It’s the ultimate in traceability — a bottled water that provides details of the team member who bottled it, the temperature and weather conditions during bottling, and even the vegetables that were growing in the nearby garden at the time.
If you’ve ever felt guilty about buying bottled water, Clearer Water is the one to go for — a stone-purified water sourced from a deep aquifer on the Antrim Coast.
But more importantly, the water is produced by a social enterprise which provides employment for disadvantaged people who find it hard to get jobs, and all the profits are ploughed back into the business in order to create more jobs.
The man behind the product, David Hunter (50), has been running his own retail and paint businesses for more than 20 years.
But throughout those years, he says he has always volunteered on bodies that aimed to improve and develop his home town of Larne, including social enterprise company Acceptable Enterprises Ltd.
In 2009, with recession looming, its board realised it needed to develop its own businesses and jobs rather than relying on other organisations to provide work, David explains.
“We wanted to create jobs rather than train people for jobs that weren’t there,” he says.
So in 2012, Acceptable Enterprises Ltd teamed up with Northern Regional College (NRC) and relocated to the Pound Street college, so its new social enterprises could run during the day while night classes could continue in the evenings. They also teamed up with the Northern Health and Social Care Trust to provide a base for people with learning difficulties.
One of those social enterprises was Clearer Water, launched as Ireland’s first ethical bottled water in a job creation project for people with disabilities.
The water is bottled at source at the borehole at Magheramorne, next door to the Game of Thrones location where Castle Black scenes are filmed. It is sourced from three limestone aquifers yielding high quality water with a pH of 7.8.
“Over the last 12 months we’ve been concentrating on getting production up and running. First, your product was in 500ml plastic bottles and then we made them into glass bottles for the hotel and restaurant trade,” David says.
“All of the business works on a model where we have a mixed workforce. It’s not that we create a business for people with disability — it’s that we create a business with people with disabilities in mind. One third of the workforce is people with disabilities.
“Three weeks ago, we interviewed 12 people for paid jobs in the water plant. Four of them, aged around 25, had disabilities, three guys and a girl. For three of them, it was their first opportunity for paid employment.
“I suppose one of the USPs is the code we have on every bottle. The customer can put that code into an app and find out who bottled the water on that particular day and learn more about the background of the person that they are keeping in a job because they made the decision to buy our water.”
In just over a year, Clearer Water is now able to produce 1,000 bottles of water an hour.
“In the last three months, we’ve brought in a carbonated range, so we now offer sparkling and still water. That has completed the family and it’s what our customers have been wanting,” David comments.
“The uptake has been so good that we’ve realised we would probably benefit from an additional line. I do think we will have to expand within a short period of time.
“We have no shareholders taking profits out or dividends being paid out, so all the money from this project will go back into the production lines and be reinvested in additional equipment and additional lines — which in turn will lead to additional jobs.”
There has been good uptake from restaurants and hotels which provide the product as table water, and smaller hotels and B&Bs which provide it in their rooms.
“The restaurants and hotels have been very keen to buy local, buy social. One of the first to take it was the Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen and it’s selling away. It just goes to show that a lot of these big businesses have a social conscience,” David adds.
He credits Henderson Food Group with providing a lot of assistance by agreeing to take care of distribution, and the Big Lottery’s Coastal Communities has also provided a lot of support.
David adds that the brand is now looking for a few ‘champions’, such as sports stars or celebrity chefs, who can help to promote the brand. “That can help us in terms of spreading the news if you’re going to buy a bottle of water, buy this one.”
Next week, the Big Interview speaks to Jack Hamilton, director of Mash Direct