Water is Way More Complicated Than I Thought

Two weeks ago, I announced here on Earthkeepers a new ban on bottled water at Timberland headquarters buildings globally.  I was psyched about the announcement, even more excited about the action.  You know what I’ve learned over the last 2 weeks?  It’s really exhilarating to want to run a more sustainable business … but to actually do it is really freaking hard.

Get rid of the bottled water – simple ask, right?  How hard could it be?  Little did I know.  First there’s a supply issue to contend with – our facilities team reports a 4-week supply of bottled water already in house and we don’t want to be wasteful, so can we continue to offer it until the supply runs out?  Sure, okay … makes sense.  Then the vending machine folks chime in, what about the plastic soda bottles in the vending machines?  Are we getting rid of those, too?  Wow.  Okay, sure.  No more plastic bottles in the vending machines.  But hold on, says the guy in charge of our dining services – we don’t have nearly enough glasses and cups to accommodate the increased demand from people who would otherwise be drinking bottled water.  We’re gonna have to add more dishwashers, or buy more glasses … yikes.  All I wanted to do was get rid of the bottled water, now I’m buying new dishwashers?  How come it’s never as easy as you think it will be to get something done?

That was the noise from our internal community – but we had a lot of valuable feedback from external folks, too.  Many of you rightfully pointed out that the bottled water debate is a lot more complex than I indicated in my previous post, and that it does in fact serve a good purpose – critical, even – in many areas of the world.  Chief among the arguments we heard:

  1. Tap water isn’t a completely “no cost, no effort” option – it costs money and energy to sufficiently treat public water so that it is safe to drink, and more money and energy to deliver it to people and businesses.
  2. In some instances – in crowded public places, on long trips, when you’re out in the middle of nowhere – it’s not realistic to expect clean, drinkable tap water will be readily available.

All this information made me realize that bottled water is about as hard to understand as it is to get out of our buildings … and also made me glad for the engagement with people who care enough about this issue to share their thoughts (even if their thoughts were, “Jeff you’re being stupid.”).

I have a better appreciation now for when and where bottled water is necessary, and I certainly believe that plastic has its place in the world, for all sorts of good uses.  But I hold on to the notion that in the corporate world, where tap water is clean and reuseable containers are (soon to be) plentiful, we can do better than bottled water.  And so we forge ahead with our plans to give the bottle the boot from our corporate offices, hopefully in the next few weeks.  I’m excited to see idea translate into real impact – however small – despite the few good headaches we endured in the process.

I’m also excited about the real-life Earthkeeping dialogue this project produced; we shared a big idea, you were interested enough to want to talk about it, we came away smarter and more evolved in our thinking.  That’s the power of engagement – bigger, better, smarter outcomes.  I’m appreciative of the effort from those of you who joined in.

I realize getting rid of bottled water doesn’t negate our environmental footprint as a company (if only …), nor does it solve the climate crisis.  But I’m of the mind that taking even one small step in the right direction is better than staying where you are … and that low-hanging fruit is there to be picked.

Now don’t go too far … my To Do list also includes removing all paper products from our headquarters cafeteria, save post-consumer paper napkins.  This could get ugly.

Jeff Swartz
President & CEO, Timberland

  • http://refillnotlandfill.blogspot.com/ Rick MacNeal

    We applaud your efforts and understand the complexity more than most. We’re just launching a new type of vending machine designed for situations such as yours. Our machine dispenses single-serve portions of filtered and chilled water (or up to 3 additional beverage selections) into a user’s own bottle. If no bottle an internal cup-drop can dispense a compostable cup. It can free-vend use smart cards or accept cash. Going bottle-less is futile if you don’t offer employees a viable convenient alternative. If interested in learning more, please have the appropriate person in your organization contact me.

    All the best,
    Rick MacNeal
    Aqua Star International

  • http://www.Shawn-King.com/blog Shawn

    I applaud you for making the decision to remove wasteful plastic water bottles from your building… You are paving the way for so many others that may be “On the Fence” with the idea.

    As I read this I couldn’t help but think of few questions…

    Wouldn’t it be just as simple to have employees bring in their own cup like they do with say their morning coffee?

