Bottled Water Industry, Nestle Launching New Bottled Water Offensive in UK

We’re tracking the bottled water industry and its attempts to revive its flagging fortunes. Sales have been battered by a bad economy and a rising tide of assaults on the bottled water market, and with profits at risk, we all knew the bottled water industry (and Nestle in particular) would get motivated.

That’s the subject of our next e-newsletter (sign up today!), but in this post, we’re looking at what’s happening in Europe – specifically the UK.

We found a brilliantly written piece about the bottled water industry in the Independent – a piece which just gets better and better as it unfolds. Here are a few excerpts, though the whole thing is worth a read:

Now, though, bottled water is in danger of being a has-been. After three decades of constant growth which saw sales rise by a factor of 100, from 20m litres a year in 1976 to 2,000m litres in 2006, the rise and fall of the sales chart is starting to resemble one of the mountains pictured in the advertising. Unless the slide is halted, bottled water will become history, a consumer fad that couldn’t live up to the hype. Unlikely, certainly, but the industry is spooked.

Mineral water is being assailed on all sides. Two years of extremely cloudy summers have hit demand; and now, the collapsing economy is causing consumers to question whether they need to spend £1 or £2 on something they can get for a fraction of the price at home. Most vexingly to its multinational cheerleaders, bottled water has become a symbol of environmental lunacy. How can one defend a product that is trucked hundreds or thousands of miles in plastic bottles when it gushes out of taps almost free? The Government has announced that it is banning mineral water from civil service meetings. Consumer groups call on diners to ask for tap – and millions are doing so. Mineral water is no longer cool; it’s dumb, bought by gullible clothes-horses who care more about their skin than the planet.

For two years the executives of the £2bn-a-year bottled water industry have sat tight, hoping things would improve, silently fuming as their product’s reputation dripped away. Now, they are striking back. Britain’s three biggest bottled-water companies, the Swiss food giant Nestlé, the French dairy corporation Danone and Highland Spring have founded a lobby group to restore its reputation. The trio met in Cambridge earlier this month to hatch a plan to restore mineral water to its rightful place in the public’s affections.

So far, it’s about what you expect. And sadly, so is the next paragraph:

In months to come, there will be lobbying from the Natural Hydration Council and a massive advertising campaign that will seek to re-educate the public about the benefits of bottled water. And it will get dirty. The bottled water camp is throwing mud at the tap water companies, with talk of chlorine, septic tanks, contamination and irresponsible leakage. The companies are fighting for their lives. And they complain about dark forces doing down their transparent, beautiful product. How did water get this murky? And should we be buying San Pellegrino or Badoit – or not?

What, exactly, does the writer mean about “it will get dirty”? This, apparently:

Danone’s solution to this is to tell the public that tap and bottled are not the same, even if they look the same. In his presentation to fellow industry members in Cambridge, Mr Krzyzaniak shows a picture of two identical looking glasses of water. “But are all waters created equal?” his presentation asks. “NO!” screams the graphic. There are pictures of the production of bottled and tap water. Bottled water drifts down from clouds over mountains, percolates through rocks and ends up in clear bottles. Tap water comes from groundwater, risking “contamination” from pesticides and fertilisers and a grey blot in the ground marked “septic tank”. A dissected water pipe shows it is all furred up inside, like an old kettle.

And this;

Almost three-quarters of British people (72 per cent) believe that tap water is of good quality and only 9 per cent believe that it’s bad quality. With good reason – the Drinking Water Inspectorate says that 99.96 per cent of UK water meets EU standards, unlike many parts of the developing world where drinking water is highly dangerous.

But these figures do not impress the bottled water industry: “99.96 per cent of your water being good enough is not good enough – 100 per cent of our water has to be good enough, because that 0.4 per cent, that fraction there, is not good enough. That should be challenged more,” says Montgomery.

A key issue here is “consistency”, adds Krzyzaniak. “Tap water changes from glass to glass,” he says, explaining that chlorine wears out over time, meaning that the quality can vary depending on how long it has been sitting in the pipe. “And it also depends on the source, depending on where you picked up along the Thames. Could you be near a treatment centre, could you be near a highly agricultural centre, could you be near a waste treatment centre?

It’s this level of fearmongering we can expect to eventually see here in North America; bottled water executives will conveniently forget the Environmental Working Group tests which showed that two of ten national brands of bottled water had illegal levels of contaminants (and all featured something that didn’t belong).

It’s clear that bottled water is not standing on the sidelines any longer, and the question is no longer “when” but “how to counter them once their considerable PR and marketing might is applied to the issue.”