Archived: The Writing On the Wall, Not the Bottle


There’s a lot to look at on bottled water labels, from pristine mountain springs to narratives on water purity.

But most of the time there is little to no information on where the water actually comes from, according to recent studies. The information consumers do get from leading bottlers has been exacted through public interest campaigns, like Think Outside the Bottle, with thousands of phone calls, letters, and emails.

Today both Pepsi (Aquafina) and Nestlé (Pure Life) indicate on product labels that their water comes from public water sources, while Coke (Dasani) stubbornly refuses, contending its labels aren’t misleading to consumers. However, even for the most reluctant to change, the writing is on the wall. More than 1,100 mayors have resolved to cut spending on bottled water and have launched an investigation into water bottling’s cost to cities. Hundreds of restaurants, schools and community groups nationwide have gone bottled water free. More than 50,000 people have pledged to think Outside the Bottle, opting for tap over bottled water.

One reason people are turning away from the bottle is this issue of source labeling.

Why is Coke, for one, so ashamed to label that its water comes from the same source as the tap? We do, as a nation, have some of the highest quality tap water in the world. It may be that labeling the source would cause people to question, “Why am I paying for something I already get from the tap for a fraction of the cost (absent the plastic bottle, that is)?” That may be the case, but just because it’s bad for business doesn’t mean corporations have a license to conceal it from consumers.

This is where other labeling claims come in. Aquafina touts its HydRO-7 purification system; Dasani its “state-of-the-art” purification system. These treatment claims suggest some “value” is being added to the water.

However, this “value” is one that cannot yet be fully measured. Virtually all water bottlers fail to provide the full results of their health and quality testing in a manner comparable to what public water utilities provide.

In fact, as a recent GAO study points out, the federal regulation of bottled water is far less stringent than it is for tap. What’s more, in many cases the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lacks capacity to oversee the industry, allowing a patchwork of state regulations, as well as voluntary policing by the industry, to serve as a stand-in.  In this relative vacuum, instead of providing information to verify marketing claims, the industry has pushed back with standard excuses, like “there are bigger issues we face” and “we believe consumers have the information they need.” It’s as if taking responsibility for a lack of transparency were preventing us from addressing the financial crisis, health care and other pressing matters.

What’s more, industry representatives fail to acknowledge that this lack of disclosure is one cause of a bigger problem the industry has had a disquieting hand in creating. The industry’s misleading marketing and lack of transparency has undermined public confidence in tap water and, by extension, the political will to fund adequately public water systems. These systems currently require at least $22 billion in additional investment each year for maintenance and expansion. Why is this so critical? For more than a century, public water investment has been a foundation of not only public health and well-being but to our economic development as well.

For every dollar of water and sewer infrastructure invested in our national infrastructure, it is estimated that our overall Gross Domestic Product increases by $6.35 in the long term.  This is why Congress is now showing a concern for the bottled water industry’s reform and oversight. Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and the Chair of the Subcommittee on Oversights and Investigations Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) have sent letters to 13 bottlers demanding they disclose the specific sites and sources of their water, as well as comprehensive health and quality testing data, by August 10 of this year.

This is an important step and points to more comprehensive reform. The industry can either drag its feet or read the writing on the wall and begin putting it on their bottles.

Kelle Louaillier is executive director, Corporate Accountability International. – a Boston-based grassroots watchdog organization. Distributed by

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