Message in a Bottle

Christiana Z. Peppard

How have economic markets shaped global perception of fresh water? Several case studies from recent history are illuminating. Let’s consider the birth of a fetishized commodity: bottled water.

Bottled water first emerged in the crystalline waters of the French Alps, born sparkling and still to the proud parents of Perrier and Evian.1 It steadily grew into a luxury commodity for European elites. In glass and plastic, gallons and liters, bottles of water streamed across the Atlantic, found new niches in big-box grocery stores and corner markets, dazzled diners on the menus of elite restaurants, and quenched the thirst of high-expenditure guests at fine hotels. By the late 1990s, a fetishized commodity had come of age in the industrialized world.

New Enemy: Tap Water

The transatlantic market viability of bottled water unleashed a corporate stampede to conquer the potentially enormous consumer market. Multinational corporations realized that bottled water promised major profits not just as a luxury good, but also as a mainstream commodity. In some cases it is drawn from pristine mountain sources; in other cases, it is taken from municipal faucets, filtered, irradiated, and bottled for resale at extraordinary markup. To this lucrative domain, therefore, “the biggest enemy” to profit – as articulated by a PepsiCo corporate executive in 2000 – “is tap water.”2

We took the bait – hook, line, and sinker. In the first decade of the 21st century, bottled water sales constituted a nearly 30 percent share of the global bottled beverage industry. Global sales of bottled water remain in the tens of billions of dollars – upwards of $50 billion and perhaps as much as $100 billion.

Disposable plastic bottles are pumped with spring, artesian, or tap water; hermetically sealed; and shipped all over the world via plane, train, ship, or truck. The industry generates up to 1.5 million pounds of non-biodegradable plastic bottles per year.3 Most of the consumption of bottled water occurs in the U.S. In some venues, the price of a liter of bottled water exceeds the price of a gallon of gas. Ironically, this ubiquitous elixir is, in most of the U.S., superfluous: Infrastructure and subsidies deliver fresh water to most homes for “pennies a gallon.”4

Moreover, nearly 17 million barrels of crude oil are used annually to manufacture the plastic bottles that are used once and then discarded (an amount of oil that would “keep one million vehicles on the road for 12 months”5). And only 13 percent of those bottles are actually recycled after being discarded. The rest go to landfills, where they leach toxic chemicals into the land.

A Marketing Juggernaut

Of course, in some parts of the world, bottled water is a key aspect of survival – where water is contaminated or extremely scarce, for example. In these places, bottled water is an important means of survival and disease prevention.

But, by and large, the most prodigious consumers of bottled water have clean tap water at their fingertips 24 hours a day and are not in danger of drinking disease-ridden water. That is, those of us in the U.S. and western Europe do not need to drink bottled water in order to avoid cholera. It is a lifestyle choice, not a necessity for survival.

Despite growing concern about environmental effects from plastic bottle waste, bottled water remains a hot commodity. Many investors and corporations seem to wager that, in the words of Arthur Van Weisenberger, a consultant for the beverage industry, “people don’t go backwards … once they’ve developed a taste for bottled water, they won’t give it up.”6 Vested interests include major multinational corporations and a proliferation of smaller brands too.

Pure and Unsullied

FIJI Water was founded in 1996. Its first exports to the U.S. occurred in 1997, and it has remained a steady market presence. The company’s water source is in the Fiji Islands. Plastic bottles travel from China to Fiji, and once filled with artesian water from the island, the product is transported from Fiji to countries including the U.S., Australia, France, and Mexico. The water is described by FIJI as “untouched by man,” such that “until you unscrew the cap, FIJI Water never meets the compromised air of the 21st century, nor is it touched by another human being.”7 Clean, unsullied: the paragon of purity.

FIJI Water has proprietary access to an aquifer, such that “no human hands are allowed to touch it.” As a matter of fact, FIJI Water is untouched by human hands in two ways: through the mechanization of the bottling process described above, and also because the local community is not entitled to access this water. Surely the water, thus protected from the vagaries of contact with the 21st century, is crystalline. But purity is a slippery concept when it comes to bottled water. For while bottled water is, of course, partly about the water, it’s also about the bottles, the shipping, the branding, the profits: all the collateral that trundles along with the cycle of production of this commodity.

