How Marketing Made Bottled Water the Norm — and How We Can Change It

"Don’t lose hope – just take action, one step at a time."

Sheila M. Morovati - Author

Apr. 24 2024, Published 8:00 a.m. ET

Collage on a green background with a photo of Sheila M. Morovati sitting on a beach, and the cover of her book 'Imperfect Environmentalist.'
Source: Green Lovers Composite: Courtesy of Sheila M. Morovati, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

In her book, Imperfect Environmentalist: How to Reduce Waste and Create Change for a Better Planet, Sheila M. Morovati shares the ways she has made an impact as an environmental activist, and how you can, too. The below excerpt from the book exposes how marketing made harmful single-use plastic water bottles fashionable, and how the public can harness marketing to #ReThinkTap instead.

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How did it become the norm to sell water out of a plastic water bottle? Where did this cultural phenomenon begin? I really wanted to understand the cause so I could help find a solution. It was crystal clear that there was and still is a deep mistrust in our tap water. Here in the United States, it should be assumed that all our water is clean and safe to drink. Sadly, as we all know, there are many cities where this is not the case (e.g., Flint, Michigan). The images of brown water coming out of the tap are just too overwhelming, and rightfully so. The truth is that while there are a few cities that do not have safe drinking water, there are many that do – almost 95% in fact. However, there is another reason why tap water hasn’t been able to compete with the multi-billion-dollar bottled water industry. It’s all about marketing.

I compare the beginnings of the plastic water bottle industry to the beginnings of infant formula. You see, the infant formula industry all began by sending very chic and beautiful women into groups of new moms to share that breastfeeding was passé and not as nutritionally sound as formula. They would convince well-off new moms to dry up their breast milk because they could afford the “superior” infant formula, and that lower-income people were the only ones to breastfeed because they couldn’t afford the alternative.

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Sheila M. Morovati headshot next to the cover of her book 'Imperfect Environmentalist.'
Source: Courtesy of Sheila M. Morovati, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Today we all know what a farce that marketing ploy was. But guess what, it worked. In the 1960s and early 1970s breastfeeding took a nosedive, and many women would dry out their breast milk with medications such as Parlodel right there in the hospital since they had already started their newborn babies on infant formula. Luckily in the early 1980s women retaliated with the “Breast is Best” campaign and educated everyone (including some doctors) on the benefits of breast milk. This campaign was another grassroots effort to make breast milk cool again. Whoever thought that something as natural as a mother’s breast milk could go in and out of style with a strong marketing campaign? The reality is we are facing a very similar effect today around plastic water bottles.

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Cut to the 1980s during New York Fashion Week. Many glamorous and beautiful models walked fiercely down the catwalk for the most high-end fashion houses in the world. In this decade, models started carrying a very unusual accessory: a large plastic water bottle by Evian. Yes, a plastic water bottle was a fashion accessory. No question about it, these marketers are smart. They used fashion models to launch a campaign promising that the water sold in these plastic bottles was superior to the filtered tap water we were all drinking. The marketing campaign promised to make you more beautiful and slimmer, have better skin, and be healthier – essentially, be like those models. Evian set the stage for many plastic water bottle companies to promise similar things, changing it up every so often with added electrolytes or something like that. Not to mention that A-list celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, Patrick Dempsey, and Pete Davidson, to name a few, who would become their spokespeople and join the countless other celebrities photographed with these bottles.

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At the time many people balked at the idea of paying for water. It was seen as yet another ridiculous fad that would surely go out of style. “What’s wrong with tap water?" they asked. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. While there are some cities in the United States that have terrible tap water, most cities are actually quite proud of their water. In fact, every city must provide a water report stating exactly what is in the tap water, and most times this is quite similar (even better!) than what you would find in bottled water. I can imagine readers feeling alarmed right now, but tap water is actually much more stringently regulated than bottled water. The EPA regulates tap water, while the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulates bottled water (more on this later).

You can be sure that plastic water bottle companies are continually creating doubt in our minds about the safety of tap water, even though many of them are literally just filling their bottles with tap water, so their customers are simply paying for the plastic bottle. Cities like New York developed strong marketing for their tap water, calling it “New York’s Finest.” As a New Yorker you are actually expected to drink the city’s tap water because it’s a source of pride for the city. Most cities don’t have the budget or expertise to market their tap water, so you will see basic postcards with a blue water drop shape coming out of a kitchen faucet, as opposed to the flashy, multi-billion-dollar advertising campaigns that water bottle companies develop to convince us that their water is superior.

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This is when I created the campaign called #ReThinkTap with the idea that many cities are proud of their tap water yet cannot find a way to communicate it effectively to their community. We created free marketing materials for cities to adopt and share with their residents. These materials are linked to the city’s water report, which is imperative to look at because, as mentioned above, a city’s water is regulated by the EPA rather than the FDA which regulates the water bottle companies. The EPA is much more regulated than the FDA, thus making tap water safety requirements far more stringent. We believe that this information should be more accessible to the public, as cities nationwide work so hard to ensure safe tap water and are required to make their water reports public. Our goal is to help cities entice people to at least learn what is in their tap water so that they can decide whether or not purchasing bottled water is actually necessary in their community. We want people to ask their city questions and take advantage of the water report.

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We are all subject to the marketing campaigns of major companies, as they shift culture and society. Just think, they managed to get us to use 1.2 million plastic bottles per minute worldwide. They started saying that tap water wasn’t as good as plastic-bottled water, and many of us believed them. My goal is to have you ask questions and see for yourselves. Why are we spending so much of our hard-earned money? (As of 2015, we were spending an average of almost $300 per year on plastic water bottles). Wouldn’t it be better to do something else with that money, especially for those who face food insecurity? Imagine if they could use those funds to feed their families healthy nutritious food.

We can shift culture too, but it takes more effort, as millions of people must buy into the change. But we must start somewhere, and slowly the ripple effect will take hold and we will begin hearing about the changes happening worldwide. Just look at what the City of Paris has done with the hydration stations all over the city. These stations even offer sparkling water! The City of Los Angeles is installing and refurbishing two hundred refill stations just in time for the 2028 Summer Olympics. We can begin a whole new infrastructure if legislators hear our cries and concerns. Don’t lose hope – just take action, one step at a time.

Sheila M. Morovati is the founder and president of two non-profit organizations: Crayon Collection and Habits of Waste. She has fostered systemic change by targeting major corporations, giving everyday individuals the power to make better choices for the planet and inspiring meaningful activism.

This article is part of Green Lovers’ 2024 Earth Day programming, It's Giving... Earth Day: A series about the people and organizations who are “giving” Earth Day 24/7. We hope these stories inspire you to embody the spirit of Earth Day all year round.

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