State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

“Ethical” Bottled Water Companies

As much as the bottled water debate grows, it seems unlikely that any time in the near future, bottled water use will dramatically drop or stop altogether.  The convenience of it and the lack of availability of water fountains and tap water when we might need it will continue to lead us to buy that bottle of water, even though we know that the tap water is just as good. However, many bottled water companies are trying to promote themselves as environmental friendly or people friendly to try to move buyers towards their product rather than others.

ethoswaterProbably the best known water company that advertises itself as ethical is Ethos Water, which can be found at your neighborhood Starbucks. Ethos water is committed to helping children around the world access clean water.  The portion of the purchase price of every bottle of water goes towards their goal of a $10 million in grants towards humanitarian water programs by 2010, and to date, they have committed over $6.2 million to its mission.  The company claims they have helped approximately 420,000 people around the world through its grants.  Ethos water has also been a supporter of World Water Day for four consecutive years, helping to draw attention to the fact that over 1 billion people lack access to clean water.  Even though Ethos water is a profit making company, they still participate in humanitarian water efforts that draw on people’s emotions and help make them successful.

Another smaller company that is different than the others is NIKA Water, based in La Jolla, CA. NIKA Water also has the message of helping those who lack clean water and basic sanitation. They however, go even farther – they donate 100% of their profits to support clean water projects in poor countries.  NIKA Water has also been certified as carbon neutral by, and it is the only bottled water company in the United States that has earned this recognition. They also promote recycling used water bottles, and pay high schools around the nation a small amount for every plastic bottled that the school collects and recycles. NIKA Water is still on a much smaller scale than Ethos Water, having invested over $600,000 (about 10% of what Ethos Water has invested) into water related projects in Latin America, Africa, and India, but they have created many creative ways to get their message across and promote their company.

Another company that donates all of its after taxes profits to the environment is Keeper Springs Fresh Mountain Spring Water. This organization supports the Waterkeeper Alliance, which is a group that works to protect America’s waterways. The money that Keeper Springs donates to the Waterkeeper Alliance directly funds protection of tap water sources. As bottled water is inevitable, this company uses bottled water sales to protect tap water for future use. As tap is usually considered a competitor to bottled water, this is an unusual partnership, but points to the fact that bottled water is not sustainable and our tap sources must be protected. Keeper Springs is unusual in that their projects are located in North America, while many other companies focus their donation to developing countries. It is important that we protect our own water supplies, as well as helping those overseas, and Keeper Springs is an example of a company that is working to help water in the United States.

These are just a few of the many companies that are using progressive and innovative ways to promote their water and help the world.  It will be interesting to see if the larger corporations will decide to follow in the footsteps of these smaller companies in the future. As the bottled water debate continues to heat up, pressure is put on these companies to do something to appease people and to not look like the bad guys.  Will they start supporting companies that produce tap water in the United States? Will they invest overseas in developing countries to help the 1 billion people without access to clean water? Only time will tell.

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Stergios Athanassoglou
Stergios Athanassoglou
14 years ago

Very interesting piece. One would hope that larger companies will emulate their peers. An open question involves whether the general market is able to bear the associated increase in price. My uninformed sense is that since bottled water is already (somewhat of) a luxury good, its buyers may be willing to incur higher prices for the sake of humanitarian endeavors.

Meghna Bhattacharjee
Meghna Bhattacharjee
14 years ago

This piece is especially engaging in light of the fact that bottled water sales have decreased for the first time in at least five years. With articles such as “Bottle Water Boom Appears Tapped Out” (Washington Post) etc., we finally seem to be making a making a push towards, or I should say, back to tap water. With unusual partnerships such as that promoted by Keeper Springs, this change is exactly what these ethical water companies seem to be goading the public towards. Maybe its the recession, maybe we are finally becoming conscious of the fact that bottled water is unnecessary in the U.S.

Daniel Stellar
14 years ago

Great article Jenni. This brings up a really interesting point. On the one hand, I applaud companies like Ethos and NIKA, who really do seem committed to investing their profits effectively. On the other hand though, it seems very strange to me – wouldn’t it be better not to bottle water at all, rather than bottle the water, and then use the profits to undo some of the negative effects of the bottled water industry? Wouldn’t it be a cleaner solution just to invest in communal (tap) water supplies, and forget the bottling operation altogether? I know it’s more complicated than this, but the idea of privatizing a common resource, using energy intensive methods to ship it thousands of miles away, and then selling it for a profit, all so that profit can be invested back into ways to publically, equitably, develop the same resource does seem convoluted to me.

13 years ago

I agree with Daniel’s points above, and would ask whether the most ethical solution — from a sustainability standpoint — would be to not process, package, or ship (via gas guzzling delivery trucks, as almost all products are transported) water at all? Add to that the adverse health effects that have been linked with plastics and BPA and I think it only makes sense to avoid bottled water altogether.