Katie Alcott of Frank Water on Being an Insider Rebel Within The Bottled Water Industry (Interview)
All photos by author - taken at WOMAD 2010 festival
Here's a frequent question asked by people wanting to create positive sustainable changes in the world: Is it more effective to work as a change agent from inside the current system or is it better to be an agitator shaking things up on the outside? Katie Alcott, founder of Frank Water, has wrestled with this question in her mission to raise awareness about the importance of safe drinking water and sanitation. Her decision to infiltrate the notoriously opaque bottled water industry by setting up her own bottled water brand might be seen as controversial by some, but canny and clever by others. Frank Water is a bottled water with a difference...
Frank Water at WOMAD
Taking some time out from dancing like a crazy person in a green English field at the WOMAD festival this past weekend I spoke to Katie Alcott about the pros and cons of being involved in the bottled water industry, why Frank Water is dedicated to water projects in India and how their major festival partnership with WOMAD was going. While supplying bottled water to all the festival cafes Frank Water was also selling reusable water bottles, branded with the WOMAD lion logo, and encouraging people to refill from the festival site taps and from the Frank Water mobile refill tank.
Katie what made you start Frank Water?
It started when I was working in India when I was 18. I got amoebic dysentery when I was there and experienced lots of dirty water issues. During my travels I
got ill in various different places and always promised myself I would do something about it if I could, either working with water charities or development in general.
My husband then got very ill from contaminated water when we went to Mali together, so then he understood what I was going on about and said "I'll support you if you want to do anything." He then took a sabbatical from his small business to help me set up Frank Water.
What is the premise of Frank Water?
Basically the idea was to take advantage of a luxury product - bottled water. Also the water for water concept worked really well, drinking luxury bottled water here would fund clean water projects in developing countries. That took off and by 2007 we were raising quite a lot of money. We ended up setting up a charity alongside the bottled water business into which we put the profits from the social enterprise to fund development projects in India and Ghana.
As you know there are a lot of questions around the sustainability of bottled water itself, so I wonder what your thoughts are on using an unsustainable product to create water sustainability in other countries?
I think we are the only bottled water company who put 'reduce reuse recycle' on our bottles. We actively encourage people to reduce their consumption of bottled water. It's one of those things where you can't stand about and complain about it, you need to get on board and do something within the industry and then change peoples ideas and ways of thinking.
We've had some shocking discussions with some of the big players. We did the UK Bottled Water conference a couple of years ago which was a very difficult situation. We confronted them and said, "You know this isn't appropriate." We shook it up a little bit, but because we're small, it doesn't get that far.
Did you get any interesting responses from the big bottled water brands?
Lots of the big companies were asking how do you want to grow? And we said, "It's not necessarily about growth, it's about spreading a message and maybe changing peoples' minds." So that's why we've done this refill concept. We've been selling reusable bottles and really actively encouraging people to use them.
Why have you called your social enterprise Frank Water?
As in open, honest, direct, straight talking. You know there are lots of campaigns out there that aren't very straight talking. It's in reaction to that really. Also at the time we were setting up Innocent Drinks were taking off. The backs of their labels said, "Oh aren't we wonderful and good and nice people, aren't we lovely doing all this charity work on the side," but well, actually these issues are really serious, people are dying, it's not like they need to give us a pat on the back, we should be doing this anyway. So we're trying to be more direct and up front about it.
Is Frank Water quite well distributed around the UK?
We are very much a Bristol southwest company, we get our water bottled at an artesian spring in Devon. So we haven't dug down to the water table, the water raises up naturally so its sustainable from that point of view, as much as a spring can be.
And you only get it from that particular well?
Yes, and we only distribute within a certain distance. I think 80% of our customers live within 150 miles of the spring. We don't spend any money on advertising or marketing.
What do think has been working the best while you've been here at WOMAD, people buying the bottled water or the refill system?
The refilling definitely. I think again it depends on the type of festival as to whether it works or not, but at WOMAD it works really well.
In terms of environmental consciousness do you think?
Yes, also because it's a world music festival a lot of people have travelled, and are very much aware of international development issues, they're interested in our work as well as the UK sustainability side as well.
Can you tell me a bit about some of the projects you're working on in India and how they started. Are they around places you've been or worked?
Yes, I've got affiliations with India because that's where I got ill. So I wanted to start projects in India, and we've got a project in Ghana as well, we're working on building up some more projects over there.
What are the major water issues you are dealing with in these areas?
In India we have problems with fluoride levels (fluorosis), it's a really big issue and very little is known about it. There are also very high TDS levels (total dissolved solids - measure of salt levels). It's unhealthy as it dehydrates you very quickly. The two together are very hard to get rid of and the only technique that is working at the moment is reverse osmosis (RO technology) - a filtering technology. It uses a very fine membrane and the water is forced through it.
Who are you working with locally on these projects?
We work with small local NGO's who have the expertise and know the culture. The NGO we are working with in India is at the moment is called Naandi. They are based in Hyderabad, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. This is the main region that we are working in. We work with technology suppliers and the NGO in order to put the RO technology into the community.
How does the project work within the community? Are local people involved in the process?
Yes, we have a big consultation process with the villagers themselves to ensure they understand what the issues are with water and what the solutions are. There's an educational process about sanitation as well. Frank Water, as a charity, only funds the drinking water side of it, but we would never put a project in if it didn't have education about sanitation incorporated. There are lots of aid programmes working on sanitation issues, so there are lots of cross overs with other projects working in the area.
I was just thinking here at WOMAD you could sell an aluminium bottle as well at a higher price?
Yes, we have thought about it, but it's quite difficult. BPA free, recyclable aluminium bottles are hard to find locally in UK. We did look into it, but as far as we could see they were mainly sourced in China. We also thought about working with Sigg, but then they had that big BPA issue recently....
The problem with aluminium bottles is that they are very expensive just for us to buy and then to sell on, you make very little money, then there's very little donation going into the charity. It has to be worth it to us, but more than that it's the BPA issues and finding a good local company who can provide their services to us.
Who provided the Frank reusable bottles?
The company that we are working with are based in Cardiff, Wales.
It seems like a real principle for Frank Water to have all production locally located in the UK, and even more specifically in the SouthWest?
Yes, it absolutely is.
Thanks for talking to TreeHugger Katie - enjoy the rest of WOMAD
Katie Alcott posted a message on Facebook at the end of the WOMAD weekend:
"Thanks to everyone at WOMAD this weekend. FRANKTASTIC. 1000's of Refill bottles sold, 1000's of £££ raised for clean water projects. (We think a whole village clean water projects is funded in one weekend!) Thanks too to the amazing FRANK volunteers. We couldn't have done it without you. Love X Katie"
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