Evian aims to become the first major spring water brand to go carbon neutral amid criticism that packaging water from the French Alps and transporting it around the world in plastic bottles causes unnecessary environmental damage.
Danone, the brand’s owner, is spending €280 million ($336 million) on the project, according to Chief Executive Officer Emmanuel Faber, who reinaugurated the Evian factory Tuesday. The site itself is now carbon neutral and is fully powered by renewable sources. Danone aims to offset the pollution caused by transporting Evian water by 2020 as it expands rail transport and promotes biogas.
“I’m aware, and more and more consumers are aware, that transporting water is not ideally what you’d like to do,” Faber said in a telephone interview. “If you want to build a model that’s sustainable, you need to deal with this reality.”
Danone plans to start advertising the carbon-neutral efforts on Evian bottles in the US next year, according to the brand’s head, Veronique Penchienati. A few smaller producers such as Icelandic Glacial and Norway’s Isklar have claimed the distinction years ago, though they’re tiny compared with Evian, which sold 1.8 billion bottles last year.
While so-called sustainable products are increasingly popular, Consumers International, a federation of consumer groups, has criticised the water industry’s initiatives, saying they do nothing to provide safe and affordable water to millions of people in developing countries that lack it. Environmental groups say bottling spring water wastes precious resources and creates disincentives for governments to improve tap water.
Faber countered that Evian doesn’t do any harm because it’s taking water that flows naturally from the mountains near Lake Geneva, rather than underground aquifers. “When it comes to Evian and the water, I don’t think there’s anything to redeem,” he said.
Danone has annual sales of €4.6 billion from bottled water, a fifth of its total. Evian is its biggest brand in the product category and its revenue is increasing by a mid- to high-single-digit percentage each year, Faber said. The Evian site has reduced the amount of energy needed to produce 1 litre of water by 23% over the past eight years.
The move toward carbon-neutral certification in bottled water follows industry shifts in other products such as chocolate, where Nestlé, Cadbury and Mars raced each other to switch to sustainably sourced cocoa and damp concerns of child labor in their products.
Danone’s move will put pressure on other water brands to follow suit, according to Mathis Wackernagel, CEO of Global Footprint Network, an Oakland, California-based think tank. Still, he questioned whether companies should be emitting carbon to package and ship the product in the first place.
“Often it is environmentally absurd to sell bottled water when tap water is cheaper, better, and far less energy-intensive,” Wackernagel said.
To offset transport, one of the biggest issues for the bottled-water business, Danone is switching from roads to rails, operating its own private terminal with trains departing every four hours. Some 60% of Evian’s production is shipped by train, with Danone seeking to increase that to 80% because it reduces carbon emissions by 75%, according to Faber.
The yogurt maker also aims to offset carbon emissions by working with farmers in the region of Evian to collect waste for biogas energy. Evian’s biggest markets by sales are France, the UK and the US To get to its farthest markets, it ships by sea, which Faber said pollutes less than by land.