Why We're All Wrong About What's Made Bottled Water a Success

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tags: Bottled Water

Sam Duncan is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Case Western Reserve University.

Bottled water is making news lately. When nearly 400,000 northern Ohio residents found their drinking water contaminated by late-summer toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie, bottled water provided relief for thirsty citizens. Yet, the industry simultaneously received a hefty bit of criticism for taking vast quantities of water from southern California at a time when state authorities are trying to ration water due to prolonged drought. Nestlé Water (producer of the Arrowhead brand popular in western states) avoids local regulatory oversight by operating on sovereign Native American lands, despite the potential harm to communities dependent on the same hydrologic formations that Nestlé exploits. Many see it as a blatant disregard for any concerns beyond bottom-line profits, and an apparent absence of government authority to reign in corporate behavior. The absence of the state is actually a common element repeated in books, television exposés, news accounts, and studies of the bottled water industry. Yet, most accounts miss the historical role of the state. Government institutions helped establish the public’s perception of the product, and they actively structured markets favorable to large-scale bottlers like Nestlé.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, when few American drank bottled water, government efforts to address environmental pollution and toxicity generated numerous studies and reports. Several of those studies cast suspicion on tap water and unwittingly elevated the public’s perception of bottled water, which helped elevate the industry’s sales as well. For instance, following the Public Health Service’s 1970 Community Water Supply Study (which found forty-one percent of the sampled systems failed to meet federal drinking water standards), network news reports noted that sales of bottled water were “booming.” That boom seemed to emanate from the public’s growing mistrust of tap water. Customers interviewed by ABC claimed that their primary reason for buying bottled water was because they thought it was safer and cleaner. “When my small son’s fish died in the tank,” said one woman, “and my little bird gets sick when I fill his water holder with tap water, I realized something was wrong.” “Does the bird prefer bottled water?” asked ABC’s Louis Rukeyser. The lady cheerfully replied, “Oh definitely, he sings all the time.”

Another example of the effect of these government reports came in late 1974. All three major television networks reported that studies conducted by the EPA and the Environmental Defense Fund linked chlorination of municipal water supplies to the formation of carcinogenic substances called trihalomethanes. In the wake of those reports, managers and employees within the bottled water industry received calls from people “worried about cancer” and asking for price quotes. Several distributors were backlogged with orders. Although the EPA study focused on New Orleans municipal water supplies, the public’s reaction was not localized, and in one instance a retail store owner in Bethesda, Maryland reported a 25 percent increase in sales, almost all from bottled water. In a moment that revealed the apparent power of these reports to foster doubts about the tap, CBS cameras panned over cases of bottled water in the offices of the very same New Orleans officials who were trying to downplay the federal report.

Yet, the regulatory state’s impact on the water market extended beyond mere relative perceptions of safety and quality. By the 1990s, the federal government took actions that effectively restructured the industry. In 1995, following congressional oversight hearings of the industry, the FDA adopted standards of identity for bottled water (definitions that determined how a product could be labeled or marketed). Those standards of identity mirrored the proposed definitions of the Association of Food and Drug Officials, which were in turn the very definitions drafted a decade earlier by the bottled water industry itself.

The beneficiary of federalizing the industry’s own definitions became apparent rather quickly. These new standards of identity superseded a patchwork of state and local labeling regulations by virtue of the Constitution’s “supremacy clause.” By creating uniformity, the government structured a market more favorable to large-scale national distributors. For example, the FDA’s new definition for “spring water” allowed for the use of a borehole pump to extract water faster than a spring could naturally discharge. That definition effectively nullified North Carolina regulations prohibiting the use of the “spring water” label for water procured in such a manner. Smaller bottlers opposed this change since large corporations with more capital to invest in pumping equipment could outpace nature and thereby control the market for the industry’s most popular label. Their fears were realized shortly after the FDA finalized its new rules, as market share rapidly consolidated in the hands of the biggest companies. Within a year, the largest producers captured an additional fifteen percent of U.S. bottled water sales and were the largest single group of bottled water manufacturers by dollar value.

These transformations in public perception and market structures did not occur on the wings of inevitability or simply as responses to abstracted market forces. At the core of these historical developments is the story of government’s contribution to public discourses of risk, as well as their power to structure markets. It is a story not exclusive to bottled water, but perhaps that product is ideally suited to tell the tale. The conventional assumption among the public is that the success of bottled water is the result of clever advertising, a naïve consuming public, and a lax regulatory environment. Demonstrating the hidden, but vital role of the state in the product’s success chips away at some widely held assumptions about government neglect or the naturalness of so-called “market forces.” Government action helped create the conditions for some brands to dominate the market, and the consequences of government action helped establish a resilient, yet ultimately false assumption that tap water is somehow inferior. The regulatory state helped determine the success of bottled water as much as any abstract market imperative, and that is a vital lesson to keep in mind when regulatory regimes come under attack as an unnatural interference with supposed “naturalness” markets. 

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