This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  January 11, 2008


Religious orders bring clout to war on bottled water


If you want to get the lowdown on bottled water, listen to what the “Green Franciscan Sister” has to say. She is Sr. Janet Corcoran, vice president of mission service at Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria, Calif., and she is just one of the Catholic voices spreading the gospel that bottled water, however convenient to tote around, is environmentally, economically and politically wrong. She shares her viewpoints, among other places, in the form of “Environmental Tips from the Green Franciscan Sister” in a hospital publication. Corcoran feels strongly that “Sister Mother Earth” needs all the help she can get, especially when it comes to water.

“It’s a matter of getting people to think more consciously about what they are doing,” she said.

Concerns about bottled water are bubbling up in Catholic organizations, adding clout to a growing number of cities and secular organizations worried about the issue -- with women religious strongly in the lead. Numerous women’s religious orders are banning bottled water at their motherhouses, retreat houses and conference centers, and some are substituting refillable water bottles for the throw-away kind at sponsored events.

Among major incentives to get involved is the negative environmental impact of discarded plastic bottles, the oil required to make them, and the limited access to safe drinking water in developing countries -- a problem even before big corporations got involved. (See accompanying story.) Here is one sobering statistic: The United Nations estimates that more than 1 billion people worldwide currently lack access to safe drinking water and that by 2025 two-thirds of the world’s population will not have access to drinking water. When water is privatized and corporatized, the problem grows worse, advocates say.

Says Glenmary Fr. John S. Rausch, who writes, teaches and organizes in Appalachia: “Toting bottled water has a cachet of sophistication. But if people cared about the earth, they might not be flaunting their water bottles. We are destroying the sacramental system” of the wide availability of clean, free water when companies privatize water and sell it for a profit.

The Franciscan Federation, which includes nuns, priests and monks, has been engaged with the issue for the past three years, said Sr. Sharon Dillon, who recently ended her tenure as executive director of the Franciscan Federation and became director of the Franciscan Mission Service. She noted that the federation has a special tie to environmental issues because of the emphasis on nature in the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi.

The federation has collaborated with Protestant churches in making interfaith statements at the World Water Forum. The Franciscans have also published articles highlighting the negatives of bottled water and hosted information workshops. Sometimes the activism takes the form of polite but pointed confrontations with beverage executives at shareholder meetings as well. Details of the Franciscan Federation’s water campaign are on their Web site:

Among other signs of progress, the St. Louis-based Catholic Health Association provides water bottles that are meant to be refilled with local water at meetings and conventions. National Catholic Rural Life has been spreading the word among its members. The Sisters of Mercy, constructed their Mercy Center in St. Louis, which includes administrative offices and housing for retired sisters, as a green building that prohibits bottled water, among its other environmental initiatives, said Stephanie Heiland, director of communications. The National Coalition of American Nuns, a progressive organization representing 1,200 women religious, went on record more than a year ago with a resolution urging members to abstain from bottled water in most circumstances.

At the 115-year-old motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Dubuque, Iowa, a recently renovated geothermal building is a bottled water free campus, with educational information available and bottled water removed from vending machines, said Sr. Mira Mosle, director of communications. The order’s 175th-year jubilee, now underway, includes “a focus on water,” and people are encouraged to sign pledge cards stating their commitment to abstain from bottled water, she said.

-- Zuma Press/Jim West

Discarded plastic water bottles are among the refuse under the stands at the Gold Cup Hydroplane races on the Detroit River.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester, N.Y., are working with the Sierra Club to reduce use of bottled water and are distributing the club’s informational brochure. Benedictine Sr. Pat Lupo, program director for Lake Erie-Allegheny Earth Force, said the organization is providing only refillable water bottles this year for its fundraiser, Bike Around the Bay.

The war on bottled water hasn’t engaged all Catholic groups, however, not by a long shot. Catholic schools and colleges, with some exceptions, are generally leaving bottled water on their refreshment tables, and Rausch said few dioceses are conveying much concern to parishes.

For those Catholics who are involved, the issue, not surprisingly, has a spiritual slant. Church groups may talk not just about the numbers of bottles choking landfills, but about the sacredness of water and the need to be stewards of the earth. For instance, Suzanne Golas, with the Congregations of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, has found her place as a water warrior at the United Nations. There, she has a ministry called “Waterspirit,” where she promotes the ties between spirituality and the environment, with a special focus on the sacredness of water.

Some Catholic groups have borrowed information and ideas from Think Outside the Bottle, a major non-religious player in the anti-bottled water movement. The organization has launched a Web-based campaign that provides information and support. In addition to inviting individuals to sign a pledge to boycott bottled water, the program urges people to send postcards to corporations challenging corporate control of water, to attend stockholders’ meetings and mount other forms of pressure on corporate executives. Think Outside the Bottle ( is part of a larger organization called Corporate Accountability International (

In April 2007, Dillon spoke out at the shareholders’ meeting of Coca-Cola against the company’s marketing of bottled water and what she regards as its pseudo-concern about world water issues.

“Nestle, Coke and Pepsi are marketing their bottled water as being better than tap water,” she said. Pepsi has gone on record that their Aquafina water comes from public sources, but Coke, which makes Dasani bottled water, so far has refused to say where its water comes from, she said. “If you’re not going to honestly reveal to the public where the water’s coming from,” that’s a form of corporate abuse, Dillon said.

(The Dasani Web site says the water comes from “the local water supply.” All three companies have expressed commitments to preserving the environment.)

Such alleged corporate missteps have led to actions by other Franciscans. Sr. Betty Kenny, a member of the Rochester, Minn., Sisters of St. Francis, said they buy “token shares of stock in the big water companies such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Nestle. We do this so we can work the stock -- vote proxies, contact the company CEOs and attend the shareholder meetings.”

As the Earth Policy Institute noted in a Dec. 7 news release, “Slowing sales may be the wave of the future, as the bottle boycott movement picks up speed. With more than 1 billion people around the globe still lacking access to a safe and reliable source of water, the $100 billion the world spends on bottled water every year could certainly be put to better use creating and maintaining safe public water infrastructure everywhere.”

Dillon said, “There are communities around the world without clean, drinkable water” while large corporations earn hefty profits by selling a resource that should be affordable to everyone. “Somebody has to take this on.”

Laura Lloyd is a freelance writer who lives in Kansas City, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2008

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: