/ 5 August 2008

The bottled water affair

A half-litre bottle of water now costs 80p in your average UK sandwich chain. That’s around four times the price of oil. And it’s not like you have an oil tap in your own kitchen. If only there were some godforsaken country we could invade in the adorably misguided belief that it would bring the price of this stuff down.

And yet — perhaps because bottling water is precisely the sort of business that would entrance Dick Cheney — we’ve yet to alight on the killing fields that would get us out of this mess. Not that bottled water giants such as Nestlé and Coca-Cola would class it as a mess, what with the global industry being worth £30-billion and rising.

For the rest of us, I’m afraid it’s time to swallow the bottled water lecture again. Come on: more of it is being sold than beer — you and I know that can’t be right.

In her book Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It, the investigative writer Elizabeth Royte covers it all: the nonsense about mineral water’s “health benefits”; the struggles of the communities from where this stuff is pumped in its billions of gallons; the huge environmental damage; the debunked science behind the eight glasses a day recommendation; the incredibly rare health scares related to municipal water supplies that are hyped by persons unknown (who could they be?) and drive people to purchase yet more of this stuff — supplies of which are dwindling.

She fears water wars. She wonders how unworkably inconvenient it is for people to refill a reusable bottle.

So given that tap water regularly wins in blind tastings, you have to marvel at the marketing genius that continues to sell it to us in ever more mind-boggling quantities. Consider bottled water’s hold on women in the 18-35 age bracket, to whom it is most ruthlessly marketed. One of the more pathetic sights available to modern urbanites is that of some office worker lugging round her bottle of Evian in the manner of a supermodel. Was there not tap water where she set out from? Is there not tap water where she is going? She does not look like Gisele. She looks like Linus from Peanuts with his security blanket.

You know who needs drinks carried round at all times because they may require one in transit? Babies. Mewling, puking, lovably helpless — and in blissful ignorance about the concept of self-discipline. In short, they have no control over what happens at either end of their alimentary canal. Perhaps the marketing men could reposition adult nappies, so that the same misguided urbanites could cosset themselves in one of those, in case they need to “go” while walking between appointments.

Guaranteed to make you more angry than the infantilised urbanities, though, is Michael Mascha, author of Fine Waters: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Most Distinctive Bottled Waters (Emperor’s New Clothes Press; price: your dignity). This book is so pretentious I initially assumed it had been written as a dare. Mascha lectures you about the “terroir” of different bottled waters, about their “mouthfeel”, about their distinctive molecular structures. He sees sophistication as changing waters with each course and frets about the sorry state of stemware culture.

“Beyond the flavour considerations,” he instructs his late-capitalist disciples, “you should also take intangible considerations like presentation and a water’s story into account when choosing your bottled water. I look forward to the time,” he continues, “when people can select not only the vodka for their martini, but also the ice.” I look forward to the time when those people are wiped out by a highly targeted plague. Arguably the most loathsome water he plugs is called Bling. I think it is described as a “couture water” — I can’t be sure, the book went out of the window at that point — but the bottle is studded with Swarovski crystals and costs £20 (about R230) for 750ml. Bling is one of those products the mere purchase of which should result in your voting rights being withdrawn in perpetuity. You have just spent £20 on a bottle of water: you no longer have the right to participate in decisions that may affect society’s direction.

If you bang on endlessly that bottled water tastes better and that even filtered isn’t as nice, you should take a good hard look at Mascha and his preposterous book, because if things carry on at the rate Royte is chronicling, he is the Spirit of Your Future.

It seems increasingly rich that those who laugh at Madonna for drinking her Kabbalah water, blessed by the faux-religion’s rabbi, will cheerily fork out for another brand, blessed by some Big Water executive fibbing it’s healthier than tap water.

Similarly, those who bang on at dinner parties about Nestlé pushing powdered milk in the third world should stop serving Nestlé’s brands of bottled water at said dinners. Poor benighted Africans, paying for something they could get for free in the misguided belief it’s better for them —

If this analogy is not sufficiently sledgehammer, they may care to consider that in the 1950s Nestlé pushed its bottled waters “to help lactating mothers and [provide] important minerals for infants”. It has since modified its sell, producing in 2002 a catering trade manual called Pour on the Tips, in which waiters were advised they could make $100 more a month using a few simple water-pushing techniques.

This is what a conspiracy theory that actually stands up looks like. The entity we are obliged to call The Man really is fooling you. I’m sorry it’s not blowing up the World Trade Centre, or lying about the Titanic sinking. But it’s low level mostly because duping you doesn’t need anything fancier. He can make you pay between 240 and 10 000 times more for something you already have on tap.

Crack open a bottle of Bling and drown your sorrows: Lex Luthor doesn’t even get out of bed for schmucks like you. —