The myriad of bottled water options currently flooding the market – spring, mineral, purified, distilled, carbonated, oxygenated, caffeinated, vitamin-enriched, flavored – leave many a savvy beverage consumer mystified by their relative merits and flaws. As if bottled water weren’t decadent enough in and of itself, water bars now populate the hipper districts of Paris and Los Angeles, while a select number of hotels have hired water sommeliers to guide patrons to the particular type of H2O that best compliments their chosen entrées. Even in Princeton, a hierarchy has developed and a king has been crowned. That king, at least for now, is Fiji.
The general message of bottled water is clear: tap water is “bad” while bottled water is “good.” This moralizing terminology is no accident: to choose bottled water over tap is a moral choice – it is a choice of the pure, the clear, the clean, the tasty and the safe. It is a choice of the objectively right, where “objectively right” is simply the subjectively right swathed in statistics. Look at the back of a bottle of Fiji’s “natural artesian” water: pH 7.5 and, in mg/L, Silica 85, Calcium 17, Magnesium 13, Bicarbonates 140, Total Dissolved Solids 210.
Marketing cannot mythologize science in its particulars, and thus it mythologizes science as a whole: the presence of numbers signifies objectivity. The Fiji bottle presents you with a wealth of numbers to signify that it is objectively the right choice. These statistics parade as knowledge, but we know not what they mean. They are simply the sign of science mythologized by marketing.
Bottled water is, in fact, the pinnacle of marketing: the boxiness of Fiji bottles appeals to both modernist and retro sensibilities; the perfect machine-made right angles of its form suggest supreme technological knowledge; the hibiscus in the foreground and palm fronds in the background suggest exoticism. It is true, as Fiji’s website proclaims, that “all waters are not created equal,” but this inequality lies precisely in water’s creation as a product.
All waters do not have marketing forces equal to that of Fiji’s; it is not so much created differently as it is manufactured. In bottled water we see a redefinition of creation as fabrication (harvesting, packaging, labeling, marketing, selling) rather than inception.
Bottled water’s competition is not tap water, but bottled sodas and teas—other beverages with marketing teams. The appeal is the package—and here I do not mean package in a metonymic sense, but rather in the simple, literal sense of a container. The potable must be readily portable. This portability says that its purchaser is a certain type of person – a person on the go, who needs to be able to stick a bottle of water into an oversized bag, who does not know when the next opportunity to drink water will arrive and needs to be prepared for potential periods of drought, who wants to be seen as a person who chooses to spend his money on Fiji water. More exactly, he does not want to be seen as a person who chooses to spend his money on Fiji water, he wants to be seen as a person for whom the expenditure is no matter, for whom taste and form are of utmost importance, for whom such a purchase is reflexive, natural, thoughtless.
Now we have come to the heart of it: bottled water relies on and propagates thoughtlessness. We see it in the meaning of words like premium, glacial, artesian. We see it in the unknown meaning of given statistics. We see it in the enormous waste generated by bottled water bottles. Despite the ubiquitous triple-arrow symbol, only about 5% of plastic bottles are recycled, and the production of plastic from virgin resources contaminates land, air and water. In our quest for pure water, we generate impure water; in our quest for aesthetics, we threaten the aesthetics of our planet; in our quest to be rational, concerned purchasers, we choose without responsible thought. Bottled water is the myth that allows us to believe in the rationality of our actions. It says: Look at the numbers. Bottled water is the natural, necessary choice.