Pure and Natural, Except for the Exploitation

With millions of people consuming bottled water as a luxury or convenience item rather than necessity around the world, water companies are forced to ever more extravagant means to attract and retain customers. Their goal is to sell a product, water, but they usually sell a lifestyle with it, because that encourages people do keep buying the same water. If you buy this product, the ads tell people, they will be leading better lives, and will be consuming the same products as the people they admire. They will become members of elite clubs, rather than people picking up a simple plastic bottle at the store.

Often, these campaigns revolve around themes of purity. They tell people that the water comes from a pure and natural source, complete with evocative imagery; majestic trees and waterfalls, animations of underground water deposits, beautiful landscapes. The connection of nature and purity is an ancient one, as is the use of purity as a marketing theme, playing heavily on the idea that people like things to be untouched and ‘perfect’ when they consume them. Buying water in this landscape, thus, is buying into a dream of purity. What you are getting out of your bottled water is more than simple hydration, but a connection with nature.

In urban environments, such campaigns give people a taste, so to speak, of something they cannot have. When people drink their fresh spring water harvested from artesian wells or virgin forests, they are consuming an idealised vision of the natural world, and they are consuming something they have been taught to crave through such marketing campaigns. Buying water becomes an act of touching nature. You are tasting the trees and the rocks and the forest creatures, though of course they are appropriately filtered to protect you from harm.

Few people look deeper than this when it comes to evaluating the source of their bottled water, which is actually not very pure at all. In fact, it’s extremely dirty, both literally and metaphorically. There is something rather amazing and horrific about covering exploitation of people and natural resources in a veneer of ‘purity’ to get people to buy those resources, keeping consumers in the dark about the high cost behind their bottled water. While some consumers are aware of the fact that an endless supply of disposable bottles is probably not the best thing for the environment, and that they should consider alternatives to bottled because of that, fewer think about where their water comes from—and how.

Water is big business globally, which means that contracts for potable water sources can be highly contentious and ferocious. Big water firms spend big money acquiring exclusive rights to sources they want to bottle for sale, and the environment is not their number one concern in that setting. They can create pollution in the process of setting up and administering packaging facilities, and they create even more as they transport the water across the Earth to its end destination.

It’s not uncommon for communities to lease or sell water rights in order to address budget problems, but once a water producer moves in, the community starts to learn about the hidden costs. For example, firms may argue that they have a right to a set amount of water under the contract, no matter what, even in drought years. They take their share first, not caring if the remaining water isn’t enough to supply agriculture, industry, homes, and the natural environment. They got what they needed to sell, and who cares if the community left behind suffers because there’s not enough water to make ends meet.

Such companies also pressure communities to relax regulations, under threat of losing the big water contract. This can mean less oversight of new construction, workplace safety, and related activities, and it also means that inspection of water production facilities may be less than ideal. That allegedly pure water could actually be handled in conditions that are less so, posing a risk to consumers; they might be better off drinking processed water from their taps, which may come from similar natural resources but is subjected to rigorous quality control in the interest of public health.

In indigenous communities, water companies may acquire lease rights directly from the government, without consulting native peoples at all. As they exploit water, they can limit available supplies for the community in addition to destroying fragile ecosystems and negatively affecting indigenous traditions. Water sources may be considered sacred or vital to the community, and when they are exploited by outsiders, it can create fragility, and anger. When people protest the use of their water, the water company goes back to the government to complain, and the results can become explosive; protests over water rights can turn into skirmishes, which may lead to military involvement, which usually doesn’t end well for the less powerful side.

All of this is behind the ‘pure’ water sold to consumers and marketed as part of a wholesome lifestyle. Consumers live in blissful ignorance because water companies are careful to manage their public relations image, and they work hard to suppress reports on the damage they cause to the natural environment and the communities they operate in. In conversations about the costs of bottled water, there’s often a heavy focus on the environmental problems associated with transport and packaging, but less notice is paid to where the water comes from and why this can be a problem as well.

For consumers, learning about this requires actively seeking out information, and often that knowledge isn’t desired because it would force people to consider modifying their purchasing habits. As long as water sources remain out of sight, they’re out of mind too.