Message in a Bottle

Islandbridge feature in Sunday Tribune article By Patrick Freyne, who examines the bottled water phenomenon and asks ‘why?’

Nowadays people won’t pay for music, they download it free. We complain every time the cost of petrol goes up at the pumps. Yet we’re willing to pay a premium for a product we can get freely and safely from our own kitchen tap. The bottled water phenomenon defies market logic and has firmly entered into that small category of modern necessities that aren’t really necessities at all. And there are an endless number of brands – Penta, Fiji, Evian, Perrier, Cave H2O, Gota, Deep River Rock, Ballygowan, Tipperary. Companies like O’Briens and Itsa Bagel have even come up with their own varieties and party planners now brand water for one-off events. There are exclusive water bars like Collette in Paris; water connoisseurs like Michael Mascha (author of Fine Waters: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Most Distinctive Bottled Water); water lists in fancy hotels (like the Ritz Carlton); and premium brands like Voss which cost a small fortune and taste like… well… water.

The environmental consequences of all this are predictably daft. Never mind the landfill-clogging effect of all that plastic, water imports also clock up significant air miles. Ireland gets Perrier from France, while France, which also has a perfectly good supply, imports Ballygowan from Ireland.

“Over a billion people are without drinking water,” notes consumer critic Benjamin Barber. “Why don’t we find out ways to get the water they need to them, instead of new ways of getting water to us?”

Gerard Tannam, director of the Islandbridge branding company, thinks bottled water is a totem for a wider consumer issue.

“It’s the perfect example of how consumers have moved beyond purchasing something for its own sake and have moved into using something because they think it says something about them,” he says. “It sends a message. That’s extended to most products, but water is the purest example because the difference between one variety and another is so tenuous.”

In short, we think the water we drink means something. Depending on the brand we drink we think it says we’re young, active and on the go; or that we’re successful, sophisticated and responsible; or that we’re a B-list celebrity out of rehab. Nowadays even drinking tap water is considered a political statement. Water is no longer ‘just water’ – it’s a badge of identity.

It wasn’t always thus. In the 1960s BBC’s comedy radio hit Round the Horne derived a sketch out of the ludicrous notion of selling bottled water. And this hadn’t changed hugely when in 1983 Geoff Read, founder of Ballygowan, appeared on The Late Late Show to showcase his new product. Pat Cooney, the man behind Tipperary Mineral Water, had a similar experience a couple of years later.

“When we started people thought we were mad,” says Cooney. “Both Geoff Read and myself were on The Late Late Show at different points and people just laughed at us. They asked who we thought would pay for bottled water? They thought it was ridiculous. But people did want to drink it!” He pauses. “And it made a lot of money,” he adds chuckling.

Cooney thinks we drink bottled water for “taste, lifestyle and health”. Lifestyle’s a given, but the taste argument is dubious at best. In tests most people can’t discern their ‘brand’ from others and often the subjects can’t even tell their favoured variety from tap. And one thing is very clear – bottled water is no better for your health. Indeed, in the US the FDA forbids mineral water suppliers from making health claims and the experts agree on this side of the Atlantic.

“Health-wise there’s absolutely no need for people to buy bottled water,” says Margot Brennan of the Irish Dietetic Institute. “The drinking water system is absolutely safe so bottled water isn’t useful in that respect. It is most definitely better to drink a bottle of water than to drink a soft drink, but it’s not any better than drinking tap water.”

So why do we drink it? “It doesn’t make much sense really, because the quality of our tap water in Dublin is very, very good,” says Brian Smith, Dublin City Council’s executive manager of the water supply, who’s clearly at a loss.

“If you wanted nice cold water, you could fill a jug at night, stick it in your fridge and in the morning its stone cold and excellent. If you want to bring water with you just fill a bottle before you go to work. So really, I don’t understand why people are paying several euro for water when it comes out of the tap for free.”

