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BottleMania – How water went on sale and why we bought it

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Elizabeth Royte’s new book explains why bottled water is one of the greatest marketing coups of the 20th and 21st centuries.

By Elizabeth Royte Posted Jan 28, 2009

In Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, Benjamin Barber argues that consumer culture has turned adult citizens into children by catering to our narcissistic desires and conditioning us to passionately embrace certain brands and products as a necessary part of our lifestyles. Is it narcissism that pulls people into stores the second they feel thirsty? Or is it a need for emotional succor?

City dwellers walk down the street swigging; they stand in conversation and mark time with discreet sips. You see it in lines at the movies and in cars on the freeway. (But only in the United States, Michael Mascha, the bottled water expert I’d enticed to sample water with me, says. “In Europe, no one walks down the street sucking on a bottle of water. We wait and we have a nice meal.”) Surely these people have access to water at the end of their journey and are in no danger of desiccating on the spot. No, this is water bottle as security blanket.

It doesn’t take Mascha, author of Fine Waters: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Most Distinctive Bottled Waters, long to realize he is walking into the belly of the beast, drinking bottled water with me. On the phone before we met in person, I admitted I knew nothing about “fine waters,” let alone the cheap stuff. I consumed none of the 27.6 gallons that the average American drinks annually, and I felt like an ostentatious jerk buying all that fancy stuff for my meeting with Mascha.

I’d never even tasted Poland Spring until my first visit with Tom Brennan [natural resources manager for Nestle Waters North America] in Hollis, Maine. We’d been talking in that company’s conference room when plant manager Bill Maples swept in bearing swag for all: eight-ounce bottles of water. I had my own, I said to Maples in what I hoped was a jocular tone, and pulled out my Nalgene, a wide-mouthed bottle made of polycarbonate plastic. I’d filled it that morning from a sink in Yarmouth, Maine, which has excellent water.

Maples handed me a bottle anyway and snapped his open. I unscrewed the blue top of my Nalgene. In this light, and next to the sparklingly transparent Poland Spring bottle, my container looked dull and yellow, like old toenails. The threads in the screw top weren’t so clean. Taken aback, I asked myself, “How old is this thing? And when was the last time I sterilized it?” The answers were “About a decade” and “Never.”

Still, I wanted to make a point. I wasn’t a bottled- water customer. While they drank their company’s product, I took a sip of Yarmouth, and the water tasted fine. Or maybe it just tasted like what I was used to.

The truth is, I didn’t want to drink Poland Spring because I didn’t want to like it. I was almost certain it would taste better than Yarmouth water, which contains chlorine and comes through pipes never visited by a disinfecting pig. But so what? Foie gras tastes better than chopped liver. That doesn’t mean I’m going to buy it. I don’t need to spoil myself. I don’t want to get used to expensive things, especially things that might, if the nuns and greenies are right, disrupt the social and environmental order.

I might have been over-intellectualizing this, but I worried that drinking bottled water would only contribute to an insidious trend. It was becoming normal to pay high prices for things that used to cost little, or nothing. Such as television reception (now we have expensive cable). Or basic telephone service (now we have cell phones). The shifting baseline means that instead of collectively fighting problems-such as bad service or bad quality-we accept them and move on: to the private sector. The city of Baltimore, after fifteen years of trying to remove lead from public schools’ water fountains, in 2007 gave up and switched to coolers of bottled water.

The environmental writer Bill McKibben calls this movement away from a sense of common purpose and toward personal enhancement “hyperindividualism.” It puts earbuds in our ears and divorces us from communal experience; it builds bigger houses and bigger cars, while it clogs the roads and warms the climate. Hyperindividualism is relatively new, McKibben writes, “but very powerful.”

Hyperindividualism lets those who can afford to opt out-whether from public schools, mass transit, or tap water-to further isolate themselves, in style.

And while having more personal stuff signals strong economic growth, it ain’t making us happy, according to some economists and sociologists. In fact, it’s increasing social alienation. Hyperindividualism lets those who can afford to opt out-whether from public schools, mass transit, or tap water-to further isolate themselves, in style. A 1985 article in the Financial Times declared that buying bottled water “represents the exercise of private choice in preference to public provision, which can seriously be seen as a good in itself.” Why? Because public provision can be inefficient, inadequate, or unhealthy.

I talked to Brennan and Maples for several hours with the Poland Spring bottle in front of me. The men sipped from their containers and I from my Nalgene. Finally, like a dieter sitting in front of a popcorn bowl, I’d had enough: I just had to sample their water. I cracked the top-pop! I liked that sound; everyone did – and took a careful sip. And you know, it really did taste good-round and smooth. But, as I said, it wasn’t something I wanted to get used to. I closed the top and set the bottle aside.

Elizabeth Royte is the author of Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash and The Tapir’s Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest. Her writing on science and the environment has appeared in Harper’s, National Geographic, Outside, The New York Times Magazine, and other national publications.

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