This story was originally covered by PRI's The World.
The sound of tap water filling a glass is not often heard in Italy. That's because Italians drink more bottled water, or acqua minerale, than anyone else in the world -- about 55 gallons per person each year, more than 3 billion gallons country-wide. Many Italians think it tastes better. Or that it's chic. One thing's for sure: Bottled water has a big environmental impact. To try to cut back on the pollution caused by all the plastic bottles, and from transporting the water across long distances, Italy's biggest retailer is doing something virtually unheard of in the corporate world. It recently launched an ad campaign to convince consumers to stop buying the bottled water it sells. Or at least to buy water that comes from nearby.
"We did a life-cycle analysis of mineral water in bottle and we discovered strongest impact is made by the transportation", says Marisa Parmigiani, the social policy director for the Co-op supermarket. As its name indicates, the chain is a Co-operative, and a powerful one, with 20 percent of the Italian supermarket share.
Co-op's commercial, which is now playing on national TV and the internet, features a well-known Italian comedian dipping an empty glass into a pristine stream in the countryside. She then trudges along highways and congested city streets, carrying the glass of water home. At the end, she stands in her kitchen and pours water from the tap. The message is simple: Drinking tap water pollutes less.
Along with the ad, Co-op stores have put up maps in the bottled water sections that show customers how far each brand of water travels to reach the store, hoping consumers will buy the closest product. The effort will give an advantage to Co-op's bottled water. Antonio Vitiello manages a Co-op supermarket in Rome. He says the store has changed suppliers in order to cut down travel distances.
"Before, our bottled water came from two springs in Tuscany. But now we're buying spring water from sources just outside Rome, which means the pollution caused by transportation is minimized".
Co-op says it expects to lose a whopping 140 million dollars in bottled water sales in the next year and a half because of the campaign.
Not everyone sees the effort as corporate self-sacrifice for the larger good, though. One consumer group has launched a complaint with Italy's anti-trust commission, saying the written online material about the campaign unfairly favors tap water and Co-op's brand over other brand-name bottled waters. It also points out that Co-op may be getting its water from closer springs, but that water still has to travel some distance to get to its stores.
Bottled water companies aren't pleased either. They've reminded Co-op that the sector employs 40,000 people in Italy and argue that spring water is better quality than tap.
Italy's main environmental watchdog Legambiente disagrees. Spokeswoman Viviana Valentini says that people think bottled water is better just because of advertising. "Water companies invest huge amounts in commercials saying bottled water good for health, get slimmer, prettier -- people induced to think tap water not as good as bottled water."
Valentini says tap water is far better monitored for quality than bottled spring water. The group supports Co-op's tap water campaign, though it would like the supermarket to go even further. "Of course plastic bottles not a good option, in Italy plastic recycled only at 35 percent. Glass bottles much better if you organize refund system to give empty bottle back that you can reuse".
Co-op says the chain is working on reducing plastic in its bottles. In the meantime, it's hoping other supermarket chains, along with consumers, will be brought on stream.
PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.