There may be a backlash on the way. Many green organisations want us to boycott bottled waters. London Times food critic Giles Coren has been on an anti-bottled water campaign for several years. French designer Pierre Cardin recently created a fancy water carafe, which he distributed free to Parisian restaurants in the hope of persuading people to drink from the tap. And in Ireland certain magazines have proclaimed the ordering of tap water as a sign of nouveau bohemian chic.

But Gerard Tannam isn’t so sure. He thinks drinking bottled water is here to stay. In fact, he thinks it’s almost a pathology amongst modern, on-the-go urbanites. “There’s a sense in which drinking bottled water has become like a nervous tick,” he says. “There was a period about 10 years ago when young ones were furiously rubbing lip balm from Body Shop and other places onto their lips. I’ve never used lip-balm in my life, and I don’t get cracked lips, and one of the effects of using the lip-balms is that it creates a kind of dependency.

“So that became a nervous tick. And I think that drinking bottled water has almost replaced that, and maybe it’s even replaced cigarettes as something people can do with their fingers. We do develop certain social ticks. You now regularly see people slurping water when they’re clearly not thirsty. I used to work with a veteran of the advertising industry who used to announce grandly: ‘I have an unfelt want!’ I still don’t quite know what that means, but if there is such a thing as an ‘unfelt want’ then bottled water is it.”

Water and Health

So how much water should we be drinking? “It varies between men and women and at different times of your life, but we talk about two litres as being important,” says Margot Brennan of the Irish Dietetic Institute. “Now it can be a lot more for a big man. It’s around about 30ml per kilo. So if you weigh 70 kilos that’s just over two litres.”

And does that have to be pure water? “Not at all, everything contributes to your intake – teas, coffee, juices, even alcohol, not that we recommend that. For example, we would normally say to old people drink six to eight cups a day of anything. A mixture is important tea, coffee, juices, water, but it’s not any better to drink your two litres of fluid as water.”

Do some bottled waters have mineral properties that are better than tap water? “As a general rule no, bottled water is no healthier than tap water,” she says. “There’s some evidence to show that ‘hard water’, which is very high in calcium, has a protective effect against heart disease, but some regions get hard water from the tap.

“In some instances bottled water is worse for you. Sparkling water isn’t great for your teeth, for example. And bottled waters are often not great for young babies, because they can have a high level of salt content and their kidneys are very immature. So it’s not always appropriate to use bottled water for babies in feeds and formulas.”

What about those recent news stories about people who died from drinking too much water? “In most instances those people were athletes. Water’s not actually the most appropriate drink if you’re doing a lot of sport. If you’re losing a lot of sweat and if it’s very warm it might be better to drink isotonic sports drinks to get extra salts into your body.”

Not So Pure?

In the early ’90s traces of the carcinogen benzene were found in Perrier water. The company claimed the problem was restricted to North America. When scientists also found benzene in the European supply there were accusations of a cover-up and the brand never quite recovered.

In 2004 Coca Cola aborted a European launch of its Dasani bottled water brand after cancer-causing bromate was found within.

In 2007, Pepsi Cola’s water brand Aquafine was ordered to place the words “public water source” on its label and has been accused by consumer groups of misleading the general public about the origin of their product (it comes from a municipal supply).

Of course, the public water supply isn’t perfect either. Last year it was confirmed that much of Galway’s water was contaminated with the cryptosporidium parasite causing a sharp increase in gastro-intestinal illnesses and 90,000 residents had to boil their water for five months.

What the water you drink says about you

Sparkling Ballygowan – You’re a businessperson in your 40s or 50s and this is what you drink so that you don’t have to drive roaring drunk, can still spend money (thus proving you’re in the black) and don’t have to order fizzy pop like a child, or non-conforming child-man. You drink ‘sparkling’ because the bubbles add value.

Perrier – you hardly buy this for health reasons as the early advertising campaigns featured the far from athletic figure of Orson Welles. More likely you drink it because you’re a traditionalist and in modern advertising terms, Perrier was here first.

