About bottled water

By Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

24 September 2012 See comments (11)

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Another 330 litres per head of world population are withdrawn for industry each day – more than half for energy, mostly for cooling of thermal power plants.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.

Your thoughts

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.


    25 Sep 2012 - 20:28 (GMT)

    c'est un sujet interessant, l'avenir de l'eau en bouteille, le vrai enjeu n'est pas de savoir quel sera le gain, mais plutot, quel sera la stratégie de l'entreprise Nestlé dans le monde, sachant bien que l'eau est devenue une denrée rare, aujourd'hui et encore plus demain, beaucoup de personne n'ont pas accés à l'eau potable, notamment dans les pays en voie de developpement.
    l'entreprise Nestlé doit renforcer son implantation dans ses pays et gagner de nouveaux marchés, malgrés parfois des instabilités de gouvernements ( coup d'état, etc...), c'est cela l'avenir et cela donnera une plus grande notoriété à l'entreprise Nestlé dans le monde, parmi la population.

  2. Robert Laughton @ Rt7

    04 Oct 2012 - 00:19 (GMT)

    I understand the wider debate that you are looking to tap into but would like to see engagement with a couple of other options that are not raised later in your article.

    I should firstly point out that I come from the bottled water market (water coolers and reusable water bottles) but try to not make this sway my opinions. I openly welcome your approach through your blog and I do the same through our own water companies.

    The provision of water "on the go" is a very important aspect of modern life - and you are right to point out that consumers need options but then you extend this in your conclusion to "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."

    1) Mineral water/spring water/pure water - all hydrate. Mineral water is not key.
    2) This does not have to be supplied through bottles - why not look to the provision of water fountains across cities and reusing bottles that consumers have. Existing one-trip bottles or reusable drinking water bottles.
    3) A large proportion of your water is manufactured rather than produced from springs as per Vittel,

    I think your article pointed out the wide spectrum of issues regarding water usage/wastage/issues that exist around the world. I think your conclusion points to vested interest rather than open debate on a more general subject.

    I welcome your blog

  3. William Sarni @ Deloitte Consulting LLP

    25 Oct 2012 - 02:46 (GMT)

    Bottled water is a bit of a lightning rod in the sustainability community and my views tend to be contrarian.

    I believe consumers pay a premium for bottled water because it is convenient and preferable in taste to tap water for some consumers. I am one who drinks both tap water and bottled water depending on the setting. The bottom-line is that bottled water meets a market demand from consumers.

    The issue of water scarcity will likely not be solved by just focusing on bottled water – instead we should address increased efficiency in the agricultural supply chain, how we price water according to value and propose access to clean water to those that currently don’t have this luxury.

    Best, Will

    Will Sarni
    Deloitte Consulting LLP
    Director and Practice Leader, Enterprise Water Strategy

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  4. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe @ Nestlé

    06 Nov 2012 - 09:58 (GMT)

    Dear Mr Sarni
    Thanks for these excellent remarks. We “eat” between 3000 and 6000 litres of water every day, so it is indeed water efficiency in agriculture that matters most. This blog is very much about bringing the broader picture to the attention of my readers – and I appreciate your comment that supports this view.
    Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

  5. Paul van Beers @ FairWater Foundation

    04 Sep 2013 - 13:54 (GMT)

    Congratulations with your approach. Transparency and open discussions are always the best the deal with disputes. Of course, today, many people are aware that "bottled water" has a higher environmental footprint than Tap-water and it's good to have have a well infomed choice and range of products to choose from. That means that for a company that sells "bottled water", it's important to create their own identity and branding how they will be seen (and judges) by the public.

    We promote Tap-water whenever possible, which does not implie that we are against "bottled water". On the contrary, we believe that the availabily of good quality "bottled water" is very important, to be used whenever needed and when good Tap-water is not available.

    We also believe that the correct branding of bottled water is very important and that a transparent "Corporate Social Commitment" to share some of the profits made with selling bottled water will be more and more important with time.

    Unfortunately, we have noticed that some brands of bottled water (NOT Neslé) are more or less "using" the charity aspects of what they claim to do (providing water for the poor in Africa...) with parts of the revenues of selling bottled water, are absolutly not true and not transparent, to put it mildly...

    We could not really find on the Nestle website what Nestle is doing in this respect? Can you inform us about that so we can have a look?

    FairWater teams up with companies that like to be very transparent and really want to do evidence based water projects for the people in Africa. For example, we have an ongoing project with SANEX Zero% (environmental friendly shower gell) of which 8 cent of each bottle sold contributes to replace broken handpumps in Gambia for a durable FairWater BluePump. Already 50 pumps are installed, working and maintained and with GPS and picture on our website www.fairwater.org

    That is transparent and accountable, see also www.schoonwaterhierschoonwaterdaar.nl

    We hope that Nestlé is doing something similar? and like to know about that.

    Kind regards,
    Paul van Beers
    FairWater Foundation
    Keizersgracht 676 Amsterdam
    Phone 31 6 236 686 15

  6. Irene Büttner @ Brunnenverwaltung König Otto-Bad E.Büttner GmbH & Co.KG

    29 Oct 2013 - 13:17 (GMT)

    Dear Mr Brabeck-Letmathe
    Hallo to readers of this blog,
    as we are offering bottled water in Germany we have made the experience that people are not really aware of the difference between the two water categories i.e. tap water and spa water (NMW)
    The concept of the original purity hasn´t found the way to the normal consumer and sometimes he doesn´t care at all.
    Unfortunatedly the German Mineral Water Industry didn´t establish an advertising campaign to demonstrate this decisive difference and to inform the customer with sound, pictures etc to reach all senses.
    Furthermore there is no common legislative within European States to decribe this important criteria there is only a vague directive without adopting an adequate law (despite the efforts of the EFBW)
    with kind regards
    Brunnenverwaltung König Otto-Bad
    E.Büttner GmbH & Co.KG
    König Otto-Bad 1-3
    95676 Wiesau
    fon xx 9634-9234-13
    fax xx 9634-9234-0

  7. Derek Sharpie @ http://berkeywaterfilterinfo.com/

    08 Jun 2014 - 05:36 (GMT)

    best water purifier i've tried and i'm sticking to is berkey water filter. Instantly purifies water from any source including stagnant water.

  8. Hannah Tess @ http://berkeywaterfilterinfo.com/reverse-osmosis/

    05 Aug 2014 - 02:50 (GMT)

    it's a good thing if you invest on a good home water purification system. it will benefit your family's health and safety. R.O water system is great as it removes toxins and contaminants

  9. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe @ Nestlé

    21 Oct 2014 - 12:37 (GMT)

    @ Hannah Tess Dear Hannah, thanks for the message. Looks like some fans of water filters have been commenting here recently. A question: do you filter your municipal water, if yes why? Also, do you believe there are any risks when you do things yourself at home that (in view of ever more complex pollutants) require real professionals to handle? Just curious, Peter.

  10. Jason Forest @ http://www.berkeywaterfilternow.com

    20 Oct 2014 - 04:34 (GMT)

    thanks for this wonderful post. It is very rare that i stumble to a blog equally educative and amusing. we really need to have a good water purification system now that millions of people are dying from different diseases they acquired from drinking unfiltered water.
    ill look forward to your next post

  11. Josephine Bernie @ http://www.berkeywaterfilternow.com/berkey-water-filter-reviews/

    06 Nov 2014 - 02:38 (GMT)

    Water is essential for health, hygiene and the productivity of our community. water treatment process may vary on the water condition that you have in your area. its better to invest on a good water treatment. it will benefit you by providing safety to you and your family.

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