Water, Water, Everywhere

The Wal-Mart Effect author Charles Fishman is at it again, writing prose that skewers modern American economic givens. This time, he has bottled water in his sights. His article in the latest Fast Company takes aim at the water industry, and some of his evidence for our romance with bottled water is appalling. Here’s an establishing quote:

A chilled plastic bottle of water in the convenience-store cooler is the perfect symbol of this moment in American commerce and culture. It acknowledges our demand for instant gratification, our vanity, our token concern for health. Its packaging and transport depend entirely on cheap fossil fuel. Yes, it’s just a bottle of water–modest compared with the indulgence of driving a Hummer. But when a whole industry grows up around supplying us with something we don’t need–when a whole industry is built on the packaging and the presentation–it’s worth asking how that happened, and what the impact is.

Is bottled water worth talking about? If you follow the money, definitely. According to Fishman, our spending on water last year outpaced spending on iPods or movie tickets–$15 billion. And sales are on the rise as more designer waters enter the battle for the American thirst. I could quote the whole article, frankly, but I’ll settle for a few key ones. (Unless otherwise noted, the emphasis is mine.)

“We’ve come to pay good money–two or three or four times the cost of gasoline–for a product we have always gotten, and can still get, for free, from taps in our homes.”

“[We’re not buying water,] we’re buying the artful story the water companies tell us about the water: where it comes from, how healthy it is, what it says about us. Surely among the choices we can make, bottled water isn’t just good, it’s positively virtuous.”

“We’re moving 1 billion bottles of water around a week in ships, trains, and trucks in the United States alone. That’s a weekly convoy equivalent to 37,800 18-wheelers delivering water. (Water weighs 81/3 pounds a gallon. It’s so heavy you can’t fill an 18-wheeler with bottled water–you have to leave empty space.) Meanwhile, one out of six people in the world has no dependable, safe drinking water. The global economy has contrived to deny the most fundamental element of life to 1 billion people, while delivering to us an array of water “varieties” from around the globe, not one of which we actually need.”

“[I]n Fiji, a state-of-the-art factory spins out more than a million bottles a day of the hippest bottled water on the U.S. market today, while more than half the people in Fiji do not have safe, reliable drinking water. Which means it is easier for the typical American in Beverly Hills or Baltimore to get a drink of safe, pure, refreshing Fiji water than it is for most people in Fiji.”

“You can buy a half- liter Evian for $1.35–17 ounces of water imported from France for pocket change. That water seems cheap, but only because we aren’t paying attention. In San Francisco, the municipal water comes from inside Yosemite National Park. It’s so good the EPA doesn’t require San Francisco to filter it. If you bought and drank a bottle of Evian, you could refill that bottle once a day for 10 years, 5 months, and 21 days with San Francisco tap water before that water would cost $1.35. Put another way, if the water we use at home cost what even cheap bottled water costs, our monthly water bills would run $9,000.”

I ask again, should we bother talking about water? After all, if people are choosing water, isn’t it a healther choice? Absolutely, but consider this story from WCBStv.com. A water bar in Chappaqua, NY, stocks eighty varieties of water, many in designer bottles. One of the bar’s top sellers costs US$30 a bottle. And if you’re chic enough to drink “Bling H20,” the indulgence will cost you US$55.

While Chappaqua residents support their lifestyles with silliness like this, ministries like Dan Haseltine’s Blood:Water Mission support life by digging wells in Africa. To date, their water projects have benefited Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Zambia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, the Sudan, and the Central African Republic. The average cost for a well is about US$3000, though the most difficult wells can run to US$15000. Put into perspective, a thousand Americans giving up two bottles of water a week (at US$1.29 apiece) could pay for at least one well, and probably several.

Unfortunately, we love our bottled water and the convenience it promises too much. The industry’s boom shows no signs of letting up. Though tap water is more highly regulated than bottled water, Americans have bought the line about water from the tap, while buying thousands of gallons of the filtered tapwaters produced by American soda manufacturers Coke and Pepsi, Dasani and Aquafina, respectively. They account for nearly a quarter of the water business.

Bottled water is one more instance of our depravity. We’ve let our selfishness, manifested in the lust for convenience, eclipse a vital human need. We need to wake up!

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4 thoughts on “Water, Water, Everywhere”

  1. Wow. Good post. It is a silly fixation, especially when it hits so close to home. I’ve met some people who solely drink Fiji water.
    It’s also good to see to see other people spreading the word about Blood:Water Mission. It’s a fantastic foundation and it deserves the attention.

  2. “Though tap water is more highly regulated than bottled water, Americans have bought the line about water from the tap…”

    I’m with you on how ridiculous this bottled water thing has become, esp. in light of the inferior product some companies pass off. But the issue of “bad” tap water isn’t just a line to buy into in some municipalities, or in some old houses for that matter. Old pipes make for bad drinking water. Some city water really does taste horribly. I’ve lived in places like this, but I’ve also lived in other places where the water was fine. The more economical choice is to install a reverse osmosis system in your home. If you don’t believe mine gives me cleaner, better-tasting water, just take a look at the filter next time I change it.

    “Bottled water is one more instance of our depravity. We’ve let our selfishness, manifested in the lust for convenience, eclipse a vital human need. We need to wake up!”

    I get what you’re saying here, but I think this is overstating. Personally, I no longer drink bottled water (unless given to me at a friend’s house), though my family was once all about it. My uncle worked for a big bottled water supplier for several years, and as a result everyone in the extended family was set up with a cooler. It tasted better, you can be sure of it. And if you’ve ever tasted Phoenix water, it’s not hard to believe. But nobody in my family, or in the countless other homes and businesses I visited that had bottled water, ever made the decision to have it at the expense of wells in Africa. It wasn’t a one-to-one trade.

    I don’t think it’s depravity. It’s just ignorance. It’s the need for education. And I don’t think it’s as willful an act of ignorance as the term “depravity” would necessitate. Just the same, I agree with you. We need to wake up. But many of us probably just need to be lovingly shook.

  3. Hey that is good stuff- I need to get Kimberly to read this – we are nuts for Evian water – Fiji, no – I don’t think I could buy a bottle of that for the feeling of contributing to the depravity of the Fiji people

    We are spoiled. No doubt. Hard times we have not seen in this present generation, except for mostly media generated. I do think we Americans are pricing ourselves out of the market. Are we on the verge of getting a taste in reality ?

    good writing Jamie

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