A high-end luxury product meeting a sophisticated consumer demand or an unethical indulgence? Emma White investigates the different views of bottled water
A few years ago bottled mineral water was seen as a symbol of good health and the ultimate fashion accessory. If celebrities weren't pictured carrying a water bottle they were reported to be shipping crates of their favourite thirst-quencher across the globe. Drinking bottled mineral water was cool, and sales rocketed.
Today, the message about drinking water remains as important as eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, but buzz words such as carbon footprint, air miles, cost and recycling have thrown the practice of importing bottled mineral waters into question.
Research conducted at the end of last year by TNS for the National Consumer Council revealed that two-thirds of the 1,000 adults polled thought the price of mineral water in restaurants was too expensive and would like to see free tap water readily available.
In February the BBC's Panorama documentary Bottled Water: Who Needs It? criticised bottled water companies and the environment minister Phil Woolas branded the amount of money spent on mineral water "bordering on morally unacceptable" when many people don't have clean water supplies in the developing world.
The London Evening Standard has recently launched a Water on Tap campaign that aims to cut the negative impact of bottled water by making it socially acceptable to ask for tap water in bars and restaurants, and to date nearly 150 London restaurants have signed up.
The campaign highlights the fact that Britons drink three billion bottles every year and half a billion are flown or shipped from overseas. Most of these bottles go to landfill and could take up to 450 years to decompose.
Just last month the chef Tom Aikens conducted a blind water tasting at his Chelsea restaurant Tom's Kitchen to launch environmental charity Green Thing's Drink Tap campaign. The judging panel rated Severn Trent Water, Anglian Water and Thames Water above leading mineral water brands.
But despite all this the demand for bottled mineral water continues to grow. Mintel forecasts that the UK bottled water market will increase by an estimated 30% to reach a value of £2.6b over the period 2007-12.
Unsurprisingly, bottled mineral water companies have been quick to defend themselves and several manufacturers contacted Panorama after the documentary was screened to put their side of the argument.
Danone, the maker of Volvic and Evian, calculated that the CO2 equivalent emissions created from the consumption of bottled water represents just 0.06% of the total emissions for an average British person. And the CO2 equivalent emissions of a litre of bottled water are less than one-thirtieth of that of 1kg of organic chicken. The company adds that it uses electric rail routes to deliver water where possible, has reduced the weight of its PET bottles by 30% and is this year introducing recycled PET into the manufacture of its bottles.
Fiji Water, another company under attack in the documentary, explains that it has partnered with charity Conservation International to become carbon-negative by reducing its product emissions by 25%, pledging to use 50% renewable energy by 2010 and offsetting remaining emissions by 120%. It also supports the preservation of the 50,000-acre Sovi Basin rainforest in Fiji and funds water projects in more than 100 local communities each year.
Thomas Mooney, senior vice-president of sustainable growth at Fiji Water, argues that restaurants are overreacting by removing bottled mineral waters from the menu. "The fact that the bottled water market is still growing tells you it's a product that people want," he says. "Restaurant owners who take it off the menu should remember that their guests like bottled water and that they're taking profit off the bill at the end of the meal.
"People who come into a restaurant expect choice, just as they do with food and wine. Fiji Water comes from one of the last virgin ecosystems on earth. It has a high silica mineral content which gives a smooth mouthfeel that's different from tap water."
Fiji Water is one of 30 varieties of bottled mineral water served at luxury London hotel Claridge's. The menu offers waters from Britain, Europe and the rest of the world. "If our clients want to drink tap water then we're more than happy to serve them tap water," says Claridge's water expert and bar manager Daniel Baernrenther. "It's important for us to offer choice and we aim to cater for everyone's tastes. We offer waters that you can't buy in your average supermarket. Some you can't find anywhere else in the UK."
The list reads like a water lover's dream, with offerings such as Tau spring water from the Welsh mountains, 420 Volcanic Spring Water from Tai Tapu in New Zealand at £21 for 84cl, and Berg iceberg water from Newfoundland in Canada which is sourced from the ancient glaciers of western Greenland after large pieces of ice break into the sea. Also available is Cloud Juice rainwater from King Island in Tasmania.
Matching waters with food is another benefit of serving a variety of mineral waters, as Baernrenther is keen to explain. "If you drink a carbonated water like Perrier after strong-tasting foods such as tempura prawns, the bubbles will help to cleanse the palate more than still water," he says. "If you drink wine from Italy, why not have Italian water with it? I'm not saying that if you have French wine you must have French water, but it helps to complete the experience."
