Water Is Free. Why Do Americans Spend Billions on the Bottled Stuff?


In 2017, Americans drank 13.7 billion gallons of bottled water, surpassing sodas as their favorite drink. George Frey/Stringer/Getty Images

According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, bottled water was an $18.5 billion industry in the U.S. in 2017. And bottled water by volume grew by 7 percent from 2016 to 2017 from 12.8 billion gallons to 13.7 billion gallons, helping bottled water surpass soda as Americans' favorite drink.

But just 100 years ago, bottled water was hardly even a business. Water was just something we got from our taps. So how did we get here? How in the world did something we used to get for seemingly free turn into a billion-dollar industry? Like so many modern-day product successes, marketing has played a huge role. But so have other factors.

Background on Bottled Water

First, a little history, because some of the same dynamics that influenced America's early bottled water industry explain why we're so thirsty for bottled water today.

Bottled water once was a thriving industry early in U.S. history: There are records of it being sold in the U.S. as early at 1767. But business started flowing at the beginning of the 19th century as dip-mold glass made bottles more affordable and easier to mass produce.

Back then, two types of customers drove bottled water sales: The rich and people who lived in cities. The wealthy took trips to spas and resorts built around natural springs, so mineral water bottled at the source was a way for them to continue enjoying those therapeutic benefits. Just for perspective: By 1856, Saratoga Springs was producing 7 million bottles of water a year.

For the average city-dweller in the 18th and 19th centuries, bottled water was the safest drinking option because municipal water was often sickening. Drinking bottled water helped people avoid diseases like cholera, typhoid and dysentery.

But by 1920, most U.S. cities offered free, filtered, chlorinated water, which dramatically improved public health. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, half of the decreases in deaths in major cities was due to clean water. But what was a breakthrough for public health was also a blow to the bottled water industry.

At the beginning of the 20th century, with free and safe public water, the bottled water industry adapted to markets it could serve, primarily selling 5-gallon (18.9-liter) bottles to large operations that needed water for employees. Even with mass-produced glass, the bottles were heavy to ship, and that cost weighed down the bottled water business.

The Turning Point: 1970s and '80s

The 1970s and '80s were the real turning point for the "new" bottled water industry, thanks to three major influences. First, that's when American scientist Nathaniel Wyeth patented PET plastic bottles. Unlike heavy glass, PET bottles could stand the pressure of carbonated drinks. Because they were lighter than glass, PET bottles helped propel the bottled water industry forward.

Second, these two decades are also when French sparkling water company Perrier launched its aggressive marketing campaign to get Americans to spend money on water. In the '70s, Perrier hired Orson Welles to voiceover its TV ads touting Perrier as "more quenching, more refreshing..." and "naturally sparkling, from the center of the Earth."

Perrier also began sponsoring athletic events like the New York City Marathon to associate its water with fitness and health. By 1978, Perrier was predicting sales of 75 million bottles that year alone. By the '80s, Perrier's ads used the tagline "Earth's first soft drink."

But the final push to bottled water came in 1986 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report showing tap water used by 36 million Americans contained high levels of lead. Even though cities rushed to fix problems after Congressional investigations, the distrust of municipal water lingered, making the switch from public water to bottled water a permanent one for many.

The Fear Factor

So, the health halo that has graced bottled water since ancient times largely explains our spending habits — even when what we're buying is simply filtered tap water, such as PepsiCo's Aquafina and Coca-Cola's Dasani. (Taste, as it turns out, isn't a factor.)

These ad campaigns around health, purity and youth work so well because they appeal to our desire for immortality. Researchers at the University of Waterloo conducted a study in 2018 that tested this "terror management theory" — the idea that thinking and behavior is driven by our fear of death — to explain why we're willing to spend money on water when we could just turn on the tap and get it much cheaper. Their results found that a fear of dying does play a role in why people buy bottled water, even though they know it may not be better for them or good for the planet.

"Bottled water advertisements play on our greatest fears in two important ways," Stephanie Cote, one of the researchers on the study, said in a statement. "Our mortality fears make us want to avoid risks and, for many people, bottled water seems safer somehow, purer or controlled."

The other psychological — and real — aspect that drives people to spend money on bottled water is the continued lack of trust in government to provide clean, safe drinking water and maintain water systems. Consider that people of Flint, Michigan have relied on bottled water through the contamination crisis that's lasted years there, as have First Nations people in Canada, where water to reserves has been under drinking advisories since January 2016.

Donations of bottled water poured in before a game between the Flint Firebirds and the Windsor Spitfires on Jan. 21, 2016 at the request of the Windsor Spitfires organization to help with the Flint Michigan water crisis.
Dennis Pajot/Getty Images

Attempts by the Trump administration to repeal the federal Clean Water Rule, and the protest raised by advocates and communities only further erode trust. Failure to provide clean water to communities of poor people and people of color, and the resulting distrust create a lasting habit of purchasing bottled water.

"The use of bottled water in emergency situations is a perfectly good idea, but the challenge is rebuilding public trust after such emergencies so that private bottled water use can then be eliminated," Dr. Peter H. Gleick, president-emeritus and chief scientist at the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, said in an email interview. "Bottled water should never be a permanent solution to providing safe, affordable, reliable drinking water for people." Gleick is also the author of "Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Water."

And, considering the environmental costs of bottled water, a mass switch would help the planet. Campaigns that give people reusable bottles, laws that ban single use bottles and the new incarnation of drinking fountains as bottle refilling stations, show promise — but the messages to change our habits need to match the power of those that drive sales of bottled water.

"The other challenge, of course, is that private bottled water companies have large budgets for advertising their 'product,' while municipal water agencies do not," Gleick said. "This imbalance has produced a situation where it is easy to lose trust in a municipal water system and hard to regain it, even when the vast majority of our water systems are safe, and far, far cheaper than bottled water. And in places around the world where safe tap water isn't available, the answer is to make it available, not to give up and rely on costly, private bottled water."


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