What would you say if I introduced you to an environmentally friendly cigarette — one made of organically grown tobacco, with organic cotton filters, rolled in eco-friendly paper, all manufactured with renewable energy, with a portion of proceeds going to environmental charities?
I'm guessing you would call it greenwash. And you'd be right. After all, a cigarette is a cigarette, in terms of the health effects on its users. No green manufacturing techniques would render it "good." At best, it would be "less bad," but not by much.
Given that, I'm bemused and bewildered by the recent efforts by bottled water companies to aggressively market a less-bad product. Two examples:
At a recent conference at which I spoke, attendees were given bottles of Ice Mountain Natural Spring Water, with signs promoting its "New Eco-Shape™ Bottle." Among its green characteristics: it is made with 30 percent less plastic than the "average" bottle of its size. And it features a label that is 30 percent smaller.
That's not all. It is "100 percent recyclable" . . . "Easy to carry" . . . and "flexible so it's easier to crush for recycling."
It doesn't take a PhD in marketing to see that these claims are pretty thin. A label that's 30 percent smaller?!? If that's the pinnacle of environmental achievements, we should all give up now.
And then there's the latest blast from Fiji Water, which is trumpeting that in 2008 it will introduce "the first 'carbon negative' consumer product." According to the announcement:
As one of the fastest growing, leading premium bottled water brands in the world, Fiji Water's new aggressive environmental program — Fiji Green — aims to "green" every step in the life cycle of its products, from packaging and shipping to the use of renewable energies and land preservation efforts. As a result, Fiji's will lessen its environmental impact by actually reducing carbon in the atmosphere with every bottle of Fiji Water produced and sold. No other major beverage brand has ever made a similar commitment to help mitigate the effects of climate change.
And there you have it: the eco-friendly cigarette — two bottled-water brands that are attempting to "green up" their products, and their images, by doing less bad.
Bottled water isn't a cigarette, of course. It doesn't cause cancer, emphysema, birth defects, and the like. So, my analogy is, admittedly, a bit dramatic.
But bottled water causes plenty of problems. Its production taxes the water tables of the communities where bottling plants are located, according to the Earth Policy Institute. Farmers, fishers, and others who depend on water for their livelihoods suffer from the concentrated water extraction when water tables drop quickly.
And then there's the energy use. EPI notes that:
In contrast to tap water, which is distributed through an energy-efficient infrastructure, transporting bottled water long distances involves burning massive quantities of fossil fuels. Nearly a quarter of all bottled water crosses national borders to reach consumers, transported by boat, train, and truck.
Or consider the fact sheet I received recently from the Pacific Institute, one of the most authoritative sources on water issues, and author of the biennial reference work, The World's Water. It cites data from the Beverage Marketing Corporation, which reports that
Americans bought a total of 31.2 billion liters of water in 2006, sold in bottles ranging from the 8-ounce aquapods popular in school lunches to the multi-gallon bottles found in family refrigerators and office water coolers. Most of this water was sold in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, requiring nearly 900,000 tons of the plastic. PET is produced from fossil fuels - typically natural gas and petroleum.
Based on this, the Institute estimates that in 2006:
- Producing the bottles for American consumption required the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil, not including the energy for transportation
- Bottling water produced more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide
- It took three gallon of water to produce one gallon of bottled water
Given all this, should we be touting an eco-friendly plastic water bottle, or a carbon negative product shipped roughly 7,000 miles to market? Is this a valid environmental claim? Is that the best we can do?
It all brings to mind that age-old question: If a cannibal eats with a fork, is that progress?
I think not.