Yes, bottled water again. The anti-bottled water bandwagon seems to be gathering steam. But I genuinely believe the criticisms will turn out to be just hot air.
Which? magazine has made it a front cover story for August. This is a magazine whose product surveys I’ve valued and whose consumer campaigns I’ve supported for some 40 years.
But I feel it has let down its standards and readers on this occasion. I have written quite a lengthy letter to the Editor and the text is set out below.
I earnestly hope his response will rebuild trust.
Dear Mr Fowler
AUGUST ISSUE COVER STORY
I saw your August issue on my return home from work last night and I was shocked by your article on bottled water because of its numerous inaccuracies and unfounded conclusions.
My reason for writing is partly prompted by your use of my company’s statistics on your front cover and in your opening paragraph without consultation or attribution.
As a subscriber to Which? for 25 years, I have a high regard for your integrity, but on this occasion I feel you should acknowledge that your research was inaccurate and your commentary was seriously lacking in balance.
I would therefore appreciate an early opportunity for a meeting and request that you publish corrections in your next issue.
First, the front cover
On the front cover you make three statements.
- Drink worth £1.68 billion. This is accurate but out of date. If you had checked with us, you could have had the information for 2007.
- An unnecessary drink. In an increasingly obese world, I would argue that bottled water has a significant role to play because it improves our chances of choosing the best option of calorie free natural hydration.
- Time to dispense with bottled water. Can you really justify this? It’s healthier than other beverages. It has a lighter carbon footprint than other packaged beverages. Surely this at least deserves debate? Where is the other side of the argument? Shouldn’t your readers be entitled to make an informed choice? If you did dispense with bottled water, the main choices would involve calories, fat, alcohol, chlorine or dehydration. And what would happen in emergencies like Northampton last month?
Second, the facts
There are so many inaccuracies to correct, but for the moment I shall highlight five.
- Sales dropped by 9% last year. Your researchers chose the worst figure published, based on one part of the market. The actual figure was 4%, based on our comprehensive total market assessment, and this has been in public use for over three months.
- Two gallons are wasted for every gallon. No water is wasted any more than it is wasted to make fruit juice, milk or meat. Some companies use less than half a litre more than is put in a litre bottle. This compares with 660 litres of embedded water for milk and 850 litres for orange juice. Tap water leaks more in half a day than the UK bottled water industry uses in an entire year.
- Water purified to put into a bottle. 97% of UK bottled water is naturally sourced and not purified in any way. It doesn’t have to have safe levels of chlorine, because there is none. Many of your readers might appreciate the benefit of consuming a water whose source is known and naturally replenished, whose catchment area is protected, whose taste is consistent, and whose quality is so good it needs no treatment as well as being further guaranteed by only being released for sale after all tests are clear.
- Tap water not recycled from sewage. Thames Water’s own website states the direct opposite. I quote: “80% of London’s tap water comes from the River Thames and the River Lee … it is true that some of the flow in the rivers gets there from sewage treatment works …”
- 0.5% of UK drinking water contains lead in unacceptable amounts, while 99.96% of water complies. These two statistics must be incompatible. Moreover, 0.5% failure would represent 35,000 million litres, 15 times total annual UK bottled water consumption.
Third, unfounded opinion
Your team’s analysis seems lazy and self evidently biased. You reference no industry sources. You insinuate rather than substantiate key points.
- For example, the mention of Fiji and New Zealand is used to accentuate concern about food miles. But you know food miles alone are deceptive and anyway water from outside Europe is under 1% of the market.
- June’s contamination scare in Northamptonshire cut off supplies to 250,000 people for 10 days and bottled water made a huge difference for residents there. Yet you gloss over the problem and provide no recognition of the solution.
- You lash out at plastic water bottles, but plastic has huge advantages in cost and convenience as well as being 100% recyclable. Water represents a very small proportion and recycling improved 68% last year. An altogether better approach would be to show how families and local authorities could increase recycling dramatically by following best practice in this country and abroad.
Which? is renowned for its properly researched plain speaking to inform discerning consumers. I really do feel your team has failed in its research and objectivity in this instance and urge you to redress such damaging criticism of a quality conscious industry providing a healthy product that benefits consumers.