just-drinks speaks to the secretary general of the European Federation of Bottled Water

just-drinks speaks to the secretary general of the European Federation of Bottled Water

While marketing bottled water in countries with a safe tap water supply is seen as environmentally unsustainable by campaigners, the bottled water industry believes it has a positive story to tell with regard to its environmental footprint. Ben Cooper spoke with Patricia Fosselard, secretary general of the European Federation of Bottled Water (EFBW), about the publication of the EFBW’s first sustainability report and the industry’s environmental record.

When it comes to projecting a positive environmental image and defending itself from criticism, the bottled water industry faces quite an uphill task. Many environmental campaigners contend that in markets where the tap water is safe to drink, the entire concept of bottling water and transporting it is unsustainable from an environmental point of view.

While this may be an extreme view, and, to judge by the sales figures for bottled water, one that many disagree with, there is no doubt that the bottled water sector has a case to answer when it comes to the environment. The industry in Europe has taken steps to do precisely that with the European Federation of Bottled Water (EFBW) publishing its first sustainability report.

The report aims to do more than simply counter criticism from environmentalists. It sets out to present bottled water companies as responsible stewards of their natural environments. It also aims to demonstrate that the environmental footprint of bottled water is comparatively low in comparison with many other beverages.

The EFBW, which comprises 26 national trade associations representing more than 500 natural mineral and spring water producers, states that, during the last ten years, “considerable improvements” have been made to the production process to reduce the industry’s environmental impact through “effective water resource management, lowering carbon and water footprints, optimising logistics and transport, reducing waste and packaging and promoting measures for recycling and reuse of materials”.

The report points out that the industry has “by far” the lowest water usage ratio of any packaged food and drinks, stating that it takes less than 2 litres of water to produce 1 litre of bottled water.

Patricia Fosselard, secretary general of the European Federation of Bottled Water

Of course, presenting bottled water producers as custodians of the environment which underpins their commercial future only works with spring and natural water. But, Patricia Fosselard, secretary general of the EFBW, points out that, in Europe at least, natural and spring waters make up the vast majority of sales. The share of the European bottled water market represented by purified waters – those taken from the mains supply and then treated and bottled – is only around 3%, Fosselard says. Around 85% of bottled water is natural mineral water, while 12% is spring water.

For this reason, Fosselard contends that bottled water companies have a unique commitment to the environmental security of their catchment areas before any other environmental factors related to CO2 emissions or packaging are taken into consideration.

“When we say we care about the environment it’s not greenwashing,” Fosselard says. “It’s really because the link between the European bottled water industry and the environment around the catchment areas is absolutely crucial.” She likens these naturally-sourced waters to organic products. The water has to be free from contamination when extracted, which requires from the water companies a fastidious commitment to the protection of local environments.

The EFBW report highlights work done by brands such as Evian, Spa and Vittel on protecting the environments around their water sources. It also points out that, in some instances, this work is a continuation of a commitment going back to the nineteenth century.

Fosselard also stresses that the fact that so many bottled waters, notably in markets such as Germany and Italy, are local brands also has a significant bearing on the bottled water industry’s environmental profile. 

Regarding the European brands that are exported far and wide across Europe and beyond, however, the EFBW maintains there is a positive story to tell.

With an estimated 15% to 30% of the industry’s carbon footprint coming from transport, the sector is, according to the EFBW report, pursuing a “wide range of initiatives to increase transport efficiency and sustainability, including decreasing miles, using alternative and less polluting modes of transport such as rail and sea, introducing fuel-efficient fleets, maximising deliveries and distance travelled, as well as collaborating with supply chain partners”.

The report also points out that, since 1996, there has been a 17% reduction in the overall weight of PET bottles used by the sector.

Coordination with other industry groups on environmental progress is also an important function for the EFBW. Fosselard alludes to the federation’s involvement with the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER) and discussions within UNESDA (the Union of European Beverage Associations).

However, while the EFBW report includes plenty of information about what the industry has achieved so far in terms of sustainability, it does not include industry-wide targets for further progress. Fosselard says that the members are all committed to making further strides but believes the EFBW’s primary function at this stage is to act as a platform for information-sharing.

“Our members do not believe that the way forward for the federation is about setting targets,” Fosselard says. “How could you from a federation point of view decide that the target is this or the target is that? The avenues that are being explored by industry are so diverse. We think that this is the stage to share good practices and talk about what can be done and give a platform for sharing best practices. But, launching targets is not what our members expect.” 

However, Fosselard did not rule out the idea of setting some industry goals in the future, but for now the emphasis was on establishing common methodologies and a common language. 

As the report points out: “Definitions, rates and standards vary. Reporting, methodology and criteria differ. The industry is working towards developing a coordinated approach using compatible tools to best calculate and gauge environmental performance. Harmonised measures will allow the industry to enhance their improvements and to communicate their achievements better.”

While there are no immediate plans for target-setting, Fosselard says publishing “regular updates to showcase the continuing improvement that has been made” is envisaged. Indeed, the EFBW describes its sustainability report as the “first edition”. Fosselard adds: “It has not been decided yet whether it is going to be annual or not but I think it would make a lot of sense to update that on a regular basis.”

As individual company sustainability reports have shown, it is the ability to show improvement over time which is most keenly watched. So while the EFBW’s first sustainability report has provided an illuminating picture of what has been achieved so far and where the industry is today, it is the subsequent reports that many observers, particularly the sceptics, will be awaiting in order to judge the speed of continued progress.