NOTE: this post was first published two years ago on Forbes.com but somehow never made it into my personal blog. Here it is, all major points still valid. French Alps tower over the Gavot plateau above the southern shore of Lake Geneva; the plateau is the watershed for Evian mineral water.
Evian, the fashionable resort on the French side of Lake Geneva, sits at the foot of an impressive landscape: Alpine peaks, Alpine villages, Alpine forests. Europe’s highest peak, the Mont Blanc, is somewhere in the clouds to the south, surrounded by the snowy slopes of winter Olympic sites like Chamonix and Albertville.
At an elevation of 3.000 feet, there’s the broad plateau that you see in the photograph: meadows, grasslands, woods, lakes and wetlands. The setting, called the Gavot plateau, with its open fields, copses, trees and ponds, would make a spectacular site for a golf course, or for vacation homes, but no.
Up here, there’s plenty of snow in the winter, and a good 40 inches of rain year-round. The geography, easy to navigate, measures roughly 5 by 7 kilometers, 13.5 square miles (if you do the math) which sounds like a lot but it’s really just a postage stamp in the vast Alpine landscape: under 10,000 acres, maybe a dozen of Manhattan’s Central Parks.
You see, this is the watershed for Evian mineral water. The one and only watershed. On this windswept plateau overlooking Lake Geneva, where small herds of Abondance, Montbéliarde and Taurine cattle graze within sight of their barns, oblivious to their jaw-dropping surroundings, every drop of moisture that doesn’t evaporate but settles instead into the soil, embarks on a journey into the substrate.
Many millennia ago, glaciers covered these hills. Their mineral deposits lie many meters below the grass where the cows now graze. A wedge-shaped layer cake of minerals that ends in the rocky hillsides that extend down: ten miles or so by land, half a mile or so down vertically, to the shores of Lake Geneva and the town of Evian where the mineral water was first noticed a couple hundred years ago.
Evian, we should point out, is hardly the only community to lay a claim to healing waters. Across France, there are perhaps 50 towns with “les bains” (the baths) appended to their names; Belgium is home to a town named Spa; in Germany, “Bad” literally means bath; in Italy, where benessere means “good health,” you can find thermal baths up and down the country.
Mineral springs bubble up everywhere. Some have smelly waters meant for bathing (White Sulfur Springs in Montana, Alaska, and West Virginia); others contain iron or magnesium. The reason for their popularity, in the late 19th century, was that the waters were safe to drink and promoted good health.
Evian water, for example, was said to dissolve kidney stones. That would have been the Marquis de Lessert, as early as 1789, who drank from one of Evian’s many springs, and pronounced himself cured. The Source Cachat, and passed along the good news. It took a few more decades, but the healthy water from Cachat’s spring would eventually become famous.
Two decades ago, the owners of the Evian brand recognized how critical the Gavot watershed was. They hired hydrogeologists to confirm that the water at the “spring” in Evian itself (one of many, but the most reliable belonged to a man named Cachat) originated on the plateau. Tests would confirm that the water traveled slowly along the layers of mineral deposits, 15 years to be exact, picking up trace elements of minerals like calcium and manganese as it moved (at a glacial pace, obviously) from its absorption into the earth on the plateau until it emerged at the Cachat spring.
Now, this makes for a good marketing tale, obviously. The story of Evian water is like the origin of fine wine: here and only here.
If it’s not groundwater and not runoff, it has to go somewhere. Typically, water resides underground until it’s pumped to the surface. In Evian, you don’t go down, you go sideways, into the rock.
How much water is there? A lot. The 8 million bottles a day that Evian is drawing off and pumping to its new plant constitute between 5 and 10 percent of the potential flow. What’s not bottled continues its course along the aquifer, ending up in Lake Geneva.
It’s breezy up on the Gavot plateau, but there’s no danger that anybody’s going to be building vacation chalets or a high-altitude golf course.
Even 35 years ago, Evian (technically, the Société Anonyme des Eaux Minérales d’Evian) realized that it would have to take extraordinary steps to protect its brand. If the hydrogeologists were right, if the Gavot site was the primary source of the mineral water that emerged 15 years later from the Cachat spring, the company could not risk having its “raw material” polluted. That didn’t mean displacing the family farmers (60 of them), their cows or their woodlands but, rather, helping them to stay put with sustainable (and, as it happens, more profitable) farming practices. Most recently, Evian built a methanizer to convert animal waste (40,000 tons a year of cow poop, basically) into fertilizer and bio-gas> The fertilizer improves the crops and forage for the cows; the power generated by the methanizer goes straight into the local grid.
