Robinetto: scaling impact to make tap water the obvious choice

With increasing astonishment I observed the hoarders when lockdown started: toilet paper, pasta, flour and water. Waaaaaater? Who buys bottled water and then drags it to a house where good drinking water flows from the tap?? This really goes beyond my mind. Unfortunately, my astonishment doesn’t seem to be shared by many. In Belgium, we drink more than 1.4 billion litres of bottled water and the same quantity of soft drinks per year. All this not only has to be packaged, but also transported and stored. Trucks drive millions of kilometres to transport all these bottles. After use, we are left with a pile of waste and a gigantic amount of CO2 emissions.

Tackling this absurd waste and pollution is exactly Robinetto’s mission. Robinetto is a Belgian based social enterprise offering water dispensers for the hospitality industry, offices, households and events. By linking these water taps to syrups, Robinetto can also provide sustainable soft drinks.

In a meeting with Jeroen Vereecke, founder of Robinetto, Jeroen explains how he and his companions strive to make tap water the default for drinks. Robinetto is committed to switching from bottled drinks to ‘tap’ drinks: both making tap water the default of drinking water, and changing the soft drinks market by focusing more on the mix of syrups and tap water. Whereas Robinetto initially focused mainly on festivals and large events, they soon spread their offer to pubs, offices and, a few months ago, Robinetto also moved into the households. With their solutions they reduce the number of kilometres driven, the amount of energy and above all: the amount of plastic waste.

Although on the one hand I listen optimistically to the impact that Robinetto has already achieved, on the other hand my astonishment about the dragging out of bottled drinks gets an extra knack when Jeroen tells me that the Belgians are in fourth place worldwide in terms of bottled water consumption. We drink an average of 130 litres of bottled water per year! Unk? Only the Italians, Germans and Americans are ahead of us. And yet our tap water is of such high quality. (Swedes, for example, drink an average of 10 litres of bottled water a year. Why can’t we)

This brings us to the key question: what, according to Jeroen, is needed to encourage people to marginalise the proportion of bottled water and bottled soft drinks? Why is it that so much bottled water is still being bought? Jeroen: “The tap water is super safe here, but it has the perception against it.”

When changing mindset and legislation are key levers

Robinetto is committed to changing our mindset about drinks. This focus on the mindset is a good example of SCALING DEEP: as a social enterprise, they go a lot further than just selling products; they also focus on influencing beliefs. Various strategies are being explored in this regard. Jeroen: “Parallel to working on the perception of tap water, there is the fight against disposable packaging. We want to help getting rid of the single-use plastic. In this respect, too, we are betting on scaling deep”. In his former job in the events sector, Jeroen knew how to weigh up regulations. As a result of his lobbying-with-a-cause, disposable cups are now banned at many events. “It is undeniable that responding to legislation is an important lever. If something becomes a rule, then people have no other choice than making this switch and they will find that it works well for them too”. What insights does Jeroen have about lobbying in particular? “It is important to first show that the alternative is realistic. By setting an example yourself, you show that it can be done differently. We for instance started on Boomtown festival with the banning of disposable cups, then we went to the local government with the suggestion to make this compulsory for all events in the city of Ghent. As soon as it was compulsory in Ghent (2018), we went to other festival organisers to jointly advocate the policy on higher level. In the meantime, this has been incorporated into regional legislation. Very specifically, we started giving arguments to people who directly advise policy makers. Admittedly, it is a lot of pulling and dragging, but suddenly it happens and then the whole preparation absolutely pays off. Changed legislation can be a very strong catalyst to achieve your intended impact.”

Jeroen hopes to achieve the same impact about bottled drinks. Responding to changes in perception and behaviour is also done through the hospitality industry: “The fact that we are against free tap water in catering establishments is often surprising”. Robinetto believes that offering tap water free of charge sends out the wrong message: that tap water would be inferior to bottled water. The solution Jeroen sees is: oblige everyone who sells bottled water to also offer a package-free alternative. “We should not underestimate the lobby of the bottled water industry behind the idea that tap water in the catering industry should be free of charge. It is in their interests that consumers consider this water to be inferior. In order to change the perception, a highly rated restaurant that puts tap water fully on the menu will have a greater effect than yet another campaign.”

All aboard for the water revolution

Robinetto invests in the network of regular businesses too, as companies are an interesting place to tell Robinetto’s story. The more companies install a watertap, the more employees will adjust their perception of drinking tap water, the greater the impact… Aswell, Robinetto is committed to scaling deep by being eagerly advocated as good practice by lobbyists of all kinds: others may use the case in the fight for a water transition. But, says Jeroen: “As a social entrepreneur, I certainly put time into lobbying, I can see that this helps to increase our impact, but in the meantime we also have to get our business going. There is not always a lot of time to work on the bigger picture. Our enterprise needs solidity.”  Jeroen chose to let impact and business go jointly together. Yet he notices that he has to keep hammering away at it: that impact and business can really go hand in hand.

A few months ago, Robinetto launched a B2C offer. Not only to be able to make more turnover, but above all to be able to respond to another factor that makes people buy bottled water: the appreciation of taste. After all, it can be clearly stated that tap water is safe, the appreciation of taste also has a role. Some people just don’t like tap water. Robinetto therefore decided to convince consumers through their water filters and home appliances.  “Actually, we are market crashers in the water tap market,” says Jeroen. “We want to sell as many water taps as possible; others want to be able to sell them as expensive as possible. By entering the B2C water tap market with lower prices, we are also going to influence the pricing of other water tap suppliers, and that’s good. The more water taps people buy – and then it really doesn’t matter from whom – the better”.  The more people can be included in the water transition, the better. For the same reason, Robinetto also allows the impact to grow via SCALING OUT (to make impact transferable): they are super open about everything. Robinetto shares knowledge with other social entrepreneurs, such as the start-up Dripl. Others who want to do something similar will always get advice from Robinetto. Furthermore, Jeroen is convinced that if things are going well in Belgium, it might be interesting to give actors in other countries the information so that they too can get started with this solution. That impact takes precedence over business is also evident from the tips they give to the catering industry with a beer tap. Robinetto advises how they can simply convert this into a water tap. “Above all, we are not going to give the impression that it is difficult”.

The case Robinetto works on is so important and has a massive impact. I can therefore only hope that Robinetto, with their various strategies, will succeed in reducing the consumption of packaged drinks. We urgently need to make this transition and leave the absurdity behind us. No more dragging and driving around with water!

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