Municipal water systems are aging. Environmentalists are castigating the makers of bottled water -- and the people who buy it -- for defiling the environment with plastic.
All told, it is a great time to be selling water filters and reusable bottles.
Inc. Magazine, which tracks growth of private companies, recently cited Sun Water Systems, which sells high-end Aquasana filter systems, as one of the 10 fastest-growing consumer product companies in the country.
Drew McGowan, manager for marketing communications for Brita, the Clorox Co's. filter brand, said sales were up 11% in the 13 weeks ended 30 September "It's the kind of healthy growth we haven't seen in the past few years," he said.
Thomas A. O'Brien, an associate marketing director for PUR, Procter & Gamble's filter brand, said he, too, was seeing "all-time record high sales."
In a sense, getting consumers to use filtered tap water at home has been the industry's low-hanging fruit.
Getting them to forgo bottled water on hikes or at work may prove harder. That is where reusable bottles come in.
In April -- months before the environmental groups' criticism -- Nalgene Outdoor Products, a unit of Thermo Fisher Scientific that sells reusable bottles, introduced a web-based campaign to promote their use. Called Refill Not Landfill, it asked visitors to the site to make an online pledge to give up bottled water for a week, a month, even a year. It also offered a $10 32-ounce bottle with the campaign slogan prominently displayed.
Nalgene is using the proceeds to buy carbon offsets, but the campaign -- or, more accurately, the media attention that it received -- has helped its bottom line as well. "We were on Oprah. We got a lot of press. Our product really got introduced to John Q Public," said Abe Hayes, a sales manager for Nalgene, who said sales of Nalgene reusable bottles increased as much as 30% in some stores in the months after the campaign.
The campaign also attracted the attention of Brita, which called Nalgene to suggest a partnership. The two companies came up with Filterforgood.com, a website that in many ways emulates the Nalgene campaign: It includes an online pledge, it sells reusable bottles with the campaign logo for $10 and it promises to donate 40% of proceeds, up to $25,000, to the Blue Planet Run Foundation, a water-centered nonprofit group.
"We wanted to create a badge that people can carry to show they are reducing their impact on the planet," McGowan said.
Procter is taking a different tack. It has long promoted PUR systems as saving consumers hundreds of dollars a year. Lately, it has added in-store displays that describe how using PUR filters can "save the environmental impact of 3,200 16-ounce bottles of water," O'Brien said. And it is including free refillable bottles, made to fit in a car's cup holder, with many of its filter systems.
"The consumer's mind is wide open right now, and they are looking at water as a way to reduce their environmental footprint," he said.
Few of the companies are using mass-market advertising to promote the environmental link to filters. They do not have to. Environmentalists, scientists and journalists are doing it for them.
In July, the magazine Fast Company ran a lengthy piece about the downside of bottled water that spurred a flurry of blog items and articles. Environmentalists' phones began ringing.
Consumers clamored for more information. Searches for the phrase "bottled water" on the group's website increased 155% in April through September compared with the period in 2006. Visits to its online Consumer Guide to Water Filters doubled.
Similarly, Food and Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group, said traffic to the bottled water section of its website soared this summer. So it is now using the bottled water discussion to woo consumers back to their taps.
"If they don't like the taste, or worry about something that's in the water, we recommend they get a filtration system," said Wenonah Hauter, the group's executive director. Food and Water Watch also plans to work with municipal water systems to distribute reusable bottles that display a heart and that city's name -- for example, "I Heart New York Water," reminiscent of the old "I Heart New York" campaign.
Even museums are joining in. Last month, to promote an exhibition called "Water: H20 (EQUAL) Life" that opened 3November, the American Museum of Natural History sent journalists a list of Water Facts on Tap. It detailed the financial and environmental toll exacted by bottled water -- and noted that about 40% of bottled water sold in the US is just filtered tap water.
Filter companies also see vast potential for overseas sales. In India, for example, contaminated water supplies have created a booming market for bottled water. So General Electric, which is registering double-digit growth in home filtration systems in the US, is putting up water kiosks at Indian train stations, where people can fill their own bottles with filtered water for a few rupees per litre.
"My gut tells me that in the US, it's water quality issues, more than environmental ones, that are driving sales," said Jeffrey J. Fulgham, chief marketing officer for GE Water and Process Technologies, which also sells systems to bottled water companies. In India, though, "the big driver is cost," Fulgham said. "And bottled water certainly costs more than a few rupees."