Cutting back on bottled water is becoming a way to do your part to save the planet. Even though the category was created by packaging technology and marketing, bottled water is an integral part of consumer lifestyles. Its combination of weight-management, grab-and-go convenience, aesthetics, health benefits and cause-marketing isn’t readily transferable, except to variations such as flavored or nutritionally enhanced water.

Media personalities and serious environmentalists are raising the volume on criticisms of single-use water bottles as ridiculous, stupid, selfish or even horrific products. Some of those who have given up bottled water for environmental reasons see themselves as smarter, and greener, than those who continue to buy them.

Fitness centers, sporting goods stores and grocery stores are selling refillable water bottles as symbols of eco-friendliness and responsibility. But some consumers are worried about the chemicals used to make the refillable bottles, and some of the polycarbonate bottles have been taken off retail shelves in Canada.

Cutting back isn’t always easy, especially for young women (see table at far right contrasting usage expectations of young men versus young women). Soccer moms, Wal-Mart moms and lawyer moms continue to tuck single-use water bottles into their kids’ lunchboxes and scoot out of the house or office with a throw-away water bottle of their own tucked in their pocket, purse or carry-on.

When it comes to water bottles, it’s common to see women travelers of all ages throw half-full bottles away at the last security checkpoint, much as they would put out a cigarette at the last possible moment. One of our female shoppers told us that single-use water bottles are the first thing since cigarettes that give her something “unfattening” to do with her hands and mouth. Another told us that her husband lost 80 pounds switching from soft drinks to bottled water.

So it’s no surprise that in spite of attacks from all kinds of media (even Supermarket News did an editorial calling on supermarkets to rethink promoting the category), bottled water continues to fly off the shelves of supermarkets, drug stores, convenience stores, mass merchandisers, superstores, big-box office stores and corner delis.

The craze has also influenced the design of complimentary products. Four- and six-ounce bottles fit into the special belts designed for recreational runners. Product designers make sure that baby strollers, auto consoles, refrigerator doors, cartons, jean and vest pockets, and attaché cases accommodate them.

Meeting planners make sure there is a bottle at every seat. Health-oriented consumers use them in place of soft drinks. Older women use them to stay young. Fashionistas find pleasure in the design of Fiji and other artful bottles, loving the way the bottles look and the way they signal design-sensitive self-discipline. Globally concerned consumers express their values by drinking Ethos, which promises to make pure water accessible to third world children.

The findings of our Consumer Network New Year’s Intentions survey, conducted for us by Harris Interactive, suggest that young males are more concerned about environmental issues than young women, and have higher hopes of responding to them. (It could be that young women are more realistic in their self-assessments.)

The dark side

The survey also shows that higher income and more educated consumers have higher hopes of buying green and lower hopes of using more bottled water. More of them hope to use more tap water and buy environmentally friendly products in environmentally friendly packages in 2008. Some critics said:

“It’s extremely wasteful and foolish to buy bottled water-simple water filters improve the taste of tap water-so does refrigerating it a day or so.”

“It is ridiculous to buy bottled water for home use. But with the disappearance of public water fountains (perhaps for safety and security reasons), bottled water should continue to be offered through concession stands and vending machines.”

“Cluttering up the environment with plastic bottles seems very stupid, but breaking habits does not come easy!”

On the other side...

“Like many other things, bottled water is a convenience. Kids always have one at sports activities, which is a health factor.”

“It’s so easy to insert a bottle into your kid’s lunch. I often grab a bottle when running out the door.”

“It is more convenient than refilling sports bottles, since you don’t have to carry it once it is just throw it away.”

“I have several sports bottles, but I’ll stick with bottled water until I’m sure that B.P.A. is safe.”

The pressure to be eco-responsible is growing. Unless tap water problems generate a new round of headlines or bottles that are recognizably eco-friendly appear on the market, bottled water sales are likely to trickle slowly downward. Sales figures for 2007 aren’t yet available, but a look at the bottled facings in stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joes, and preliminary reports from the Bottled Water Association, suggest that they are already dropping off a bit.

Consumers don’t want to give up bottled water, but like Nestle’s ads for a new Eco-Shape bottle, they are taking steps to reduce their environmental footprint.