is under siege.
Everyone drinks and needs water. In tap
form, it’s inexpensive, and even free at some locations, such as
fountains; yet, bottled, it’s the second (to soft drinks) most consumed
beverage in the U.S. All the explanations share a common element:
convenience. While exercising environmental responsibility, a CPGC
still must provide convenience adequate for the consumer to choose its
packaged offering over one that’s less packaged or processed.

Global warming will continue to motivate individuals, groups,
institutions, and governments to take up the fight and packaging will
consistently be in their crosshairs. CPGC’s should regard bottled water
as a case study, helpful in mapping strategies on competing in the
green era.

Sterling Anthony, packaging consultant
100 Renaissance Center-43176, Detroit, Michigan 48243
Phone 313-531-1875, fax 313-531-1972
[email protected]


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