Meanwhile, on the marketing side of the company (now part of Danone), it’s a given that you don’t push bottles of water through the pipeline, you suck them out with consumer demand.
Water (natural or purified, fizzy or flat, plain or sweetened ) is the most basic beverage in the world. Finding a point of differentiation is key, and Evian sells not just its healthy purity but two more attributes: the company’s environmental responsibility, and its association with good health, specifically healthy championship athletes by sponsoring golf, tennis, and ski competitions. And speaking of skiing, Evian has long counted as its ambassador the Olympic champion Jean-Claude Killy, who took time out from the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new, carbon-neutral bottling plant to pose for a selfie with a visiting journalist.
On the environmental front, the watershed itself is a public-private partnership of corporate Evian, the “upper” villages on the Gavot plateau and the lower, lakefront towns. Normally, the taxes on mineral water extracted from a property would be paid to the local authority, but Evian’s unique arrangement ensures that all parties have an interest in maintaining the water’s pristine qualities.
To that end, the company underwrites a unique public-private partnership, the Association for the Protection of the Evian Mineral Water Impluvium (APIEME). It employs a vibrant ecologist named Cathy Le Hec, whose job is literally to guard the watershed. (Great Vimeo here.) The stakeholders include 13 municipalities and the 1,200 inhabitants of the mountainside villages, not to mention those who live in the lakefront communities.
In the meantime, though, they’re selling more Evian than they can bottle. No, the water won’t dry up–they’re using at most 10 percent of what’s in the rocks. But they literally ran out of bottling capacity.
The first three bottling plants were right in the center of Evian, within a couple of blocks of the casino. Then they started piping the water three miles to a site on industrial land west of town. It has reasonably good road access, but, more important for Evian than trucks, a dedicated rail line. Alas, there were no more sties like this within pipeline distance of the Source Cachat. So to double the capacity of the “new” bottling line, it had to be built on the footprint of the old one. It would take five years and cost nearly $200 million.
It’s not as if you can simply move to the suburbs; the whole ethos of Evian is its purity, the fact that it’s untouched from the time it emerges from the rock until the bottle is capped. That means the plant has to be at the end of an unbroken conduit. And there’s simply wasn’t any acreage available.
There wouldn’t be room to stockpile bottles, or to warehouse finished product. Deliveries had to use the just-in-time model perfected by the Japanese auto industry to bring in the PET material; shipping had to be immediate, pallets loaded directly into waiting rail cars. The plant’s 1,200 workers have been retrained; they “steer” a new generation of giant, driverless forklifts with hand signals, as if they were giving commands to sheep dogs at a field trial.
And last week, they finally held a ribbon cutting for the new facility. Mindful of the notion that a major selling point of bottled water is its purity, Evian and its parent company, Danone, were understandably proud of the fact that the new plant has been certified “carbon neutral.”
While the Trump administration is still waffling on the Paris climate accords, executives at Danone are not hesitating to embrace its goals.
For example, 25% of the plastic used to make bottles is recycled material; the number will grow to 50% by 2020, and to 100 percent as soon as possible. Some 60% of shipping is by low-impact rail, from a station inside the bottling plant. There’s a new package that does away with the need for a plastic yoke to hold four-packs of bottles together; there are reverse vending machines to encourage the recycling of empty bottles.
Speaking at the launch, Danone CEO Emmanuel Faber said of the carbon-neutral certification, “This achievement brings together everything we need to support the brand’s development while preserving the natural resources we cherish and continuing to develop the local economy.”
So what’s next, now that Evian can package 8 million bottles a day? New sizes, new ad campaigns. And (gulp) new flavors.
“The product itself does not change,” Véronique Penchienati, the president of Evian Volvic World, explained in an interview. “Our job is to protect it.”
And yet, Ms. Penchienati acknowledges that the brand needs a kick in the pants. Besieged, under fire, however you put it, by corporate rivals both big and small (Nestlé, Coca-Cola’s Dasani, etc etc ), not to mention its own brands (Volvic, Badoit), Evian has evolved new offerings and presentations. To compete with the likes of the Mio concentrate (from Kraft), it is launching a line of Evian waters flavored with organic juices.
I made no secret of my skepticism. At home, I drink from the tap or from a Brita filter. I tried some of the new waters at the ribbon-cutting, where I was a guest of the company. Three flavors so far, made from fruits and botanicals. I found them icky sweet. How could you do such a thing?
“The idea,” Pechienati, reminded me, “is to capture the attention of people not naturally choosing water.”
I have to tell you this: Evian (well, technically its parent company, Danone) paid for my trip.