Bottled water sales are slowing -- inspiring both sides of a water war to argue over whether this is just a ripple, or whether the bottled-water industry will be washed up for good.
Wholesale bottled water sales topped $11 billion in 2007, still up from $10.8 billion in 2006. But sales growth running about 2.3 percent in 2008 is a far cry from the 12 percent growth peak in 2002.
Rising opposition to the environmental impact of water bottling had already been giving some consumers pause. Now, sales are being hit harder, as shoppers trim extras from their grocery budgets.
"Really, the economy is the driving force," said Arthur von Wiesenberger, a consultant to the bottled-water industry. "But now the environmental movement has made drinking water out of plastic bottles politically incorrect. People feel intimidated to buy bottled water at the grocery store."
Campaigns like "think outside the bottle" try to convince consumers that buying bottled water is environmentally irresponsible.
Corporate Accountability International, the not-for-profit that runs the campaign, argues that bottling diverts water from local populations that rely on it; that plastic packaging is a waste; and that public investment in infrastructure -- like building and protecting water supplies -- is less effective if people use less public water.
"People are starting to think about these things, and that makes them more likely to drink tap water," argued Mark Hays, lead researcher at CAI.
The bottled water industry hopes sales will bounce back whenever the Dow does.
A slow-up in bottled water sales during the recession of the early 1990s didn't last, pointed out Gary Hemphill, marketing director for Beverage Marketing Corp., an industry research and consulting group. Nestle and Evian have fought back with green campaigns of their own and succeeded in keeping customers through those initiatives, he said.
"We're still bullish on the market," said Hemphill. "We're hopeful it will come back."
It won't, argued David Quilty, an environmental consultant whose Web site, thegoodhuman. com, warns readers that "the worst kind of water bottle is the kind you only use once."
"I don't ever think bottled water sales will go away," conceded Quilty. "I just don't think sales will go back to where they were. The fact that my mom went out and bought a steel water bottle says it all."