Adam Gupta, managing director of Liquid Lust, which distributes Berg mineral water as well as Veen from Finland and Ganic Aroma Water from Norway, argues that bottled water is unfairly targeted.
"Look around you - half the things we have are shipped over from other parts of the world. Our clothes are made in China or Taiwan, our car parts are imported from other countries and we drink wine from New Zealand," he says. "Drinking mineral water is no worse and it provides a healthy alternative to cola or drinks with calories and carbohydrates.
"Why would you settle for a jug of ‘your finest tap' when there's a choice of a carbonated or still, bold or effervescent, soft- or hard-textured water that would complement both your meal and surroundings - in addition to coming in a bottle that looks elegant and makes a statement on your table. I really believe that if you want a premium product, you have to be exceptionally lucky to find it on your doorstep."
For caterers who are concerned about the environment but still like the benefits of serving chilled water, carbonation and attractive bottles, filtering machines might be the answer. The list of filtering machine companies coming on to the market is long, with options to filter or purify tap water or locally sourced spring water, brand your own recyclable glass bottles and give back to charities.
Stephen Charles, managing director of table water bottling company Vivreau, takes a diplomatic approach to the debate surrounding tap or mineral water. "We live in a free society and it's not for me to preach to people about whether they buy mineral water. It's not always easy to be green and there's a market for water on-the-go to take to the gym, for example.
"On the other hand, I think people need to get to grips with what water actually is. It's not wine. Water is water. You find me water that doesn't agree with chicken or fish. But if people want to spend a lot of money on it, they can."
Vivreau has recently formed a partnership with charity One to offer its filtered tap water in One water branded bottles. The charity donates all its profits to funding PlayPump water pumps in Africa, providing clean water to a billion people. For each One water-bottling system installed, Vivreau donates £500 to One water and £75 for each dispenser. And 10% of the rental charge for each water system is donated to One ethical waters.
Vivreau is one of a growing number of water companies and restaurants to consider its corporate social responsibility. Sela V filtering systems, distributed by the water cooler company AquAid Franchising, installs a well in villages in South Africa for every filtering system sold.
Eco Systems, which filters and bottles all waters bar sea water, offers Green Passports to enable its customers to display their green credentials in their restaurants. "Our system meters the usage of equipment supplied, clocks up the litres used and calculates the number of bottles saved from landfill sites. The Green Passport is a certificate showing the emissions saved," explains managing director Paul Proctor.
At the Angel Inn in Skipton, North Yorkshire, front-of-house manager Andrew Elsie says he has never heard customers complain about drinking the restaurant's filtered tap water. "Customers shouldn't feel forced to buy bottled mineral water and I don't feel that we're losing out on revenue. We charge £1.75 for half-a-litre of bottled filtered water and the quality is very good," he says.
The Angel Inn donates a percentage from the sale of every bottle to the charity Unicef to provide clean water and sanitation projects for communities in Africa. "We put tags on our bottles explaining this donation to our customers and we receive letters of thanks from Unicef that we display in the bar," he says. "I don't like the practice of offering customers just bottled mineral water but equally I believe it comes down to personal choice."
Caterers can choose filtered water, rather than bottled. Filtering systems manufacturer Sela V, whose products are distributed by the water cooler company AquAid Franchising, installs a well in villages in South Africa for every system sold
Missing out on revenue but making a green statement
Eddie Hart, co-proprietor of Soho eaterie Quo Vadis, is piloting a water filtration system, Eau de Vie, with plans to install it at his other London tapas restaurants, Barrafina and Fino.
For a £2 cover charge, customers are served sourdough, olives and unlimited bottled and filtered tap water.
"By offering filtered tap water we're not contributing hundreds of bottles a week to landfills," he says. "We feel it's quite a statement, the water quality is excellent and it sets a good example to other restaurants.
"It's more expensive for us to sell filtered water due to the loss of revenue from selling bottled mineral water but we made the conscious decision that we would miss out on that revenue."
- Abbey Well, 01670 513113, www.abbey-well.co.uk
- AquAid Franchising, 01223 508109, www.aquaid.co.uk
- Water of Life, 07768 232986, www.thewateroflife.co.uk
- EcoPure Waters, 01844 290088, www.ecopurewaters.com
- Fiji Water, 0800 056 4137, www.fijiwater.co.uk
- Liquid Lust, 020 3144 0196, www.liquidlust.co.uk
- Pure H2O, 01784 221193, www.pureh20.co.uk
- Quangoff, 01249 462790, www.quangoff.co.uk
- Vivreau, 0845 674 9655, www.vivreau.com