Evian – You’re a fashion-conscious lady who has been deeply affected by the sight of supermodels waving bottles of Evian in the early ’90s. Or you’re a sexually disappointed gentleman whose been primed by Madonna fellating a bottle in Truth or Dare.

Deep River Rock – You’re a sprightly young person but you’re suffering from a hangover and you’re tragically susceptible to advertising. By marketing the brand as “water you wear” the advertisers positioned themselves as an accessory, not a beverage, and by subsequently adopting “purer than you” as a slogan they staked ground as the water to drink after a night abusing the liver. Genius.

Voss –If you watch MTV’s Cribs you’ll have seen bottles of this in many celebrity fridges. It’s sold in a glass canister that looks like it could contain a lethal gas and if you drink it you most definitely think you’re better than me. But you’re not better than me ya bum!

Tap water – You’re a boho eco-warrior with a good job in the city and your own vegetable patch. Alternatively, you could be most people over 50.

Private well-water drunk from the desiccated bladder of a wild animal – you’re a psychotic survivalist who thinks end times are nigh.

Flippoire – you are really special. Flippoire retails at €100 a litre and each bottle is filled with the collected tears of a dolphin. Nobody knows why the dolphin is crying. Some say it’s sad because people will buy anything.

What’s the difference?

Tap water – In Ireland this is usually ‘surface water’ (water from lakes, reservoirs or rivers), which is filtered using ‘slow sand filtration’ or ‘rapid gravity treatment’ and then has chlorine and fluoride added to it. Fluoride is very good for the teeth but there are some debates as to whether it should be added to the water supply at all.

Mineral water – This is ‘ground water’ which means it’s underground, has been naturally filtered and doesn’t need the same level of filtration as surface water. To be classed as mineral water there has to be a certain level of ‘total dissolved solids’ (various salts and minerals) found within.

Spring water – This is also ground water which flows naturally to the earth in the form of a spring.

Purified water – Some bottled waters (Aquafine, for example) are actually tap waters which have been filtered, purified, deionized or reverse osmosised (all processes with dubious worth considering much of the source water has been already filtered by the state anyway).

Well-water – Water from a hole bored, drilled or otherwise constructed in the ground, which taps an underground water source.

Artesian water – Groundwater which defies gravity and comes up to the surface once bored due to a natural ‘aquifer’ of soft rock – limestone or sandstone (Voss is Artesian water).

Oxygenated water – Features added oxygen which I gather would be excellent for us if we were fish and could breathe water through our lungs.

How we sold water to ourselves

9th century BC – rich Romans have public water piped to their fancy pads. Back then tap water was pretty exclusive.

14th century – the Belgian town of Spa offers the opportunity to rich folk to drink and bathe in the fancy mineral waters of their town.

19th century – the new middle classes start heading off to spas like Evian, San Pellegrino and Vittel. Bottled water is sold to the visitors as a sideline.

1977 – Washed-up actor and film director Orson Welles testifies to the classiness of Perrier in a well-heeled advertising campaign and everyone thinks: “Hmm, Orson’s judgement has been excellent of late, I must purchase this for my next dinner party.”

Early 1980s – Geoff Read and Pat Cooney introduce bottled water to the Irish with Ballygowan and Tipperary respectively. The Irish stop fighting/emigrating/ begrudging one another long enough to guffaw heartily.

Mid-1980s – Evian innovate with the plastic bottle and water becomes an ‘on-the-go’ phenomenon and an accessory.

Early 1990s – Supermodels are carrying around bottles of it. For the first time bottled water is associated with toned physiques rather than the mountainous bulk of Orson Welles.

Early noughties – Bottled waters like Dasani and Fiji make a lot of product placement appearances in programmes like The West Wing, Ally McBeal and Friends.

2008 – Slurping on water is a ‘nervous tick’ and has replaced nicotine as the thing we do between checking emails and texting.

Source: Sunday Tribune July 20th 2008

Author: Patrick Freyne