It's Time for Water Bottlers to Come Clean About the Source and Quality of Their Products
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There's plenty to look at on bottled water labels: claims of purity, images of mountain springs, and fine print on filtering processes.
The problem is, amidst all the clutter, consumers can seldom find information to verify the marketing claims being made.
It's about time that changed.
One year ago, Congress sent a clear message to the nation's 13 largest bottlers, subpoenaing information on the source and quality of their bottled water brands.
It was a call echoing the demands of Corporate Accountability International's grassroots public education and action campaign Think Outside the Bottle, which had previously compelled Pepsi (Aquafina) to print "public water source" on their labels.
That campaign had also moved Nestlé--the world's leading bottler--to provide more detailed information to the public on the quality of their water. This marked a significant step, given that the industry is not (yet) required to report on the quality of its water in a manner comparable to our public water systems.
Why are such steps so critically important to consumers?
For one, each year the bottled water industry reaps billions in profits, buoyed by marketing claims that differentiate what's in the bottle from what comes from the tap (see Nestlé's "Born Better" advertising campaign).
But as the Government Accountability Office found in a report last summer, bottled water is, in fact, much less regulated than our tap water. Consumers have a right to know what's in their bottles.
And what's more, nearly half of all bottled water, in fact, comes from the same source as the tap. However, bottlers like Coke (Dasani) have refused to acknowledge this simple truth on their labels.
Now, denying people informed choice at the point of purchase may have bolstered sales in the past--Corporate Accountability International and the Environmental Working Group reported this summer that people in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania were consuming more than 550 million gallons of bottled water annually at the high water mark for sales in 2008--but sales and consumption figures have since signaled that the public is growing increasingly irritated with the deception.
A new Harris public opinion poll also finds that 39 percent of the American public is eschewing bottled water in favor of refillable containers; a number that is up 5 percent just in the last six months.
Yet leading bottlers refuse to read the writing on the wall by continuing to get lost in all the verbiage on their labels. If the industry can't act on its supposed conviction to support "the consumer's right to clear, accurate and comprehensive information about the bottled water products they purchase," Congress's hand will be forced.
It's the industry's choice. There's no reason for it to wait for Congress to make subpoenaed information public, to draft a bill to regulate the industry, to commission more reports or require further hearings.
This can all be avoided. Coke and others can do today what competitors began doing years ago--label the source of their water and provide water quality information on their bottles instead of making spurious marketing claims.
Leslie Samuelrich is deputy director of Corporate Accountability International.