Occasionally I catch an ad for miraculous spring water, which promises to cure everything from laryngitis to debt. To be quite clearly a scam people want to divorce their hard-earned money. On the other hand, the same goes for the plastic water bottles that people buy every day in the supermarket, or the box of water or can of water that promises to be more environmentally friendly, but is not mainly.
If you live in the United States, chances are that: the water that comes out of your tap is fine to drink (although there are of course some exceptions). The same goes for the glass in your kitchen cupboard to drink it from. So why did it take us decades to buy it packaged?
Some of us are trying to be more climate and budget friendly by adopting a metal cup, but if you’re anything like me, you probably have more than you need. (I’m not even sure how I collected so many of them – they seem to be On Trend in business swag.) And what about that filter you might have on your faucet? Do you know what it even filters for, or if it’s in your water? And when was the last time you actually replaced the filter?
“We are here, step by step, on a perilous path to converting a public resource into a private resource,” said Peter Gleick, a scientist and expert on global water and climate issues and co-authors. founder of the Pacific Institute, a researcher institution focused on water. “Water companies have no advertising budget; private companies do.”
For years we have been trapped by paying to consume a natural resource that is generally available very cheaply or for free.
As Gleick wrote in his 2010 book Bottled and sold: the story behind our obsession with bottled waterthe way we’ve commercialized water is “a symptom of a wider range of problems,” including the decline of public water systems that has led to distrust of those systems, advertising and marketing of brands eager to take advantage of that distrust, and “a society trained from birth to buy, consume and throw away.”
In an economic system where just about anything can be packaged and sold, we naturally fall for water just like anything else.
The story of bottled water is part fear, part marketing, part laziness
The idea of individually packaged water has not always been hugely popular in the United States. It started being introduced through imports like Perrier in the 1970s, explained Gary Hemphill, director of research at the Beverage Marketing Corporation, and was made possible by the spread of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the material from which plastic water bottles are made.
“It was really the ’90s where bottled water started taking off,” Hemphill said. It has since become an “incredible juggernaut”, to overtake carbonated soft drinks as the country’s most popular beverage in 2016. Americans now buy billions of plastic water bottles every year.
Companies have a whole host of tactics — and money — to get people to buy, buy, buy. They position bottled water as a healthier alternative to soda (which it is) and to tap water (which it often isn’t). They try to seduce people with clean visuals and promises of purity, positioning the packaging as sporty or sexy or extra healthy or whatever the brand is.
“People see it as the ultimate health drink,” Hemphill said.
That’s how you end up with Jennifer Aniston shilling water that is”smart because it’s made that way” and Dua Lipa telling you to “drink where‘, as if one of those sentences means something. (Aniston is) no longer with SmartWater, which has moved on to advertise with celebrities like Gal Gadot, Zendaya and, inexplicably, Pete Davidson.)
The money that can be made from water with income is also how you get water in boxes that, if we’re honest here, often tastes weird, or whatever in the world a $700 million startup called Liquid Death does with water in a can. Box and can companies say, “Hey, at least we’re not as bad for the environment as the bottled guys,” even though that’s not really true. They can be about as problematic in terms of climate, while selling themselves as a “solution” to a bottled water problem we manufactured.
Water advertising campaigns can be hugely influential, said Greg Donworth, who has researched water at the University of Pennsylvania Water Center, not just for disposable water, but also for high-quality thermoses. “It’s an addition to the clothes we wear and the car we drive and everything like that, the brand of the bottle we carry around with us,” he said.
There is also a convenience component here. When you’re on the road, you can easily get a bottle of water from the shop around the corner. There are often no functioning water fountains nearby – again, a disrepair of the public infrastructure. Marketers have also managed to convince us that we should being constantly concerned about dehydration, and let’s face it, sometimes people are just thirsty or, frankly, lazy. (I count myself in this latter category).
Underlying the rise of prepackaged water is a deeper issue of fear – people have some reasons to be uneasy about what comes out of their taps.
“Efforts to sell bottled water have been helped by growing concerns about the quality of our tap water, in part due to our tap water not being protected as well as it should be,” Gleick said.
Health concerns are compounded by the fact that by law, any time there is a problem with a public water system, the public must be informed. That’s why you sometimes hear about boiling water notifications. It’s a good thing people know when their water isn’t safe to drink — just look at high-profile water crises in Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi. It also heightens everyone’s concerns about the quality of their tap water, even when there is no cause for concern in the vast majority of cases.
Plus, there are no guarantees that the bottled water you drink is actually safer. Sometimes it’s notnor is it like tightly regulated like what comes out of the tap. There are some water trends that can really make you sick. But… marketers would rather the public don’t think too much about it.
“There are all kinds of claims for the health powers of specially modified water, and almost all of them are bogus,” Gleick said. “The FDA, which is responsible for regulating bottled water, should do a much better job of making sure those claims are valid or banned because people are being fooled and sometimes spend a lot of money for products that are snake oil. ”
Dua Lipa Won’t Solve America’s Water Problem, Better Infrastructure Will
The idea that the water coming out of your tap can be dangerous isn’t just an idea that benefits the beverage industry – water filter companies are doing it too. This is not to say that water filters are never a good idea, but they are one more item for consumers to think about before purchasing.
“For the vast majority of water, filters are either not needed because the things they filter out aren’t in our water, or they don’t filter out what we do need to filter out of our water,” Gleick said.
He acknowledged that people prefer to filter by taste — a personal choice — and that people in rural areas that rely on resources or don’t have a municipal water system may also want to filter. But before people buy a filter, they need to know what that filter is for and whether it really works on their water. There are kits and services that allow you to test your water, sometimes even for free, which is a good idea before buying a filter. “Otherwise you’re wasting your money,” Gleick said.
It’s also worth noting that water filters need to be replaced – and if people don’t, they can become a source of contamination.
Water has turned into a very commercial enterprise and there are no easy answers to turning that back on. A step in the right direction is to try to restore people’s confidence in the water that comes out of their taps – a belief that has, rightly, been eroded over the years. “The first approach to take is to make sure people know their water is safe to drink. That’s the first behavioral bias we need to overcome,” Donworth said.
That means water companies and state and local officials need to get the message across better. It also entails spending on infrastructure. “We’re not investing in new water systems or maintaining old water systems in the way we need to, and that’s part of the wider infrastructure debate in this country,” Gleick said.
Picking up water at the corner store isn’t the end of the world, but if you can avoid it, you should – bottled water purchases should be few and far between. And really, your tap water is probably fine. The next time you drink it, think if it would be better in a can or if you were told it was distilled, or if you knew Rachel Green from friends liked it. Pretend that’s the case and enjoy.
We live in a world that constantly tries to cheat and fool us, where we are always surrounded by scams big and small. It can seem impossible to navigate. Every two weeks with Emily Stewart, look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Great Pinch.
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