Bottled Water Rising to the Challenge

Bottled water has been a target for the green lobby. But underneath the surface, manufacturers like Danone Waters are working hard to reduce their environmental impact – a move which is gaining praise from retail customers, suppliers and environmentalists alike.


A heavy product that is transported hundreds of miles, is vastly more expensive than its tapped equivalent and then results in plastic waste, was always going to attract the attention of environmentalists. But those arguments are becoming much less relevant in the world of bottled water.


While there have been challenges for the industry in the past, the landscape has changed; the media, consumers and, to a certain extent, environmental NGOs, now have a much better understanding of the category’s progress in reducing its environmental impact. There is also increasing demand for healthier products on-the-go, and bottled water is the only naturally calorie- free packaged drink.


Zenith International’s 2010 UK Bottled Water market report shows that overall volume sales grew by 1.4 per cent in 2009 to 2,090 million litres. Chairman Richard Hall said the economic downturn had been an adverse factor, but on a positive note, the concerns being raised regarding environmental impact are “progressively being answered”.


Bottled water arguably has to go further than many in the food and drink industry in the sustainability stakes to justify the same levels of acknowledgement. Underlying the more public-facing messaging around health, bottled water companies like Danone are built on a foundation of sustainability. This is no quick fix environmental plan either.


Even during the recession – a time when many so-called ‘luxury’ items were left on supermarket shelves – Danone Waters UK forged ahead with its plans. “Businesses today need to combine sustainability with business results – and that’s certainly the way we do things,” says Adam Grant, the company’s MD.


In February, Danone Groupe, which counts Evian, Volvic and Badoit among its brands, published its full year results for 2010; for the first time it integrated a new indicator, right after its sales, earnings per share, margin, and other elements accounting for the group’s financial health came the evolution of its carbon footprint. Carbon emissions had continued to fall – by 22 per cent between 2008 and 2010, in fact. It was an interesting move, and one which highlights that economical and financial criteria are no longer the sole indicators of company value.


The Groupe has set an ambitious target to reduce the global carbon footprints of its bottled water brands by 40 per cent between 2008 and 2012. This has helped to focus minds on the key areas for carbon reduction – transport and packaging – so often the target areas of green group lobbying.


The idea of food miles is one the public knows, but generally has little understanding of. The transport of food can account for very little of a product’s carbon footprint (unless it is flown of course). As Adam Grant suggests, it’s the mode of transport that’s important, not the distance travelled. “All our storage sites are rail-connected and we use trains for large parts of the journey to get our bottled water from source to customer. We’re actually one of the largest rail freight users of the Channel Tunnel with five trains a week crossing France to our distribution centre.”


Some 70 per cent of Evian bottles are transported by rail, while long distances are covered by sea; road transport is only used “where necessary”. Volvic isn’t far behind either, with 65 per cent of the brand on track to be transported by train by the end of the year. Where road transport is unavoidable, trucks travel the shortest distance possible and empty pallets are returned by train.


With oil price rising, cost savings on transport and packaging are no longer long-term ideals, they are short-term goals with long-term benefits. Packaging is another issue that is front of mind for consumers. From plastic bags to plastic bottles, they want less of it. While there’s an argument that we can do without the former, the latter – in spite of the calls from the glass industry – are essential.


“Over 50 per cent of the carbon footprint of our products is the result of packaging processes and materials…we’ve been working to reduce this figure on numerous fronts,” says Grant. Bottle weight has been cut by 20 per cent, while the proportion of recycled PET used has been increased; the lids and labels, as well as the bottles, are 100 per cent recyclable.


One of the most recent innovations is a new ultra-lightweight bottle for Evian, with 11 per cent less plastic than the previous 1.5 litre version and even more recycled PET. This followed the launch of the Volvic ‘Greener Bottle’ in September 2010 which is made partially from sugarcane waste. Existing plastic PET bottles are made from non- renewable petroleum. However, the new Volvic 50cl bottle contains 20 per cent plant material, reducing the amount of non-renewable material needed to create it.


All this is helping Danone Waters reduce its carbon footprint; but what does it mean for its foodservice customers? “It means they can choose our water products knowing that sustainable development has been part of our business for decades and that our on-going progress in this area compliments their own environmental agendas across the supply chain,” says Brian Powell, foodservice national account manager for Danone Waters UK.


Danone Waters is also hoping to steal a march on others by assessing much more than its carbon or water footprints – the company soon hopes to launch a new tool to measure its progress in protecting biodiversity at its water sources. Evian already provides a clue of the relationship between ecosystems and economic development. “Protecting our sources is key to maintaining the quality and availability of the water we bottle,” says Grant, “so our first principle is never to bottle more water than is naturally replenished.”


An association has also been formed with local residents and farmers to protect this source and promote local development; it’s a democratic body that finances and manages projects such as building advanced sewage networks and improving the sustainability of the local farms. The initiative was spotlighted by National Geographic magazine recently, which noted that the “communities work together to maintain the purity of the water through sustaining the ecosystems that produce it.”


That this acknowledgement was written by Tony Juniper, the environmental campaigner, in National Geographic Green magazine, is significant. Bottled water may have once been a target for environmentalists, but Danone Waters is proving that sustainability has long been part of its business.