A 90-minute “documentary” on Nestlé’s water business recently went on air. It illustrated a whole spectrum of perceptions, misperceptions and allegations concerning this part of our business. Also one or two commentators on this blog have asked questions about water sold in bottles.
Now, this blog is not about bottled water, and it is neither meant as a smokescreen or an apology for the fact that we offer high-quality water to consumers – an offer they can then decide to accept or to turn down.
This blog is about the rapidly increasing overuse and, as a result, the shortage of freshwater where it is most needed, i.e., to grow food for a further increasing world population, to produce energy, and to supply households with water for all its uses. This is the most vital issue of our time, and in this big picture, bottled water is rather irrelevant. Let me illustrate this with some facts.
Bottled water in context
On average each person, per day, effectively “eats” between 3,000 and 6,000 litres of freshwater ‘embedded’ in our food, depending on the amount of meat in our diet (see my response to a comment received).
The bigger share of food is grown in rain-fed agriculture; but globally more than 1,200 litres per capita per day are abstracted from rivers, lakes and underground aquifers for irrigation of farms. In one of my earlier posts, I mentioned the freshwater needed for biofuels – this is not yet included in the numbers above.
Another 330 litres per head of world population are withdrawn for industry each day – more than half for energy, mostly for cooling of thermal power plants. About 220 litres per capita and per day serve as municipal water for domestic purposes. (All data is based on this report (pdf, 6Mb)’s estimates from the 2030 Water Resources Group).
In addition, large amounts of water are lost due to leakage. Estimates say that in industrialised countries up to one third, in developing countries up to 70% of the water abstracted by municipal water organisations never reaches the households (The Challenge of Reducing Non-Revenue Water (NRW) in Developing Countries - pdf document, 700Kb).
Compare the enormous numbers in these four main uses with the amount of water sold in bottles. As a global average, people consume an estimated 0.08 litres of bottled water per day. A bit more than one-tenth of it is sold by the Nestlé Group – the equivalent of less than two teaspoons per capita of world population and per day.
Why do consumers choose to drink bottled water?
I believe there are some compelling reasons why people choose to drink bottled water – not always, but in very specific situations.
Let me mention a few aspects, starting with quality. The tradition of bottled water follows in the age-old tradition of the spa, sources with specific health benefits. It goes back to Roman and pre-Roman times, and became more widespread in the 18th century in the Northern Hemisphere.
Today, people still travel to get to the water they know is good for their health. In places like Vittel in France where we bottle water, everybody has free access to the fountains.
In our view, bottling this water is very efficient and also democratic to help give access to spa water for those who may not wish or be able to travel to the source. In other words, consumers are not mainly paying us for the water in the bottles but for the service to make it available whenever, wherever or however they wish.
Another aspect of quality is taste, and particularly consistency of taste, for those who dislike the chlorine ‘flavour’ of tap water in certain places of the world.
There is also a safety aspect. In many parts of the world, water is safe for washing and showering but may have certain risks when used for hydration, so bottled water is a good alternative.
Third, there is the need for simple hydration. There are situations where no tap water is available, e.g., at an outdoor event or when walking in the street. Here, bottled water will usually be sold in competition with sodas – effectively “water” with lot of added sugar, flavours and colours – or alcohol drinks, all potentially contributing to the increasing obesity problem in the world. We are convinced that in these and many other situations, well-balanced mineral water is by far the most effective and healthiest way to re-hydrate.
The discussion will continue, and why not also on this blog. Let me know your thoughts on bottled water today and in future, also the positive aspects, where, when and in what form do you think people might chose it as their preferred beverage.