Water, Water, Everywhere

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Someone, somewhere along the line, came across a lucrative proposition — that something sold with a corporate stamp could demand more money than the same something marketed sans stamp. The notion informs a global imperative called “privatization,� and it's wracked up a casualty list, notably the hundreds wounded in last year's popular uprising in Bolivia. There, thousands took to the streets and highways, defying martial law, to force the government and Bechtel Corp. to end a World Bank-imposed program privatizing what would seem to be a basic public service: water.

At the time of the Bolivian water revolt, water prices had risen 35 percent in less than a month. Meanwhile, in America, we just put water in bottles with shiny stamps, mark the price up a thousand percent or more, advertise the hell out of the product, and consumers guzzle it down.

Conspicuous consumption has never been more evident than in the explosion of the bottled water business. Ten years ago, hydration simply required a tap or, if on the go, a paper cup that could be filled for free at the Gas 'N Sip. But as Baby Boomers spawned, a pseudo-holistic protectionist culture has arisen, based on fears of bacteria, germs, toxins, violent TV and explicit record lyrics — and a brand or stamp has reassured them at every turn. It's been a boon for the bottled water business, where negative perceptions of tap water have made the most basic of life's building blocks the hottest product category in beverages.

Bottled water sales have tripled in the past 10 years, to $5.7 billion in 2000, according to industry-watcher Beverage Marketing Corp. (BMC), a growth rate that should make it the second largest beverage product category by 2004, behind soft drinks. The single-serve category, the one that's invaded the shelves at the Gas 'N Sip, has grown as much as 35 percent since 1993.

No wonder, then, that a beverage behemoth like PepsiCo has joined the fray. But consumers who buy what Pepsi is promising in its No. 1 water brand, Aquafina, may be doing so at cross purposes with their own concerns.

The latest ads for Aquafina give consumers everything they want to hear — that is, “nothing.� TV spots offer beauty shots of the mountain-adorned bottle, framed against clean, white backdrops, and the Midwestern tones of Friends star Lisa Kudrow. Aquafina is the answer, Kudrow says, when you're “thirsting for something to make you, like, not thirsty. No fizz, no flavor, no fruit, no little umbrellas.� The tag line: “So pure, we promise nothing.�

Selling water in America requires a hook to make it stand out among sodas, teas, juices and coffees, not to mention the myriad other water brands that have flooded the market. It is, after all, water. Lacking any real taste profile, it requires selling virtual virginity. A 1999 report by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) gleaned a list of keywords used by water brands on labels or in marketing, including “purest� or “purity,� “pristine,� and “natural� or “nature.� The category's rise has depended on consumers' low expectations of their own public water works, from longtime spring water marketers such as Deer Park and Poland Spring, to beverage leviathans such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola (Dasani), that are selling purified municipal water.

Indeed, some 86 percent of Americans harbor concerns about the quality of their tap water, while 32 percent think their water is not as safe as it should be, according to a survey of 1,021 adults released in April by the Water Quality Association (WQA), a group representing makers and sellers of home water treatment systems. The concern rate goes up to 90 percent among Americans with kids under 12. According to a 1999 report by the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation (NEETF), 91 percent of Americans cook with tap water, but only 75 percent actually drink it. Meanwhile, 65 percent take steps to drink purer water, either using filtration or distillation methods or by drinking bottled water.

Women constitute the majority of bottled water drinkers: 45 percent of 18- to 34-year-old women and 44.6 percent of 35- to 54-year-old women drink bottled water, according to BMC/MediaLink research, compared with just 35.3 percent and 34.5 percent of their same-age male counterparts. As one might expect, bottled water use climbs with income, says Gary Hemphill, senior vice president at BMC. Use also spikes at the younger end of the core group. Some 47 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds don't think their water is as safe as it should be, according to the WQA survey, and 41.4 percent of the group drink bottled water regularly, reports BMC.

“I don't think it's a matter of distrust, [but instead that] people just think bottled water tastes better,� says Matt Petersen, Aquafina brand manager. “Seventy-four percent of [current bottled water] consumers say bottled water tastes better than tap water. And brands do matter. Twenty-five percent say they have a strong preference for one brand, and 42 percent say they have a preference for two to three brands [per research by Cheskin], so that's 67 percent of consumers who walk into that store with brand names in mind.�

Petersen downplays Pepsi's competition with the tap, citing a trend toward beverage alternatives in the grab-and-go environs of convenience stores, where Pepsi sells most of its Aquafina. Still, among Americans who choose purified water options, 69 percent cite the physical appearance of tap water and 49 percent cite contaminant concerns, according to the NEETF. Only 41 percent cited convenience.

And there's a catch to water bottlers' claims that they can guarantee anything “less� for their exponential price markup than can the public water utility. According to a much-publicized University of Geneva study, released in May, conducted for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), they can't. Most quoted from the report has been the summary statement, “Bottled water quality is generally good, although it can suffer from the same contamination hazards as tap water,� in particular, contamination from pipes, bottles and storage environments.

Striking back, the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) pointed to its own members' Model Code, as well as FDA guidelines, which it claimed were stricter than the EPA guidelines that govern municipal water systems. This is sophistry, mostly: a voluntary code hardly promises certifiable quality; and the FDA takes its guidelines for water from the EPA and enforces them less stringently. What's more, water bottled and sold in the same state is exempt from regulatory scrutiny. This is not a niggling factor: even a pro-industry study published last year by The Bull & Bear Financial Report stated, “The cost differential caused by less stringent regulation enabled the market for bottled water to flourish.�

In fact, some within the industry see the sheer economies of scale of less costly, bigger volume brands compromising the “purity� bent of the industry. “Water has been commoditized, and the standards dumbed down to benefit large bottlers,� Mark Johnson, founder of Paradise, Idaho-based water bottler, Trinity Springs, told E Magazine this spring. Of course, such sentiments could stem from sour grapes. Whenever giants like Pepsi and Coke weigh in to a market, the competition necessarily winnows shelf space and drowns smaller players.

Economies of scale come with a flip side. As both the WWF and NRDC have pointed out, the impact of a tap-phobic bottled water culture is not just socioeconomic, such as luring consumers into adding cost-of-living expenditures where none existed before, but also environmental. That is, this trend could de-prioritize clean water as a basic public right, and natural and municipal water systems as targets for public reinvestment. In fact, a majority of Americans are willing to pay a higher utility bill for cleaner water, according to the WQA, and 49 percent think the laws governing drinking water need to be stricter, up from 40 percent in 1999, while only 4 percent think current laws are enough. And yet, the bottled water association has as much as admitted that this is anathema to its cause.

To the NRDC's 1999 suggestion that America “fix our tap water so it is safe for everyone,� the IBWA's response, posted on its Web site, bottledwaterweb.com, stated categorically, “This will never happen. The astronomical costs, the deteriorating infrastructure of the municipal systems and the reality that municipalities using antiquated technologies makes it a pipe dream.�

The solution — at least the profitable one for Pepsi and the IBWA — is an intrinsically privatized business that not only costs the consumer hundreds of dollars more per year, but requires hundreds of thousands more tons of plastic for bottles and ever more fluorocarbon-belching delivery trucks. Thus, with some irony, are obviated the ostensibly green-tinted concerns of the product's constituency.

Kudrow's entreaties to refreshment, alluring as they may sound, may simply occlude a far bigger problem.

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