The bottled water industry in the US appears to be doing a good job of defending the sector against criticism from environmental campaigners, as underlined by recent sales figures. But Annette Farr is less impressed with some of the advocates for the bottled water industry in the UK.

At last some good news from the bottled water sector. In the US, bottled water grew its market share in 2008. Figures compiled by US consultancy Beverage Marketing Corporation show that last year bottled water achieved a 28.9% volume share of the packaged beverage market, up from 28.6% in 2007. Consumption levels fell by 1%, but less than other categories.

"During these tough economic times, consumers have trimmed discretionary spending," says Tom Lauria, vice president of communications for the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA). "But bottled water sales decreased less than all other major categories and subsequently we now enjoy a slightly improved market share as consumers chose bottled water over other packaged beverages."

Compare this to the 9% decline in UK bottled water consumption in 2008. Much of the UK's downturn is due to a poor summer, the credit crunch and media attacks based on environmental concerns. But the US bottled water sector has not been immune either to the recession or the backlash against bottled waters from environmental campaigners resulting in, for example, a number of city institutions and mayors banning bottled water from their offices.

However, with the 2008 figures showing that US consumers are drinking more water than other soft drink categories, the IBWA and its members must be doing something right and should therefore be congratulated for how they are protecting and promoting bottled water especially with regard to the environment.

Lauria points out: "Consumers must be made aware of the bottled water industry's outstanding record of environmental stewardship, protection, and sustainability. Bottled water containers are 100% recyclable. Although bottled water makes up only one-third of one percent of the US waste stream, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the bottled water industry works hard on a number of fronts with recycling advocates, communities, and our beverage and food partners, to increase recycling."

He adds: "The bottled water industry is also at the forefront utilising measures to reduce our environmental footprint such as LEED-designed facilities (LEED is an internationally recognised certification system introduced by the US Green Building Council that measures how well a building performs environmentally) dramatically light-weighted PET bottles and increased support for broader groundwater protection to preserve our natural resources."

IBWA engages with government departments and continues to deliver the strong message that bottled water is produced and consumed without detriment to the environment.

It is disappointing that, thus far, the UK's Natural Hydration Council (NHC) lacks such focus. The NHC was formed last September with the help of the British Soft Drink Association and superseded the Bottled Water Information Office. It is funded by Nestlé, Danone and Highland Spring.

When it was launched the NHC said it would be undertaking science-based research into the importance of hydration and the attributes of drinking natural mineral water. To date no research appears to have been commissioned. Instead, in its first advertising campaign, the NHC is promoting bottled water as the healthy, hydrating alternative to obesity- causing high-sugar drinks.

No wonder this has ruffled a few feathers at the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA). This NHC stance has undermined years of tackling obesity with product innovation and revision of recipes to produce low-calorie or zero-calorie drinks to give consumers - especially children - a nutritious, healthy and low-calorie choice.

Responding to the campaign the BSDA said: "It is good to see the benefits of bottled water and the importance of hydration being highlighted, but it is a shame that the Natural Hydration Council has done this by suggesting a link between the consumption of sugary soft drinks and obesity. Obesity is a complex issue and has many contributory factors, such as the decline in physical activity, and all aspects of diet and lifestyle need to be taken into account."

The BSDA further pointed out that 61% of soft drinks are now low-calorie or no-added sugar.

The British Bottled Water Producers, a group representing smaller British water companies, also has a number of concerns ,especially regarding one of the advertisements which claims that water is 'naturally purified with no chemicals'.

BBWP director Jo Jacobius says: "It is actually scientifically incorrect. Perhaps the NHC meant to say 'naturally cleansed with no unwanted chemicals added except in the case of sparkling water which in some cases has CO2 added'. Natural water is not 'purified'; 'purified water' is just H2O with none of the beneficial bacteria or minerals that are two vital components of natural waters."

She adds: "We are further disappointed that the NHC's stated aims of funding new research seem to have been overlooked."

The campaign's tagline is 'you ought to drink more water' and that's a valuable message. But the NHC's first outing in communicating to consumers has failed to stress what makes bottled natural mineral or spring water unique: its taste, provenance, guaranteed content with no unwanted chemicals found in tap water. Crucially no mention is made of the valuable stewardship of the land undertaken by water bottlers whose very product depends on the source being pollution-free.