The Earth Policy Institute has an item on a trend that could mark the start of a tipping point away from bottled water. What’s interesting is that two separate constituencies have aligned: citizens/consumers who are concerned about the environmental impact of the industry, and public authorities which are concerned both about the direct cost of bottled water (to their budgets) and also about undermining the public value of public infrastructure. For the big FMCGs which have hoped that bottled water revenues might offset the stuttering sales of their carbonated drinks, this could represent a problem.

EPI reports that San Francisco is about to follow the lead of Los Angeles and stop spending public money on bottled water. St Louis is likely to follow suit early next year. (In the UK Liverpool City Council, and some government departments have taken the same step). In November Illinois banned the use of state funds to buy bottled water. Chicago, meanwhile, has slapped a tax of 5 cents a bottle on water to discourage consumption; 86% of water bottles end up in landfill instead of being recycled. Elsewhere in the US, water utilities are handing out free bottles with slogans like ‘Think Tap’.

In the US the bottled water business is worth $15 billion and half of all sales are split between three companies: Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Nestle. A quarter of sales (the Aquafina and Dasani brands) are for water abstracted from public water supplies.

In the United States Corporate Accountability International launched a campaign in October to “Think Outside of The Bottle“. There’s also a Canadian public interest campaign, Inside the Bottle, run by the Polaris Institute. Pressure from these and other activists has forced Pepsi and Coke to announce the sources of Aquafina and Dasani in north America.

The environmental case is easy to make (apart from the landfill, the bottles are made from oil and there are significant energy costs involved in shipping). What’s more interesting is the public case: at the launch of “Think Outside The Bottle” the Mayor of Salt Lake City described the “total absurdity and irresponsibility, both economic and environmental, of purchasing and using bottled water when we have perfectly good and safe municipal sources of tap water.” What’s also striking is the emergence into the mainstream of the ethical case, which has meant that religious groups have been actively involved, as well as unions and non-profit organisations. This says simply that access to clean water should be a human right in a world where a billion people or so don’t have it – and that right is undermined by the commercialisation of the market.

There have been some early signals of this shift, which obviosly extends well beyond north America. The World Wildlife Fund published a pioneering research paper six years ago (by Catherine Ferrier); Dutch social entrepreneurs produced their ‘Neau’ bottle a couple of years ago. But the current confluence of a range of issues feels like the beginning of a social shift. Judging from the EPI monitoring, and the news of coverage, this is a very easy story to tell – and one of the significant principles of social change is that it needs a good narrative.

There are data and summaries of anti bottled-water initiatives at Earth Policy Institute and there’s a good data-rich 2007 report on the US industry by Jennifer Gitlitz and Pat Franklin, Water, Water Everywhere: The Growth of Non-Carbonated Beverages in the United States.

Related posts: ‘Word free food’ – weak signal, but still interesting and When the rivers run dry – review