Water week: why we buy it bottled when it drops from the sky for free?

Despite the evocative mountain scenery on the label, Aquafina, just like 40 per cent of all bottled water, comes from public water supplies. 

"Sure," noted an admiring US editorial in Advertising Age in 2001, "their tap water is ‘purified’ by a common reverse-osmosis process. But it purifies what is already free of anything the Environmental Protection Agency and the states believe is harmful." 

Somehow, though, the public had come to associate bottled water with health and, "if you were PepsiCo, wouldn’t you give the suckers what they want?" 

And, for the past 15 years, the suckers have been lapping it up in ever greater volumes. 

Throughout the developed world, tap water has never been more available, palatable and reliable, yet year-on-year sales of bottled water are increasing dramatically. 

Astonishingly, some time this year bottled water is expected to overtake carbonated soft drinks, such as Coke and Pepsi, as the number one beverage in the US. According to the International Bottled Water Association, which represents US and international bottlers, distributors and suppliers, in 2015 Americans bought 44.2 billion litres of the stuff – up 7.6 per cent from 2014 and equivalent to over 136 litres per person. 

It’s a similar story around the world: in 2014 more than 282 billion litres of bottled water were sold globally and sales are increasing by 10 per cent every year. 

So how did we fall for what the author Elizabeth Royte describes as an "unparalleled social phenomenon, one of the greatest marketing coups of the 20th and 21st centuries"? In her 2008 book, "Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It", Royte laid at least part of the blame at the doorstep of the consumer. Bottled water might cost vastly more than tap – anything from 240 to 10,000 times as much, depending on brand and source – but the sheer convenience of the bottled variety, she wrote, played into "our ever-growing laziness and impatience". 

The man credited with first tapping into that was Gustave Leven, the son of a Parisian stockbroker who in 1947 snapped up the assets of a failed former spa and spring-water company in Vergèze, a small village in the south of France. 

In the words of the official history of Perrier, by global food giant Nestlé, which took over the company in 1992, Leven "came across the abandoned spring and concluded that if the people of Vergèze could sell a natural mineral water for three times the price of a bottle of wine, then the company must have remarkable potential". 

 

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