Much of the criticism aimed at the bottled water industry is entirely warranted. Potential and actual costs of bottled water are assessed in ways that usually fail to encompass environmental concerns, issues of local rights of access, or the long-term interests of the community, ecosystem, and water sources from which the water is drawn. Profits benefit corporate shareholders far more than community stakeholders.

Granted, as journalist Elizabeth Royte acknowledges, multinational corporations do contribute to the local economy – even if only in the form of a few jobs in the short term. And there is something to be said for job creation. FIJI Water is a major employer on the islands that pays employees “twice the informal minimum wage.”8 But still, corporate responsibility in such situations is almost always entirely voluntary. And when the profit-driven interests of multinational corporations conflict with the interests of a local community or ecosystem, it is rarely the latter that benefit. Instead, it is local communities and watersheds that tend to bear the realized costs of any externalities. This is a problem of accountability, responsibility, and sustainability.

And sales have not plummeted. Instead, in many ways bottled water has actually become something of a status accessory in a culture of conspicuous consumption – desired by many, ubiquitously available in the U.S., with brands competing for celebrity endorsements. In this sense, bottled water is the single greatest marketing achievement in the history of civilization.

What kinds of issues are debated publicly when it comes to bottled water? Waste from plastic bottles, fossil fuel emissions required for transport, or the variable contaminant levels found in bottled water are among those that get attention, especially as some municipalities and national parks have started to limit sales of bottled water on their properties. In response to public pressure, bottled water companies have adopted a range of responses. Some have sought to reduce the amount of plastic used in their bottles. FIJI Water has started a community foundation and rendered its production plant carbon-neutral. Others have offset carbon emissions. Still other bottled water companies attempt to couple sales of bottled water with charitable giving. The idea seems to be that, on balance, a consumer’s potential discomfort over contributing to environmental degradation can be offset by the vague sense that this purchase is doing some kind of good, somewhere in the world – absolution by consumption, perhaps.

An Ocean of Plastic

But the problems with bottled water cannot be so easily assuaged. All bottled water floats upon an ocean of plastic and fossil fuels, which even a charitable donation cannot ameliorate. Moreover, there are fundamental assumptions built into the availability of fetishized bottled water – and these philosophical and political issues are less well-publicized than the problems of plastic or pollution. Those deeper questions have to do with property, especially the privatization of (and profit from) a resource such as fresh water. For most of us in our busy lives, it is easier to salute incremental progress, or impugn multinational corporations, than it is to engage in a discussion about what kind of thing water is. But this is a key part of the issue: Is fresh water properly understood as a natural good, a common-pool resource, an ecosystem service? Is it something amenable to private property regimes and management, or is it something that is best managed by the government? In particular: Who should have access to fresh water, and under what conditions? Who or what should be able to profit from it, and by what means?

What kind of thing is water? There is no simple answer to this seemingly straightforward question. Yet how we answer it will decisively shape the face of the 21st century.

Christiana Z. Peppard ’05 M.A.R., ’11 Ph.D. is assistant professor of theology at Fordham University. This article is adapted from her book Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis, newly published by Orbis Books. Reflections thanks the author and the publisher for permission to use this excerpt.


1 For thorough treatments of bottled water, see Peter Gleick, Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water (Island Press, 2010); Elizabeth Royte, Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It (Bloomsbury, 2008); and Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water (New Press, 2002), especially chapter 6. See also the award-winning documentary film Flow, written and directed by Irena Salina (2008), www.flowthefilm.

2 Annie Leonard, “The Story of Bottled Water,” The Story of Stuff Project (2010),

3 Leonard.

4 Suzanna Didier, “Water Bottle Pollution Facts,” National Geographic.

5 Didier.

6 Royte, Bottlemania, p. 169.

7 FIJI Water, “The Water,” www.fijiwatercom.

8 Royte, Bottlemania, p.154.