Bluewashing: Why the Bottled Water Industry’s EcoFriendly Claims Don’t Hold Water
Corporations have a financial incentive to hide their environmental impacts from an American public that wants to buy environmentally friendly products. As consumers have been looking for ways to “go green,” corporations have been accused of “greenwashing” — selling products as environmentally responsible when they actually damage the environment. Today, with heightened media attention on the world water crisis, blue is the new green — and corporations appear to be using similar “bluewashing” tactics to obscure their effect on the world’s water.
In 2008, bottled water sales declined for the first time in years, partially due to the economy, but also largely due to growing awareness about the social and environmental impacts of the product. The industry’s largest players, including Nestlé Waters North America, The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo appear to be responding by trying to sell bottled water as an environmentally friendly product — despite its damage to water systems and the environment in general.
For example, the major bottling companies are using World Water Day to advertise their contributions to water charities in developing countries and to highlight the steps they are taking to make their manufacturing more water-efficient. Yet bottled water is inherently not a water-friendly product. Bottling companies take water out of local water systems and ship it elsewhere — which is one reason that many residents worried about their local water have opposed water bottlers in their communities. Manufacturing the product also requires additional water. And no matter how much water bottlers talk about the steps they are taking to reduce their water footprint, as long as water generates profit, bottlers will never have incentive to reduce overall water consumption.
The industry is trying hard to recover from the bad reputation it obtained from using large quantities of oil, creating pollution through plastic production and transportation, and generating mountains of landfill waste. Today, bottlers are advertising thinner plastic or plastic partially made from plants and trumpeting their commitment to recycling projects. Nestlé even commissioned what it claims is the first comprehensive peer-reviewed study of the environmental impacts of packaged beverages, showing that bottled water has the lowest water and carbon footprint, and that Nestlé’s new bottles have the smallest footprints compared to other water bottlers. Yet even Nestlé’s own study found that tap water has an even lower carbon footprint. And tap water does not use plastic at all.
All of these attempts to sell packaged water encourage consumers to ignore the most environmentally responsible choice: the tap. Many Americans do not realize that as bottled water sales have steadily increased, the federal funding their communities need to keep tap water safe has systematically declined. The federal government can reverse this trend by providing steady funding for water infrastructure through a Clean Water Trust Fund and ensuring tap water remains a sustainable, safe and affordable source of water.