Consumer Culture of Bottled Water

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — While there are arguments when it comes to the brand name quality of clothes, cars, electronics and other consumer goods, most of us don’t think about the brand name of bottled water—or do we? Over the past decade, the bottled water industry has exploded both domestically and globally. What seemed to be a universal necessity has been warped into a prized commodity and at times a luxury item by crafty marketing specialists and entrepreneurs.

We’ve all seen the familiar Aquafina and Deer Park 24-packs in grocery stores, the trendy Ethos Water at Starbucks, and the “boutique” Fiji Water in restaurants and in the hands of celebrities. What makes one brand of water different from another? And how is it that a consumer culture has developed around bottled water in countries where it is so readily available on tap—all while it is so scarce in the rest of the world?

Most people are unfortunately uninformed about the extreme levels of water scarcity in many parts of the world. According to the UN World Water Development Report (WWDR4) of 2012, about one fifth of the world’s population lives in physical water scarcity and 1.6 billion people experience “economic water shortage,” defined by areas that “lack the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers.” On top of that, 783 million people lack access to simple clean drinking water.

While North America, South America, Western Europe and Australia experience “little to no water scarcity”, parts of Asia, the Middle East, and the entirety of Africa experience it on some level, either physically or economically. Meanwhile, the bottled water industry is reaping unprecedented profits internationally, while simultaneously exploiting the scarcity and exclusivity of access to water.

What is even more paradoxical about this dilemma is that the biggest consumers of bottled water are countries with the highest availability of clean drinking water. In fact, the CDC Traveler’s Health Information Center warns tourists of the risks of drinking tap water abroad. Many locals in European and Asian countries prefer mineral or seltzer water and soft drinks to tap or bottled water. While it makes sense to avoid tap water in areas where it can be of skeptical quality, it seems unnecessary to purchase expensive bottled water when an alternative is available—especially when consumers can expect to pay up to 10,000 times more for a gallon of bottled water than they do for tap water.

Zenith International, a consulting firm for the beverage industry, lists the U.S., Germany, Italy and Brazil (countries with “little or no water scarcity” according to WWDR4) among countries like Mexico, Turkey and India (countries with “physical water scarcity” or “approaching water scarcity”) in its list of top ten bottled water consumers for 2010-2011. Thus it seems that whether or not nations experience water scarcity, bottled water is still a highly desirable good. It’s as if the availability of alternatives is irrelevant to consumers.

Those that can afford bottled water often just purchase it without a second thought. Many of us are guilty of this to a certain extent, but what is more troubling is that we are oblivious to the marketing ploys at work behind such purchases. Is it merely the convenience? The fancy glaciers, snowy peaks and coral reefs on the logos? The catchy slogans that romanticize far-away places abroad? Or influential celebrities that display style and luxury at home?

In his analysis of the consumer culture of bottled water, Richard Wilk of Indiana University addresses the absurdity of this phenomenon: “Long ago, magicians and priests could transform and manipulate the powers of natural substances; today charismatic celebrities, governments and corporations contend with one another for the same powers. But standing in the middle of the battle is still a thirsty person.”

As part of his research, Wilk sat down with a group of 25 marketing professionals and business students and asked them to brainstorm ideas for how they could sell bottled water.

Below is a list of ideas that they came up with:

  1. Water from each of the great rivers of the world
  2. Meltwater from named glaciers which become more expensive as the glaciers get smaller
  3. Cave waters, including water from the deepest, longest, darkest, etc.
  4. Great underground aquifers – in the U.S., many have heard of the great Oglala aquifer
  5. Carbon-dated and fossil waters, i.e. water that last fell to earth 6 million years ago
  6. Oasis water – from the famous deserts such as the Sahara, Gobi and Kalahari
  7. Water gathered from particular named storms and hurricanes, with the potential for collection sets, or keeping special vintages
  8. Water from the childhood homes of movie stars, the water that made them who they are today
  9. Kinky waters – from the island of Lesbos for example
  10. Waters of the seven continents
  11. Waters for different parts of the body – stomach, skin, hair water

The above suggestions vary from completely ludicrous to insensitive and just plain exploitative. Some target the very scarcity of water and natural resources as a selling point, such as item number two, which exploits the melting of glaciers—an environmental crisis in and of itself.

Wilk points out that most of these suggestions rely on the “manipulation of distance”—the further away, the more foreign, the more exotic-sounding a product is, the more desirable it is supposed to look to consumers. Many brands have been capitalizing on this idea for years.

Fiji Water owns the so called “artesian aquifer” in Viti Levu. Evian uses aquifers throughout the Evian-les-Blaine region of France. Equa boasts of rose quartz aquifers in the Amazon. Brooklyn-based newcomer company simply titled “Fred” (perhaps the first hipster start-up to hop aboard the bottled-water-gravy-train) bottles its water from the Catskill Mountains in New York. If the last sentence sounds more like a travelogue than a list of businesses it’s because that’s what these names and locations are supposed to sound like—all marketed to instill a sense of exoticism, wanderlust, luxury and intrigue.

In 1998’s “Tapped Out” Paul Simon predicted a world water crisis in which water faces the danger of becoming politicized in the same way as oil is today. We have yet to reach such a catastrophe, but that does not make Simon the false prophet that Malthus was. Over the past few years media and civil society have begun to address the problem of water scarcity, not to mention the ridiculousness of bottled water consumer culture.

The critically acclaimed documentary “Flow: For the Love of Water,” was also instrumental in exposing the issue, tackling the “growing privatization of the world’s dwindling fresh water supply.” All in all, the information is out there and readily available. It’s time to export it to the people who can make the biggest change—the consumers themselves.

Sources: Scholar Works Indiana University, UN, UN Water, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Natural Resources Defense Council, Bottled Water Web, Zenith International

Photo: The Water Filter Lady

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