What's Colorless and Tasteless And Smells Like . . . Money?

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 30, 2008

In Tokyo and Paris, you can now spend $5 a glass on special beverages selected by a professional sommelier.

Nothing surprising there, except the beverages being served are different brands of bottled water -- with various "flavors" supposedly matched to different foods.

Desalinated seawater from Hawaii, meanwhile, is being sold as "concentrated water" -- at $33.50 for a two-ounce bottle. Like any concentrated beverage, it is supposed to be diluted before drinking, except that in this case, that means adding water to . . . water.

And from Tennessee, a company named BlingH2O -- whose marketing imagery features a mostly nude model improbably balancing a bottle of water between her heel and her hip -- is retailing its water at $40 for 750 milliliters, with special-edition bottles going for $480 -- more than a million times the price of the liquid that comes from your tap.

The push to turn water into the new wine is a marketing phenomenon: The bottled-water industry is engaged in an intense effort to convince Americans that the stuff in bottles is substantially different from the stuff out of the tap.

But empirical tests have repeatedly shown that they are generally the same. In blind taste tests, many people who swear they can differentiate between bottled-water brands and tap water fail to spot the differences, and studies have shown that both are fine to drink, and both occasionally can have quality problems.

Experts who study bottled water as a cultural phenomenon say differences between the two are largely marketing inventions.

"Taste for water is as much an effort of imagination as it is an objective fact," said Richard Wilk, a professor of anthropology and gender studies at Indiana University who studies the phenomenon. "The labels have springs and waterfalls and mountains. The latest waters are from Antarctica and Iceland; there is glacier water and iceberg water and water that is a million years old and water from 3,000 feet down off Hawaii. All of these things promise an untouched nature far from human beings."

There is abundant irony in such marketing: The supply of clean drinking water across America and in many other countries is an underappreciated scientific and technological achievement that in many ways rivals putting a man on the moon. Trillions of dollars have been spent to get clean drinking water to people at virtually no cost -- and it is people in precisely these countries who seem willing to pay premiums of 1,000 percent to 10,000 percent for bottled water.

As the wealthiest billion people on the planet increasingly turn to bottled water, moreover, the poorest billion have no little or access to clean water.

On its face, the bottled-water trade makes selling snow to Eskimos sound like a reasonable business proposition: Tons of carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere each year to produce and transport a product thousands of miles from Place A to Place B, when an identical product is already available in Place B in a form that is typically much cheaper, rigorously tested and sometimes safer. And afterward, millions of plastic bottles end up in landfills.

A considerable volume of the bottled water that Americans buy each year, moreover, is tap water. Popular brands such as Aquafina and Dasani, for example, may feature mountain peaks and the word "pure" on their labels, but the products are actually tap water that has been put through additional filtration and purification -- techniques aimed at making water that is already clean . . . clean.

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