CI's Luke Upchurch on why bottled water can never be sustainable
Business leaders often lay responsibility for the failure of
sustainable consumption to go mainstream at the feet of consumers: "They
don't understand what it means." Well, they're wrong. The world's
consumers do understand what it means; it's just not what many in
business understand it to be.
If we're going to get the paradigm
shift that everyone is so eager to see, we need to start by focusing on
the things that really matter. To understand what I mean, let me tell
you the story of Icelandic Glacial.
Icelandic Glacial is a bottled water available in the UK, US, Canada and several other countries. It markets itself as the world's first carbon-neutral bottled water.
Its processing plant, situated on Iceland's Olfus spring, runs on
hydroelectric and geothermal energy. Its packaging is 100% recyclable
and, to reduce CO2, it's even shipped from Iceland in the unused space
of cargo ships that would have otherwise remained empty.
Glacial has received sustainable certification for both the product and
its processing. In 2007, it won the Bottle Water World design award for
sustainability. It's even been certified by the Carbon Neutral company –
the seal of approval for which takes centre stage on the bottle's
Many of you reading this will already be pondering the
irony of a sustainable bottled water company tapping the very glaciers
we need to preserve to survive – but give Icelandic Glacial some credit.
In every sense this can be recognised as a sustainable product: it's
recyclable, third-party certified, and CO2 neutral.
Yet this is
not a sustainable solution. This is not what sustainability means to the
consumer movement. Unfortunately for Icelandic Glacial – which appears
genuine in its efforts – this bottled water represents the very
antithesis of what sustainability means.
for consumers cannot be captured on a label or celebrated with an
industry award. Meaningful sustainability – the type of stuff that spurs
paradigm shifts and reverses global trajectories – is about how we
provide safe and sustainable drinking water for all, including the one
billion consumers who currently have no access to it.
seriously talk about consumers not understanding or caring about
sustainability and not consider the millions of consumers in the
developing world without piped water, who are given no choice but to buy
bottled alternatives at up to 10 times the price. That is what
unsustainable consumption looks like.
The challenge is how we meet
this consumer right to the satisfaction of basic needs in a sustainable
way – in terms of access, quality, and affordability – as well as
environmental impact. This is what the overwhelming majority of the
world's consumers understand sustainability to be about.
Glacial may have all the sustainability credentials the company could
think of. It may well be a sustainable product in its own right. But it
embodies the problem, not the solution, when it comes to sustainable
Sustainable consumption is about much more than marketing:
much more than niche product lines, and, indeed, the polar opposite of
fresh water bottled and sold at a huge mark up.
creating accessible and stable markets that offer low-environmental
impact, good quality products at a fair price, whether it is water,
healthcare, food, financial services, or even access to the internet.
Some pioneers in industry get that, but most can't see beyond the label.
how do we make the paradigm shift? Put bluntly, stop obsessing about
the marketing strategy and CSR brochure and focus on the big meaningful
changes that create a sustainable business regardless of consumer
After all, sustainability is about meeting consumer needs, not creating consumer wants.
This article first appeared on the Guardian website.