How the Bottled Water Industry Fooled Us All
While checking out CSDA’s Facebook feed this week, I came across a post where an operator was bragging about how his company’s owner provided employees with an ice machine, coolers, water and Gatorade, and asked if anyone else’s companies did the same thing. Most of the comments stated that their company owners did something similar or provided them with cash to purchase bottled water and sports drinks during the day to stay hydrated. It made me happy to see that so many companies took the time, effort and resources to make sure their operators and field personnel were staying hydrated in this crazy summer heat.
Summer 2018 was the 4th-hottest on record for the U.S., with 2019 setting new records as well. Europe is in the middle of another record-breaking heat wave, and the trend continues all over the world. As our planet continues to experience a warming trend that shows no signs of slowing down, it becomes vital for workers in the concrete renovation industry to be able to safely manage working outdoors in hot climates, and one of the most important factors in managing heat illness is to stay hydrated.
We’ve covered hydration and heat illness in previous installments of Core Health (June 2010, June 2012, June 2018), but this time I’m going down a slightly different path – bottled water. Vital for hydration, and extremely popular on jobsites, bottled water from brands like Nestle, Zephyrhills, Dasani and more make up one of the largest industries in the world, with the global market valued at $157 billion in 2013, and expected to reach $280 billion by 2020. Think about that – the world is spending over $250 billion a year on water in a bottle. Water – a substance that in developed countries can be drank directly from the tap for free without fear of contracting cholera and falls out of the sky and springs from the earth on its own accord. So, why do we spend billions of dollars a year on a substance that is essentially free? It really comes down to two reasons – marketing and laziness.
Nothing about most bottled water makes it inherently superior to tap water. Almost all American tap water is safe and is more closely regulated for contaminants than bottled. In a blind taste test, most subjects could not tell the difference between bottled and tap. What is it then about bottled water that makes us go out of our way to purchase something in a package we can get for free at home?
History provides the answers. In medieval times, monks at holy wells produced special water flasks for pilgrims to take away as proof of their visits – a medieval example of the power of branding. For centuries, wealthy Europeans traveled to spa towns to sample the water in a bid to cure specific ailments. The spa visits were signals of health, but also of status, a distant precursor to a Kardashian clutching a bottle of Fiji water. In 1740, the first commercial British bottled water was launched, and by 1814, Harrogate Spring was the largest exporter of bottled water in the country. However, in the early 20th century, public water was chlorinated, and sales of bottled water dropped off dramatically. In 1908, Jersey City was the first U.S. city to use full-scale water chloronation.
Then, in 1977, one of the greatest television marketing campaigns in history showed up on our screens with the voice of Orson Welles narrating, “Deep below the plains of southern France in a mysterious process begun millions of years ago, Nature herself adds life to the icy waters of a single spring: Perrier.” From 1975 to 1978, Perrier sales in the U.S. increased from 2.5 million bottles to more than 75 million bottles. There was a new drive not just to be healthy, but also to be seen as being healthy. The introduction of plastic bottles in 1977 to the soda market transitioned into plastic water bottles in 1990, and now bottled water was a convenient way to stay hydrated on the go.
Some bottled waters – Evian, Perrier, Fiji – come from natural sources, so at least you feel like you’re paying for geography, for the fantasy of a shepherd sitting on a rock catching the water in a glass jar specifically for your pleasure. But most bottled waters are simply refashioned tap water. Coca-Cola’s Glaceau Smartwater comes from a spring in Morpeth, Northumberland in the U.K., is “vapour distilled”, then injected with electrolytes. It’s worth $25.5 million and produces 56,000 bottles of water per hour.
Then there’s the “luxury waters” – where the water is captured from a Norwegian glacier or a Canadian arctic ice shelf in Newfoundland, frozen over 10,000 years ago. A $32 bottle of glacier water, called (appropriately), “Iceberg”, comes from this arctic shelf. Or there’s the “World’s Best Still or Sparkling Water”, called Beverly Hills 90H20. This “champagne of waters” sells for $72 for a case of 24 bottles, while a bottle from the Luxury Collection, Diamond Edition, will cost you $100,000. It has a white gold cap set with more than 850 white and black diamonds and holds the honor of being the world’s most expensive water.
My personal favorite is the winner of the 28th International Berkeley Springs Water Tasting competition (yes, that’s actually a thing), an Australian brand called Frequency H2O sold for $2.30 a bottle and “infused with the sound frequencies of love, the moon and light spectrums of the rainbow.” I can’t make this up.
What does this all mean to you, your shops, your operators and your health? Drink water, absolutely, and lots of it. Sports drinks are great on really hot days to help replenish electrolytes. But do you really need to be spending money on bottled water at all? Not unless you enjoy throwing money away. Invest in a reusable water bottle – there are so many options, many that have built-in insulation to keep your water or drink cold all day long, or filters if you prefer the taste of filtered water. You’ll save money on buying bottled water that is likely not any better (and could be worse) than the water coming out of your tap. You’ll also save all that plastic from going into landfills, where it never breaks down, or worse, into our oceans where it kills marine life. At least 50 million plastic water bottles are thrown away every day – at this rate, experts believe that by 2050, the ocean will be filled with more plastic than fish. Reusable water bottles filled with tap or filtered water are an easy way to save money and reduce your negative environmental footprint. Every little bit helps.
Erin O’Brien, MS, ATC is a Certified Athletic Trainer and Marketing Director for O’Brien International, the association management company that manages the Concrete Sawing & Drilling Association. O’Brien received her Bachelor of Science degree in Athletic Training from Ohio University and her Master of Science degree in Applied Physiology and Kinesiology from the University of Florida. She is also a Certified Level 2 CrossFit Instructor and member of CrossFit9 in St. Petersburg, FL. She is a regular contributor to Concrete Openings magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727-577-5002.