Wanted Bottled Water Activism

During the past year, critics of bottled water have become more organized and active, instituting new methods and tactics to attack the industry. The intensity and sophistication of these efforts have made it more challenging for the bottled water industry to react appropriately. No longer does the industry merely deal with a variety of small groups organized against the development of a bottled water plant in their community or defend against the National Resources Defense Council’s urging for changes in bottled water regulation. Now the bottled water industry must defend an attack against its very existence.

As activist groups such as Corporate Accountability International (CAI), www.stopcorporateabuse.org, and the Polaris Institute, http://insidethebottle.org, get involved in bottled water issues, the bottled water industry has noticed a fundamental change in the challenges it faces. CAI has launched the “Think Outside the Bottle” campaign, which includes a tool kit for local activism against bottled water. Likewise, the Polaris Institute has tried to recruit activists to challenge the industry with its campaign, “Inside the Bottle.” Both action plans work to disparage the bottled water industry and discourage consumers from purchasing bottled water.

In addition, both CAI and the Polaris Institute have an active member base and enlist other organizations to support its efforts. CAI even acknowledges in its “World Water Challenge Organizing Kit” the support it had from a number of faith-based organizations in developing and disseminating the tool kit.


Potential Risks

To understand the potential risks such groups pose to the industry, take a look at a few recent events that provide insight into the critics’ methods and messages. On June 21, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom issued an executive directive prohibiting the purchase of bottled water with city funds. That order included city contractors and city-sponsored events. He also ordered the replacement of bottled water coolers with bottleless water dispensers. Newsom claimed that he was supporting the San Francisco municipal water system and criticized the environmental impact of bottled water.

In addition, on May 7, the city council of Ann Arbor, Mich., passed a resolution stating that the city will not buy or serve commercial bottled water at any of its functions. According to that resolution, the city of Ann Arbor will educate and inform citizens about the ecological dangers of buying bottled water and stress the convenience of carrying a bottle of tap water. Of course, those two cities are not the first to stop purchasing bottled water with city, town or county funds.

In other bottled water news, the U.S. Conference of Mayors approved a resolution—which was sponsored by Mayor Newsom—on June 25. The proposal encourages the conference to compile information on the importance of municipal water systems and the impact of bottled water on municipal waste. When the conference’s environment committee was considering the resolution, Newsom asked with members not to kill it, stating the resolution was “only a study.” Newsom prevailed by one vote. CAI, however, heralded this resolution as a major victory and blow to the bottled water industry.


A Call to Activism

The bottled water industry should acknowledge the resolution by the U.S. Conference of Mayors as a warning shot. Deciphering the goals and objectives of its critics is not hard. They are exploiting the current political climate that supports environmental issues to demonize the bottled water industry. These critics are not interested in finding solutions to issues or listening to a different point of view. Instead, they adhere to the old political maxim, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good argument.”

Industry critics are attempting to inspire a large number of citizens to reject bottled water and to be intolerant of those who choose to drink it. By looking to local governments—an arena that is known to be difficult—they hope to gain attention for their cause. In local government politics, little forewarning is provided before a resolution or action is taken. Industry critics can often take months to plan an action before the public finds out that a local government has the issue on its agenda.

If critics of the bottled water industry are successful in convincing local governments to stop purchasing bottled water—and bashing the industry in the process—one can imagine what will happen. Commercial, industrial and residential accounts will also feel the pressure to follow the lead of their local governments and “go green.” Whether you are in the home and office delivery business or on the retail side of the bottled water industry, the impact on sales could be dramatic. The passage of such local resolutions is likely to start by affecting the bottled water companies that sell in each city, town or county; but it can snowball.


What IBWA is Doing

The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) is working on a comprehensive campaign to respond to this growing threat from activist groups. But the most important thing to do right now, as an IBWA member, is to stay alert to critics in your own backyard and develop solid relationships with your customers, community leaders and elected officials. By doing so, you create your own “early warning system,” and you may help to prevent an Ann Arbor or San Francisco from occurring in your city or town.

You gain credibility when you are responsible for and responsive to your communities, and, thus, you have more leverage to counter the misinformation that activists may offer. By establishing relationships with your community leaders, you can count on them to come to your aid, making arguments for you because you’ve educated them on bottled water facts. IBWA has a “Grass Roots Tool Kit” available that can help you set up plant tours or contact elected officials.

You will be hearing more on this subject in the months ahead.

If you have any questions, suggestions or recommendations, or if you want to become more involved, contact the IBWA as soon as possible. The more the industry works together on this issue and the more involved the membership becomes, the more success we will have in meeting the challenges ahead.

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About the author

Patrick Donoho is vice president of government relations for the IBWA. He can be reached at 703.683.5213, or by e-mail at [email protected].