    If you do remove plastic bottles, what are their options for drinking water?
    You wouldn’t catch me drinking tap water… unless I was dying from dehydration and even then Im sure I would be reluctant.

    Are you offering any type of filtered water? I have a personal water filter bottle that I carry with me everywhere I go. They are fairly new to the market, inexpensive and allow me to have purified drinking water everywhere I go without the waste associated with bottled water. There are all types that could easily go into your building offering better water that people would be happy about drinking once educated on the benefits of that particular filter as opposed to bottled water.

  • Suresh VK

    Reducing our ecological footprint is not easy and changing habits is even harder. But it is great that Timberland is taking steps towards reducing plastic from it’s corporate offices. Every bit that can be reduced or eliminated from the landfills and the world’s oceans (see Treehugger’s Blue August posts), is worth the effort. VK

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  • admin

    Shawn – thanks for raising some important questions! We do offer filtered water coolers throughout our building, and although a lot of our employees tote their own reusable water bottles, travel cups etc., we also offer glasses and mugs in our cafeteria.

    Thanks for reading – and commenting!

  • http://www.captiv8promso.com Brent

    Hi Jeff,
    Try stainless steel waterbottles! Yes it will take an upfront investment to get them out to all your employees, however the long term costs will be minimal. Logo’d bottles will act as a great moral booster to your employees and when they carry the bottles around, it will help promote your brand!
    Let me know if your interested in finding out more.

  • Darryl


    I really applaud you in this endeavor. It’s not just the issue of using plastic bottles but also all of the green house gases emitted by bottling plants, transportation, etc etc. It’s crazy that people buy Dasani or Aquafina when that is the same water that comes out of the tap!

    I work at Microsoft and one of the perks of the job is free beverages (coffee, tea, water, soda.)

    Microsoft used to offer bottled water, not just one type but several types. As part of our green initiative, three months ago we eliminated bottled water and installed water filter machines.

    Most people have a Microsoft water bottle (either plastic or aluminum.) It’s a good way of being green and promoting our brand.

    For anyone that doesn’t have a water bottle, there are a stack of cups made from recycled cardboard sitting next to the machine.

  • jeff epstein

    Jeff, this debate can get even more complex as there are a number of unintended consequences of the bottled water “backlash”. Much of the growth of bottled water came as people were able to conveniently buy water as an option as opposed to a soda or other high sugar/high caloric beverages. The reality is that when cafeterias remove the bottled water option, in aggregrate more of these other beverages are likely to be purchased. Also, these other beverages, whether they be soda, iced tea, gatorade, are in plastic packages that are potentially double or triple the plastic weight of the water bottles (due to needing heavier weights for their production process). The other drinks that come in glass packaging, took significantly more energy to produce and transport than the lightweidht PET bottle. In the case of a healthcare system that removed the availability of bottled water for people in their facilities, now they have created a whole new waste stream of nonrecyclable paper cups that go to the landfill (as opposed to PET which is a very valuable material when properly recycled). Yes, if good cold, clean water is available, without having to use a package, it is a more sustainable option, and PET does not belong in landfills… but this debate is based on analyis that is not as rigorous as it should be.
    Best regards.
    Jeff E

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  • Gavelect

    I see you are interested in global warming and everything else that comes with it. I would just like to share my disappointment at the outcome of the Copenhagen climate council. The summit was supposed to halt temperature rise by cutting greenhouse gases. But after two weeks of negotiating it ended in a weak political accord that does not force any country to reduce emissions and has no legal standing anyway. As a result the world is “one step closer to a humanitarian crisis”, according to the Royal Society. It looks like it is every man for themselves but if your far away neighbors don’t do anything to halt it, what is the point. Here in Scotland, Scottish Hydro has shown the way forward with supplying clean renewable Scottish power from sources like, hydro damns and wind turbine farms but is it all in vein? It could well be.

  • Susan M

    At our company headquarters we installed a reverse osmosis water dispensers in each breakroom and issued PB free water bottles (with Company logo) to employees. We still offer bottled water to guests but have greatley reduced our “bottle” usage.

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