Water world

Selling you down the pricey bottled-water river

Greg Beato

Bottled water is one of life’s great dumb pleasures. Compared to unbottled water, it’s ridiculously expensive. Compared to unwatered bottles, it’s ridiculously expensive. What, its critics wonder, are we paying for? The opportunity to burn up fossil fuels transporting gallons of product from source to grocery store? The privilege of adding a few more empties to our already-burgeoning national landfills?

For misanthropes, no doubt, all that for only $1 a shot is a real bargain! For the rest of us, the appeal of bottled water is less diabolical. It’s a quotidian luxury, a way to go first-class at convenience-store prices. Let the losers stuck in the bleacher seats of life drink from the tap. We’re drinking pure artesian spring water spiked with the essence of Australian wildflowers, a zero-calorie, non-carcinogenic pause that refreshes.

Obviously, the market for an indulgence that’s actually good for us (if not the planet) is vast. And water, it turns out, is eminently marketable. In the early days of aqueous entrepreneurship, the water industry didn’t realize this. It focused on products with something tangible to sell: bubbles, a sulfurous aftertaste, a fancy glass bottle. Eventually, however, a few visionaries realized people weren’t buying the water. They were buying the idea of health and purity. They were buying the idea of affordable luxury. They were buying the opportunity to buy.

After all, unless you’re a millionaire, you can’t treat yourself to a premium sports car very often. Unless you’re a bulimic, you can’t depend on Godiva truffles to get you through the day without having a major impact on your waistline. You can, however, drink premium water that often, with no dire results.

And guess what? Our thirst for extravagant pick-me-ups that feel slightly decadent but are actually healthy is impossible to quench. Last year, we spent $11 billion on bottled water. Most of it was no purer than water straight from the tap. A lot of it was nothing more than water straight from the tap, upgraded with vitamins, caffeine, herbs, electrolytes, appetite suppressants, fiber, protein and attractive labels.

But how much, exactly, are we willing to swallow? Today, every huckster thirsty for a crisp, all-natural revenue stream apparently believes that water is the just-add-water answer to his dreams. If the tap water that South African farmers would consider a gift from the heavens is not good enough for your precious labradoodle, you can buy him a 4-pack of liver-flavored Original K-9 Water for only $7.49.

If water laced with caffeine and antioxidants does nothing for your underhydrated spirit, consider Liquid OM, which, its creator explains, is “infused to the same frequency of the Earth revolving around the Sun. (OM = 136.10 Hz @ 436.10 Hz).” Or, as the New York Times recently reported using less scientifically precise language, some enterprising hippie from Chicago bangs on a giant gong while filling bottles with tap water.

Earlier this month, a company in Florida started selling “Formula J,” California tap water packaged in a bottle that is spiritually enhanced with a bilingual prayer and an image of Christ. Bleeding from a crown of thorns, sweaty and dehydrated, he looks in dire need of electrolytes.

The manufacturers of 10 Thousand BC, a Canadian product that sells for $7 a bottle, play “inspirational music” while bottling melted coastal glaciers because apparently research has shown that “water has a memory.” (Is it thinking, “Penguins peed on me for several millennia and you think I’m worth $7 a bottle? Ha ha ha ha!”?)

A Hollywood, California, company called Bling H20 has singled out semi-successful rappers celebrating their sobriety as a potentially profitable niche. Its water is packaged in frosted bottles decorated with enough Swarovski crystals to bedazzle even the most jaded QVC home shopper; at $40 a pop, it costs as much as a modestly priced bottle of champagne and is therefore acceptable to order in da club without feeling too broke-ass.

Naturally, such excesses have sparked a backlash. There are developing nations in sub-Saharan Africa that don’t even have enough Swarovski crystals for their figure-skating and showgirl costumes, much less their designer water bottles. And while water scarcity plagues much of the planet—worldwide, more than a billion people lack sufficient access to clean water—our landfills are plagued by a glut of empty plastic bottles. To draw attention to these facts, entities as disparate as the cast of Grey’s Anatomy and the National Coalition of American Nuns have officially renounced bottled water.

Given that $11 billion industries don’t generally develop unless people really want what they’re selling, other entities are responding in more strategic ways. Brands like Ciao and Biota are packaging water in biodegradable bottles. A nonprofit bottled-water company in England called Frank applies 100 percent of its net profits to funding clean-water projects in India and Africa. And, eventually, one imagines, clever municipalities around America will start infusing the water they send through their pipes with a splash of citrus essence, some bonus electrolytes, a dash of zinc and folic acid. Overnight, housing prices will triple.

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