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.
An additional irony in buying water shipped thousands of miles from places such as Fiji is that large numbers of people who live in those places would give anything to have water of the quality that comes out of American taps.
Fiji Water Co. ships its distinctive square bottles from the South Pacific island nation to Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif.; Philadelphia; Miami; and Savannah, Ga., and then by road to the rest of the United States. In 2007, it shipped the equivalent of 12 million cases of 12-liter bottles -- 200 million bottles in all, or about 1 percent of the U.S. market. The company's Web site prominently says that its water is "untouched by man."
Thomas Mooney, senior vice president for sustainable growth at Fiji, said that as of Jan. 1 this year, every bottle of Fiji water is carbon-negative -- meaning that the company offsets the greenhouse gases it creates in production and shipping by helping to grow forests and participating in other green initiatives. He said the company is also working to improve drinking water in Fijian villages by helping to drill and maintain wells.
"The fact our business exists is why 100 villages this year in Fiji will have clean water," Mooney said. "The underlying assumption is people do not drink Fiji water when they used to drink tap water. People drink Fiji when they used to drink Coke -- so this is a move away from other packaged beverages to a healthier one."
Mooney said Fiji water is different from other brands because it has a different "mouthfeel" -- a term being popularized by the bottled-water industry as it encourages water connoisseurship along the lines of wine connoisseurship.
"Fiji has a smooth, silky mouthfeel," Mooney said as he encouraged a reporter to try a bottle. "Most other water from Europe has calcium, which is good for your bones but bad for the palate. Water in Fiji is volcanic, so it has less calcium."
Under pressure from environmental groups, however, many institutions and governments are starting to balk at such pitches.
Last week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution urging the jurisdictions of the mayors in its membership to limit bottled water to emergency situations, such as outbreaks of contamination, accidents or disasters, and to rely on tap water for everyday use.
Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chávez, who helped spearhead the initiative, said in an interview that it was triggered by a combination of cost and environmental concerns.
"It has a 1,000 to 10,000 percent markup over tap water," Chávez said of bottled water. "Most taxpayers would be outraged if we paid $1,000 for a pen when it is available for a dollar."
But Chávez said he also wants to combat the notion at the heart of the bottled-water industry's marketing efforts: "The subtext of the bottled-water industry is the suggestion that tap water is unsafe or unhealthy, or that bottled water is better or healthier. America's mayors have no problems with the industry marketing the convenience of bottled water. In a free-enterprise system, consumers may want to spend more on a product that they can get from the tap, but we resist any suggestion that bottled water is healthier than water that comes out of the tap."
The bottled-water industry strenuously fought the resolution, Chávez said, backed by mayors of cities where the industry is an important part of the economy.
"The resolution is not in the public interest and could discourage consumers from drinking bottled water, which is a safe, healthy, conveniently-available food product," the International Bottled Water Association said in a statement. The industry group cited Shirley Franklin, mayor of Atlanta -- home to Coca-Cola Co., which sells Dasani -- who "expressed concern that even a non-binding resolution might hamper public comfort at civic events such as marathons, concerts and other public gatherings."
By undermining confidence in public drinking water, the bottled-water industry has helped reduce support for repairs and upgrades to the nation's public water infrastructure, said environmentalist Elizabeth Royte, author of "Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It."
"People who drank bottled water first drank it because it was chic," Royte said. "But then it went from fashion to fear, and most of the time the fear of water is not well founded."
People who are worried about the quality of their home and office water supplies can get their water tested and install filters at a small fraction of the financial and environmental costs of bottled water, Royte said.
"There are hundreds of millions spent marketing bottled water as pure and clean and better, and that implies the tap water is not pure and clean and better," she said. "Public utilities do not have PR budgets and do not have money to advertise their wares and tell us their water is pure."
Wilk, the Indiana University anthropologist, said water has always been an unusual product. From ancient times, it has been deeply entwined with cultural beliefs; many civilizations have had notions of "holy water."
Decades ago, European colonialists in Africa had water from their homelands shipped to them because they believed that it was the only water that could keep them healthy. Today, many people believe that water from distant places is better than water that is locally produced, and the result is that a large portion of the bottled-water trade is reciprocal: There are people in Mexico, for example, who want bottled water from the United States, while some Americans prize bottled Peñafiel water from Mexico. And in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove," a 1964 comedy about nuclear war, Gen. Jack D. Ripper launches a war of mutual annihilation on the Soviet Union because he thinks Communists have undermined the water supply.
What the bottled-water industry has done, Wilk argues, is capitalize on two age-old magical beliefs -- that contact with "impure water" can harm you, and that contact with "pure water" can heal you.
"People pay thousands of dollars for hundred-year-old wine that tastes like vinegar," Wilk said, citing other examples of human beliefs that may seem irrational. "People pay several thousand dollars for a cow that is cut in half and suspended in formaldehyde, but we call it art so you pay thousands for it.
"In that sense," he said, "water is a quintessentially magical substance."