There are over 3,000 brands of bottled water worldwide, 180 in the United States. In 2006, the global bottled water industry reached $50 billion.
Just thirty years ago commercially produced bottled water barely existed in the United States. Today, Americans are the leading consumers of bottled water at 32 billion liters per year.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, one in five Americans drinks only bottled water. In a July 2007 article in Fastcompany.com, Charles Fishman theorizes: “Bottled water has become the indispensable prop in our lives and culture…. the food phenomenon of our times…. a chilled plastic bottle of water in the convenience-store cooler is the perfect symbol of this moment in American commerce and culture. It acknowledges our demand for instant gratification, our vanity, our token concern for health.”
Our current relationship with bottled water was born in the 1960s and 1970s as plastic technologies advanced. New plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – clear, tasteless and lightweight – alleviated some of the inherent distribution limitations of glass bottles.
Evian, a still water offered in plastic bottles, exploded onto the American market in the early 1980s. The strategy promoting these new plastic bottled waters centered on health, celebrity, exclusivity and portability – a marketing approach so successful that it continues today. Fishman refers to this period of time as the alignment of “convenience and virtue.”
Considering that there is no evidence that bottled water is healthier than tap water; that 40% of bottled water comes from the tap; that 17 million barrels of oil are required to produce the plastic bottles used in the United States in one year; that 86% of plastic water bottles used in the United States become garbage or litter; that bottled water may cost 10,000 times as much as tap water; and that, in terms of marketing dollars, the bottled water’s budget is a drop in the bucket when compared to the carbonated beverage industry, its success seems illogical and unlikely.
Ironically, in the developed world, demographically speaking, bottled water consumers are the folks most concerned with the very environmental and social issues associated with bottled water.
– Frank Yamrus, April 2008
Editor's note: For a longer version of this essay, including footnotes and sources, please see the author's website.