After years of being asked if I am related to the San Pellegrino brand (I’m not), I decided to take this opportunity to learn a little bit more about them and their water. While San Pellegrino, and their parent corporation Nestlé, are making some efforts toward more sustainable packaging and more efficient and environmentally friendly transportation, they have not done nearly enough. Their evident obsession with brand recognition positions their water as a luxury item, allowing them to profit off of high quality water at the expense of the millions of people around the world who have little to no access to safe drinking water. A single plastic bottle of San Pellegrino water can be bought for $1.89, but if and when you have the available resources to avoid buying one—especially a plastic bottle— please do so. And if you must buy one, be sure to reuse it or dispose of it in the most sustainable way possible.
San Pellegrino boasts that their high quality natural mineral water flows freely from the foothills of the Italian Alps, where it “surfaces as perfectly sparkling and naturally enriched.” In accordance with their recognition by the Italian Ministry of Health, the company must bottle their water close to source and deliver it to consumers in the same condition as when it emerged. However, beyond San Pellegrino’s insistence on the purity of their water, the bottles that they package it in appear to be largely anything but, potentially compromising this ideal. On their website, they have a whole page dedicated to explaining the importance of adhering to their signature bottle style for branding and recognition, with little to no transparency beyond simply stating the use of glass and PET plastic bottles and the marketing intentions of each. This makes them appear overly obsessed with their branding and aesthetics, seeking and boasting recognizability in order to attract consumers and keep them coming back. While sustainability guidelines are discussed on other pages, they also lack transparency, and the company’s goals feel weak and unambitious. For instance, they offer that they have begun supporting the use of recycled PET when technically feasible, with a commitment of using 35% recycled plastic by 2025. This is a decent start, but 35 is a relatively small number, and 2025 is still 4 years away. Given Nestlé‘s significant control over the industry, I imagine that they could make their brands much more sustainable if they really wanted to.
Before being captured and bottled, San Pellegrino water has a rather long incubation period. It takes 30+ years for rain and snow melt to trickle down the mountain, during which the water naturally absorbs the minerals present in the surrounding environment. After capture, carbonation from a natural mine is added, giving the water its signature bubbly taste. Beyond this, extensive geological, chemical, and microbiological tests are conducted in order to ensure that the water is safe for drinking before it is bottled and sent off into the world. In terms of the bottling process, the company explains that 10 bottling lines at the San Pellegrino Terme Plant operate 24 hours a day. While they insist that all of their production and bottling processes are aimed at minimizing environmental impact and achieving zero waste, this is extraordinarily vague and gives no indication of the volume of resources needed to run a plant at this rate. Further, while San Pellegrino claims to be satisfying a demand for mineral water and other luxury beverages through this process, they have explicitly helped to create the industry and desire for it in the first place, seeking to maximize their profits. When so much of the world does not have access to even the simplest clean drinking water, how do we grapple with the ethical stakes of a company focusing their efforts on selling premium water to their most privileged consumers?
San Pellegrino’s website emphasizes their commitments to “nourish the future” and “act responsibly” at all times, and their 90 page sustainability report contains extensive information that seeks to support this. For instance, through the implementation of better transportation practices, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per liter of water transported has dropped by 14.8% since 2012. However, none of these figures should be taken at face value, and they do not change the fact that this company is shipping a highly unnecessary amount of water across the globe in the name of luxury branding. It is also important to re-emphasize the fact that San Pellegrino became part of the Nestlé Group in 1998, a larger corporation with a bumpy track record on sustainability and social justice issues. Despite major improvements on this front in recent years, Nestlé remains the biggest distributor of bottled water in the world, massively profiting off of the control and privatization of a resource that our lives are entirely dependent on. In accordance with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, San Pellegrino explains their understanding of water as “a basic food,” committing themselves to protecting the territory that they source their water from in order to sustain it for as long as possible. They also received certification from the Alliance for Water Stewardship in 2020, which they promote as the global standard for sustainable management of water resources throughout the world. Upon visiting the AWS website, their about page explains, “Stewardship is about taking care of something that we do not own. Good water stewards recognize the need for collective responses to the complex challenges facing the water resources we all rely on.” I was immediately struck by the irony of this, as San Pellegrino’s website frequently uses possessive terms to describe their water, and the company is built on the goal of marketing high end water to a very specific consumer population with the privilege to both desire and access such luxury. Further, I found no evidence of stewardship of global water resources beyond their own, or efforts to fund social justice programs for water equity and accessibility, perhaps contradicting the AWS definition of a “good water steward" and the company's own understanding of water as a basic food.