Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Synchronising action on water

I've written in the past about my São Lourenço hat and its significance. São Lourenço is an historic spa town in Brazil, where I spent some of my honeymoon unkowing that the water park on which the city lives was being destroyed by Nestlé illegally pumping water for bottling as 'Pure Life'. This is its global brand for developing countries. After a ten year battle, Nestlé agreed to stop pumping. But water remains one of its major brands. Having entered the market in 1992 with the purchase of Perrier, it has gobbled up - or should that be glugged down - many, many other brands. Our experience of company PR strategies is very relevant to the issues around water.

Two things happened on water last week that prompt be to return to this topic.

Firstly, people are waking up to the rather obvious fact that bottled water is extremely wasteful. It is transported around the country, and even internationally. In fact, I predict there will be efforts to market water for claimed medical benefits of its mineral composition (Nestlé is involved in the establishment of a government committee in Brazil that will certify claims that will be on labels). It is in bottles, that use resources in their manufacture and disposal. And an awful lot of effort is put into promoting it.

Last week in the coverage of the Live Earth concerts there were some comments on the inefficiency of bottled water compared to tap water. And remember in the UK at least, tap water often wins out in blind taste testing of different waters. In fact, we had a famous public relations disaster for Coca Cola a few years ago when it was revealed that its Dasani brand, launched as 'one of the purest waters around' was, in fact, bottled in a plant that was hooked up to the water mains. Coca Cola did process it (reverse osmosis) and added salts, but that also created problems as a batch of half a million bottles became infected with bromate, a potentially dangerous chemical.

In advice on taking personal action to combat climate change comes the suggestion of drinking tap water instead of bottled water, not just at home, but asking for it in restaurants. According to a report in The Mirror tap water takes 300 times less energy to provide than bottled water. There are some figures for the distances travelled by bottled water in this Food Commission article.

One of my attempts at humour when taking the stage at the Tap Water Awards, the corporate-free alternative to the Nestlé Perrier Awards, was on this theme. Nestlé took over Pow-Wow water a few years ago, the biggest distributer of mineral water in Europe. Researching this to add it to the boycott list, I found a claim that Pow-Wow is so efficient distribution that it good get water from the ground to your office in just 5 days. Wow! So efficient. The only way they could do better than that would be to run a pipe from the source all the way to the office so you just had to, er, turn on the tap. Crazy idea. Well, that was my joke.

Now, this is a threat to business. So we may expect some sort of PR spin from Nestlé, Coca Cola and others in the industry.

Oh, the other thing that happened last week.

Business leaders who have signed up to the UN Global Compact, a voluntary code that was introduced to head off regulation of transnational corporations. They have launched a Global Water Mandate pledge, which according to the UN is a pledge: "to set water-use targets, assist suppliers with water-efficiency practices and partner with governments, policy makers and community groups to address water shortages and sanitation."

I don't have a problem with business being less harmful and considering others. But I sense there is another agenda in play. Who are the companies involved? Two of the six have been mentioned above: Nestlé and Coca Cola. Both with a poor record when it comes to respecting community groups and national legislation.

They want to look good on water. Great if they do something to lessen their exploitation of water, improving the efficiency of their operations. But eye-catching pledges don't amount to much when their practices are otherwise and when they have clear business interests to protect.

Maybe it is a coincidence that the call to dump bottled water and the pledge come in the same week. Maybe not. Certainly it is something that companies will point to in future to try to divert criticism.

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