How the bottled water industry conned us all

Figures show that in 2017, sales of bottled water overtook those of fizzy drinks in the US.

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Space is at a premium in Manhattan, but most supermarkets will devote at least half an aisle to water. There are various brands of purified and distilled water – which is essentially processed tap water marked up several hundred times from the stuff pumped into every New Yorker’s home. There’s water shipped from Alpine springs, or melted icebergs, or aquifers in remote Pacific islands, and you can find a vast range of “enhanced” waters, with proprietary electrolyte blends or mystical pH balances that make them exactly like water, but better. Few communities, it seems, are more credulous than New York health freaks.

Then again, maybe we’ve all been lured in by the marketing. Figures show that in 2017, sales of bottled water overtook those of fizzy drinks in the US. The same year in Britain, shoppers bought more water than cola for the first time.

Sugar taxes and health-consciousness have played a role – but they don’t explain why Western consumers are willing to buy something they can obtain just as easily, and more cheaply, from a tap.

I’ve spent most of my adult life with a water bottle clunking around in my handbag, as though I might be at risk of shrivelling up without warning should I stray too far from a tap. This fear of dehydration seems to be a modern phenomenon. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my grandparents drink water. They seem to subsist on tea and wine and look no more desiccated than the average nonagenarian. When offered water in a restaurant, my late maternal grandfather used to bellow, in his thick Dutch accent, “Vater? I don’t even like vater in my shoes!”

These days, it’s widely believed that we need to drink at least eight glasses of water a day, and that if you manage more all kinds of health benefits will accrue: clearer skin, a slimmer waist, pristine kidneys. There’s no scientific evidence that this is the case. You need drink only when you are thirsty, and tea and coffee will hydrate you as well as water, scientists say. And yet the myth persists. 

The modern bottled water industry can trace its roots to the smart marketers of Perrier, who hired Orson Welles to narrate a 1979 television commercial for sparkling water. This was reborn as the beverage of choice for the modern sophisticate, and Perrier sales in the US rose from a couple of million in 1975 to more than 75 million by 1978. Since then, mineral water has often benefited from its close association with celebrity.

In 2014, New York magazine published an intentionally inane listicle featuring 33 quotes from famous people on drinking water. Beyoncé says she drinks a gallon a day; Elizabeth Hurley recommends drinking water whenever “you start to dream about toast and Marmite”. “I hate when I’m on a flight and I wake up with a water bottle next to me like ‘oh great now I gotta be responsible for this water bottle’,” Kanye West complains.

The real problem is that no one does feel responsible for their water bottles. According to the Guardian, a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and less than half of these are recycled. They languish in landfill sites or leak into the ocean, killing sea-life and contributing to an enormous floating plastic island in the Pacific that is already three times the size of France. On top of the ecological senselessness of shipping water across the globe, experts at the University of Nottingham estimate that it requires 162 grams of oil and seven litres of water to make a one-litre plastic bottle.

It’s testament to the ingenuity of consumer capitalism that bottled water sales seem unaffected by the ready access to safe drinking water enjoyed by most of the West. It’s also testament to our myopia and selfishness. This trend for exotic, distant, exclusive water contributes to the catastrophic changes to our climate that will make droughts more frequent and severe. The UN has warned that water scarcity will drive future conflicts, just as it has inflamed the wars raging in the Middle East. While the economic elite seek out enhanced water, the global poor will die of thirst.

Bottled water can be a surprisingly hard habit to kick – I buy it too often myself. But the more you think about it, the less healthy it feels.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact