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Ethical Shopping Guide – Bottled Water Introduction

Bottled water is, to put it simply, controversial. The very premise of the plastic bottle is itself problematic, with plastic pollution a source of very serious concern today. Think, for instance, of how for every six water bottles Americans use, only one makes it to the recycle bin.

In terms of general sustainability, a recent study has broken down just how much energy is used at each step of the manufacturing process, and the resulting figures are staggering. For instance, the study estimated that it required 32 million to 54 million barrels of oil to generate the energy needed to produce the amount of bottled water consumed in 2007 in the United States alone.

If that’s not cause for ethical reflection, how about this: Another recent study from the International Bottled Water Association found that North American companies companies use 1.39 liters of water to fill a one liter bottle.

Our first and foremost recommendation is that it is always more ethical to drink tap water and to use re-usable bottles. A stainless steel re-usable bottle is one popular option.

However, if you find yourself out and about and in need of a drink, there are alternative Bottled Water brands which do score highly on the Ethical Company Index.

Keyword-ResearchLook out for our new sector-specific Ethical Accreditation certification marks which now cover over 15 different consumer product sectors. These are additional to our original Ethical Company mark that features on the packaging of over 100 million consumer products every year.

Go local

Try and choose the most local brand you can find – those that are sourced in the UK and therefore have a much smaller carbon footprint.

Every bottle of Perrier sold around the world is bottled at source in Vergèze, France. Readers in, say, Glasgow, could be drinking water that has travelled over 900 miles.

An environmental packaging solution is the re-usable glass bottle. In other European countries, such as Germany, higher proportions of all drinks come in returnable bottles. The bottled water producers are members of a pool system, with their brands being distinguished by label but the bottles shared, allowing short transport distances from individual to refiller.

In the UK, it seems that the big national breweries, soft drinks producers and supermarkets are reluctant to use refillable glass bottles because of the extra effort (floor space and staff time) it would cause them. They would rather deal with plastics and prefer to encourage recycling, which hands the work over to the individual. Most councils will collect bottles bearing the numbers one (PET) or two (HDPE), but it is still difficult to find a recycling point for any other type of plastic.

Pure, but how pure?

Although bottled water claims a natural, pure and healthy image, all waters must meet strict quality requirements. The area surrounding a Natural Mineral Water spring requires protection against pollution, and although Natural Mineral Water is legally ‘pure’, this is not true of all water that is sold in bottles.

When you look at the rows of bottled water in supermarkets (there are up to forty varieties) whose purity is emphasised by waterfalls and mountains, it’s easy to forget the complexity of treatment that some water from a source goes through before being bottled.

Those with high blood pressure, or others who need to follow a low sodium (salt) diet should check the mineral content of their water carefully. Natural mineral waters can only claim they’re suitable for a low sodium diet if they contain less than 20mg per litre. Current advice from the Food Standards Agency is that some bottled waters shouldn’t be used for babies: ‘Waters to avoid are those with high levels of nitrite, sodium, fluoride and sulphate. There are limits for these in tap, spring and other bottled drinking waters, but not in natural mineral waters.’

Choose the right brand!

We recommend Highland Spring as they have a clean ethical record and Brecon Carreg which sets ambitious environmental targets. Both are local to the UK (our location), and score very highly on the Ethical Company Index (especially when compared to other leading brands like Evian, Buxton and Volvic). Highland Spring and Brecon Carreg are also the only bottled water brands to become Ethical Accreditation members and as such are regularly audited every 12 months.

Other ethical brands to look out for are One Water and Life – both brands fund clean drinking water projects in developing countries.

There has been much cynicism about the bottled water industry from some quarters. A report by the Canadian non-governmental Polaris Institute (www.polarisinstitute.org) argued that the big companies pay next to nothing for water they take from rural springs or public water systems, and, after turning water into water through elaborate treatment processes, sell a product that is not as well-regulated as tap water, but is vastly more expensive.

For instance, in 2004 Coca Cola launched Dasani, a new brand of bottled water. Although the water was actually drawn from the mains (Thames Water in fact), Coca Cola talked of a ‘highly sophisticated’, Volvic spacecraft technology. It emerged, however, that this was simply reverse osmosis, used in many domestic water purification units. Then, to complete the PR catastrophe, 500,000 litres of the brand had to be recalled from British supermarkets because of high levels of bromate, a cancer-causing chemical which is not found in Thames Water.

Mix it up

The Drinking Water Inspectorate has warned that if opportunities are not taken to improve public perception of tap water, people will never appreciate the plentiful low cost water supplied to their taps. So don’t be afraid to ask for tap water as it is very healthy too.

Ethical Comparison – Bottled Water Rankings Detailed Table

Buy our detailed Ethical Research Reports. See the findings behind companies’ ethical ratings, as featured in The Good Shopping Guide. Several different product sectors available covering hundreds of consumer brands.

We have created ethical comparison rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Highland Spring, Ballygowan, Campsie Spring, Life, One, Harrogate, Hildon, Strathmore, Thirsty Planet, Brecon Carreg, Deeside, Willow, Isklar, Badoit, Evian, Volvic, Iceni, Aqua Pura, Buxton, Perrier, Pure Life, San Pellegrino, Vittel

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