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Opinion: How consumer choices can drive environmental change

When businesses realize that eco-friendly alternatives will help their bottom line, they take action.

A Palestinian boy drinks water from a public tap in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, Oct. 27, 2009. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands — Tempo Doeloe in Amsterdam is one of the city’s best known Indonesian restaurants. Waiters navigate sprays of tropical flowers and tightly-packed tables. The menu offers chicken skewers, chili beef, goat cooked in coconut cream, tamarind tarts, leafy greens in peanut sauce, pan-fried sole, jumbo shrimp and much more. What it doesn’t offer is tap water.

“Do I have to explain myself?” said the restaurant’s owner when I asked why I couldn’t top off my meal with a glass filled from his faucet.

“We’re here to make some money,” he said. “I don’t make money off of tap water.”

He was gone before I had a chance to ask his name — or explain why I would prefer tap water, which has many environmental benefits, such as using less packaging and energy, and putting pressure on governments to keep water sources clean.

Too bad for him. His restaurant risks missing an important trend. After years of booming growth, sales of bottled water are starting to drop. This summer, Nestle — the company that dominates the industry — announced that sales fell 3.7 percent. In cities like London, New York and Los Angeles, environmentally conscious diners have begun to ask that their water come straight from the tap.

As the health of the planet climbs our global list of priorities, consumers have begun to vote with their wallets. And the smart businessmen are taking note.

For example, take the airline industry. It seems it’s easier to imagine carbon emissions jetting from a plane engine than sparking from your wall socket or bleeding from your hamburger. Almost nobody thinks of buying carbon offsets when they fill up their tanks, but websites offering to negate the impact of a plane trip have done a brisk trade.

It was clear early on that customers were concerned. And industry officials were alarmed. When it comes to cutting emissions, finding a substitution for jet fuel was pegged as one of the most intractable challenges.

“You can run a car on electricity,” quipped Alan Epstein, vice president of technology and environment for the engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney. “With an airplane it’s more difficult because the cords get tangled.”

Still, earlier this decade it was clear the pressure was mounting. Emissions from air travel comprised only a small portion of global emissions, but projections for the industry’s growth alarmed climate campaigners. In London, for instance, protesters set up camp on the proposed site for a new airport runway