Friday, 13 July 2007

Message in a Bottle

At the 2004 Greenbuild Conference and Expo the United States Green Building Council saved an estimated $25,000 US by making one simple decision:

Rather than providing bottled water they used bulk water coolers and compostable cups. Not only did this avoid costs, but it prevented the introduction of an estimated 48,000 plastic bottles into the recycling stream in the city of Portland, Oregon. The cups provided could be mixed with organics collected as part of the composting program operated by the Oregon Convention Center and provided to local farms as fertilizer.

I shared this story at a presentation I recently gave to a group of meeting professionals. To me, the cost savings and waste reduction seemed to make it a 'no-brainer' practice for planners and convention centres to consider.

Agreed, there are revenue considerations for meeting venues to evaluate: a bottle of water can be a substantial source of food and beverage profit, particularly considering that in 2006 Americans spent more money on bottled water than movie tickets. Bottled water sales in the United States amounted to $15 billion last year.

Yet the question I received from an audience member took me by surprise. A woman at the session had attempted to introduce bulk water coolers as an option for her meeting, but received resistance from the meeting venue who did not want to assume the responsibility for the water becoming, or being, contaminated.

The question has since given me pause to consider our psychology about water. Why do we view tap water and fountains with distain? How is it bottled water - virtually non-existent 30 years ago - is now a seeming imperative, particularly when it comes to meetings and events?

In his recent article "Message in a Bottle" Charles Fishman explores many of these questions and presents some staggering facts about our obsession with bottled water:
  • Fiji Water produces more than a million bottles a day, while more than half the people of Fiji do not have reliable drinking water.
  • 24% of the bottled water we buy is tap water repackaged by Coke and Pepsi.
  • 38 billion water bottles are disposed of into landfills each year - an excess of $1 billion worth of plastic.
Have a read of his article, and the next time you plan on how to water your conference delegates think about it:

"In the array of styles, choices, moods, and messages available today, water has come to signify how we think of ourselves. We want to brand ourselves--as Madonna did--even with something as ordinary as a drink of water. We imagine there is a difference between showing up at the weekly staff meeting with Aquafina, or Fiji, or a small glass bottle of Pellegrino. Which is, of course, a little silly.

Bottled water is not a sin. But it is a choice.

Packing bottled water in lunch boxes, grabbing a half-liter from the fridge as we dash out the door, piling up half-finished bottles in the car cup holders--that happens because of a fundamental thoughtlessness. It's only marginally more trouble to have reusable water bottles, cleaned and filled and tucked in the lunch box or the fridge. We just can't be bothered. And in a world in which 1 billion people have no reliable source of drinking water, and 3,000 children a day die from diseases caught from tainted water, that conspicuous consumption of bottled water that we don't need seems wasteful, and perhaps cavalier.

That is the sense in which Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, and Singer, the Princeton philosopher, are both right. Mackey is right that buying bottled water is a choice, and Singer is right that given the impact it has, the easy substitutes, and the thoughtless spending involved, it's fair to ask whether it's always a good choice.

Once you understand the resources mustered to deliver the bottle of water, it's reasonable to ask as you reach for the next bottle, not just "Does the value to me equal the 99 cents I'm about to spend?" but "Does the value equal the impact I'm about to leave behind?"

Simply asking the question takes the carelessness out of the transaction. And once you understand where the water comes from, and how it got here, it's hard to look at that bottle in the same way again."

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