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The ugly story of how corporate America convinced us to spend so much on water

We’re being packaged and sold a bottle/can/box of lies on water.

Plastic water bottles and a dollar sign.
How corporate America turned a natural resource into a pricy commodity.
Amanda Northrop/Vox

Every now and again I catch an ad for miracle spring water, which promises to cure everything from laryngitis to debt. It’s fairly obviously a scam seeking to separate people from their hard-earned money. Then again, the same goes for the plastic water bottles people buy at the convenience store every day, or the box of water or can of water that promises to be more environmentally friendly but isn’t especially.

If you live in the United States, chances are that the water coming from your faucet is perfectly fine to drink (though there are, of course, some exceptions). The same goes for the glass that’s sitting in your kitchen cabinet to drink it from. So why have we spent decades buying it packaged up?

Some of us try to be more climate- and budget-friendly by using a metal tumbler, but if you’re anything like me, you probably have more of them than you need. (I’m not even sure how I’ve managed to accumulate so many of them — they seem to be On Trend in corporate swag.) And what about that filter you might have on your faucet? Do you know what it’s even filtering for, or whether that’s in your water? And when was the last time you changed the filter anyway?

“We’ve gotten here, step by step, down a dangerous road of converting a public resource into a private commodity,” said Peter Gleick, a scientist and expert on global water and climate and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a research institution focused on water. “Water utilities don’t have advertising budgets; private companies do.”

For years, we have fallen into a trap of paying to consume a natural resource that’s generally widely available for very cheap or free.

As Gleick wrote in his 2010 book Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, the way we’ve commercialized water is “a symptom of a larger set of issues,” including the decline of public water systems that has led to distrust in those systems, advertising and marketing from brands happy to leverage that distrust, and “a society trained from birth to buy, consume, and throw away.”

In an economic system where virtually everything can be packaged and sold, of course we’re going to fall for it on water, just like we do everything else.

The story of bottled water is part fear, part marketing, part laziness

The idea of individually packaged water hasn’t always been a hugely popular thing in the United States. It started to be introduced through imports such as Perrier in the 1970s, explained Gary Hemphill, managing director of research at the Beverage Marketing Corporation, and was facilitated by the proliferation of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the material plastic water bottles are made of.

“It was really the ’90s where bottled water started to take off,” Hemphill said. It’s since grown to an “incredible juggernaut,” overtaking carbonated soft drinks as the country’s most popular beverage in 2016. Americans now buy billions of plastic water bottles each year.

Companies have a litany of tactics — and cash — to get people to buy, buy, buy. They position bottled water as a healthier alternative to sodas (which it is) and to tap water (which it often is not). They try to entice people with sleek imagery and promises of purity, positioning the packaging as sporty or sexy or extra-healthy or whatever the brand’s schtick is.

“People view it as the ultimate health beverage,” Hemphill said.

That’s how you wind up with Jennifer Aniston shilling water that’s “smart because it’s made that way” and Dua Lipa telling you to “drink true,” as though either of those phrases means anything. (Aniston is no longer partnered with SmartWater, which has gone on to advertise with celebrities such as Gal Gadot, Zendaya, and, inexplicably, Pete Davidson.)

The money to be made off of monetized water is also how you get boxed water that, if we’re being honest here, often tastes weird, or whatever in the world a $700 million startup called Liquid Death is doing with water in a can. Boxed and canned companies say, “Hey, at least we’re not as environmentally bad as the bottled guys,” even though that’s not really true. They can be pretty equally problematic, climate-wise, all the while selling themselves as a “fix” to a bottled water problem that we’ve manufactured.

Water advertising campaigns can prove hugely influential, said Greg Donworth, who’s done research on water at the Water Center at the University of Pennsylvania, not just for disposable water but also for high-end thermoses. “It’s an addition of the clothing that we’re wearing and the car that we’re driving and everything of the sort, the brand of the bottle that we’re toting around with us,” he said.

There’s a convenience component here, too. If you’re out and about, it’s really easy to pick up a bottle of water from the store around the corner. There often aren’t functioning water fountains around — again, a decay of public infrastructure. Marketers have also done a good job of convincing us we have to constantly be worried about dehydration, and let’s face it, sometimes people are just thirsty or, frankly, lazy. (I include myself in this latter category).

Underlying the rise of pre-packaged water is a deeper issue of fear — people do have some reasons to feel unease around what’s coming out of their faucets.

“The efforts to sell bottled water have been helped by growing concern about the quality of our tap water, and that’s in part due to the fact that our tap water isn’t being protected as well as it ought to be,” Gleick said.

Health-related worries are exacerbated by the fact that, by law, every time there is a problem with a public water system, the public has to be informed, which is why you sometimes hear about boil water notices. It is a good thing that people know when their water isn’t safe to drink — just take a look at high-profile water crises in Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi. It also increases everyone’s worry about the quality of their tap water, even when in the vast majority of cases, there’s no reason for concern.

What’s more, there are no guarantees that the bottled water you’re drinking is actually safer. Sometimes it’s not, nor is it as tightly regulated as what’s coming out of the tap. There are some water trends that can genuinely make you sick. But ... marketers would rather the public not think about that one too much.

“There’s all sorts 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, ought to do a much better job making sure that those claims are either valid or prohibited, because people get fooled and spend a lot of money, sometimes, for products that are snake oil.”

Dua Lipa isn’t going to fix America’s water problem, better infrastructure is

The idea that the water coming out of your faucet might be dangerous isn’t just one the beverage industry takes advantage of — water filter companies do it, too. This isn’t to say that water filters are never a good idea, but they’re one more item consumers could stand to think about for a beat before buying.

“For the vast majority of water, filters either aren’t needed because the things they filter out aren’t present 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 do prefer to filter for taste — a personal choice — and that people in rural areas depending on wells or out of a municipal water system may want to filter, too. Still, before people buy a filter, they should know what that filter is for and whether it’s actually working on their water. There are kits and services that let you 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 have to be replaced — and when people don’t, they can become a source of contamination.

Water has been turned into a highly commercial endeavor, and there are no easy answers on how to roll that back. A step in the right direction is to try to restore people’s faith in the water coming out of their faucet — a faith that’s, rightfully, been eroded over the years. “The first approach that needs to be taken is making it so people know that their water is safe to drink, that’s the first behavioral bias that we have to get across,” Donworth said.

That means water utilities and state and local officials need to get the message out 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 broader infrastructure debate in this country,” Gleick said.

Grabbing a water at the corner store isn’t the end of the world, but if you can avoid it, you should — the purchases of bottled water should be few and far between. And really, your tap water is probably fine. The next time you drink it, think about 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’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Every two weeks, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.

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