I saw an ad for bottled water recently that caught my eye: For every liter of Volvic that you buy, the sign said, the company will provide 10 liters of clean drinking water to Ethiopian children through a partnership with UNICEF.
It may be laudable for a corporation to fund new sustainable water supplies and sanitation education programs in an area of the world where such things are sorely needed. However, it's hard to get around how troubling the bottled-water industry as a whole is.
As Annie Leonard's just-released "The Story of Bottled Water" makes clear, agua that doesn't come from the tap is problematic along its entire life cycle, from the oil required to make its bottles to the pollution it causes once it's tossed. It is not necessarily as pure as tap water, which in the developed world is regularly inspected and well regulated (violations of the Clean Water Act notwithstanding), and it costs thousands of times more.
Another video, by Food & Water Watch, emphasizes how bottled-water companies siphon off what most of us think of as a public resource, straining the environment in the process. That is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the issue to me: the privatization of municipal water supplies. And as Mother Nature Network points out, the more people get accustomed to consuming bottled water, the more distanced they become from the tap and the less incentive they have to support bonds that would maintain and upgrade public systems.
So getting back to Volvic's campaign, if for some reason I got marooned on an island with no freshwater source and only two water vending machines, one for a company with a do-gooder campaign and one without, I would give my money to the former. Then I'd start sending smoke signals in hopes that the Plastiki would pick me up.
But really, if helping kids in Ethiopia is the objective, I'd rather just contribute directly to a nonprofit like Charity: Water.
Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user @kevinv033.