The snob appeal of tap water.

Commentary about business and finance.
April 26 2007 7:23 PM

Evian Criminals

The new snob appeal of tap water.

Bottled water

In March, the San Francisco Chronicle spotted a hot new food trend in the Bay Area. Instead of offering diners a choice of still or sparkling bottled water with their (inevitably) locally grown delectables, trendoid restaurants such as Incanto, Poggio, and Nopa now offer glorified tap water. Sustainable-dining pioneer Chez Panisse has also joined the crowd, tossing Santa Lucia overboard for filtered municipal water, carbonated on-site. The reason: It takes a lot of energy to create a bottle of water and ship it from Europe to California. And so of-the-moment bistros can boost their enviro cred by giving away tap water instead of selling promiscuously marked-up bottled water. "Our whole goal of sustainability means using as little energy as we have to," Mike Kossa-Rienzi, general manager of Chez Panisse, told the Chronicle. "Shipping bottles of water from Italy doesn't make sense."

Chez Panisse's decision to swap Perrier for public water highlights how quickly the culture surrounding food, drink, and the environment has shifted. Not long ago, bottled water represented the height of urban sophistication. Today, bottled water is just another cog in the carbon-spewing, globe-warming industrial machine. There is a growing conflict between those who want to drink clean, pure water and those who want to breathe clean, pure air.

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Until relatively recently, bottled water was a snobbish luxury good—Perrier, Evian, and San Pellegrino, fey-sounding foreign brands, seemed absurd. Thanks to our superior infrastructure—New York City's delicious tap water is actually believed to be a competitive advantage for the city's bagel and pizza makers—it is perfectly safe to drink the water in the United States. Given the price—for long periods of time, a gallon of bottled water cost more than a gallon of gas—it seemed silly to pay up for this plentiful commodity. And it seemed pretentious to believe that our overburdened palates should be forced to develop a preference for what is generally presumed to be a tasteless substance. The presence of water sommeliers at the Ritz-Carlton in New York and at Alain Ducasse's New York restaurant (now closed, soon to reopen) was more novelty than a necessity.

But like other high-end comestibles—sushi, good coffee—bottled water has become democratized. According to data from the International Bottled Water Association, bottled water in 2003 became the second-largest American beverage category. As soda sales stagnated, bottled water sales took off. Total U.S. consumption rose nearly 60 percent between 2001 and 2006. Last year, industry revenues were an estimated $11 billion. Per-capita consumption has risen almost 50 percent from 2001, to 27.6 gallons in 2006. Globally, the United States is the largest consumer of bottled water, although on a per-capita basis, we were only 10th in 2005. (That year, Italians consumed almost twice as much bottled water per capita as Americans.)

The rapidly growing sector has attracted the interest of huge beverage companies. Coca-Cola owns Dasani and is reportedly interested in buying Glaceau, which makes flavored waters. Pepsi owns Aquafina. Poland Spring is also a major player. But these companies, whose products are available in convenience stores, vending machines, and office refrigerators, aren't delivering expensive European spring water to elites; they're producing cheap, glorified tap water for the masses. And they package the product in plastic, not in glass.

Bottled water is an industry, not a craft. (And even the schmancy European operations are industrial.) Whether it's Santa Lucia in Italy or Poland Spring in Maine, bottlers process the stuff. They regulate the mineral content, sometimes they carbonate it, and they bottle, package, and ship it to distant markets on trucks, trains, and ships—burning fossil fuels and emitting carbon dioxide in the process.

And so there is a sort of reverse snob appeal in shunning bottled water. Restaurants like Chez Panisse are telling their customers that they prize the Earth—and their customers' values—more than their own profits. (Companies like Whole Foods and Wal-Mart that conspicuously pay above-market prices for electricity generated from renewable sources are doing the same thing.)

I, for one, would welcome the abolition of bottled water at restaurants. Whether you're on a date or at a business meal, expressing a preference for tap water generally makes you look cheap. But I don't know if the food snobs want to go too far. If sustainability comes to outweigh consumer preference or variety at restaurants, America's food culture will suffer. If you're based in Northern California, which has an embarrassment of agricultural riches, insisting on using only local products isn't much of a sacrifice. In Ohio, or Maine, or New York, it would mean self-denial on a massive scale. Part of the appeal of a great food city like New York is the sheer variety of choices. I'm all for the Union Square Greenmarket, where delectable fruits and veggies are trucked in from farms within a day's drive. But I also love the Chinatown stalls stocked with strange, far-flung vegetables, Japanese steakhouses selling Kobe beef, and the readily available French truffles. Where do you draw the line? Apparently, Chez Panisse draws it at wine. Its wine list has plenty of California vintages but is also stocked with bottles that have been shipped, in the same carbon-intensive process through which water bottles are shipped, from France, Italy, and South Africa.

Bottled water's swift transformation from glass-encased luxury good to déclassé, plastic-wrapped menace was entirely predictable. Over the past century, we've seen numerous examples of products that, so long as they were available only to a select few, were viewed by those elites as brilliant, life-improving developments: the automobile, coal-generated electricity, air conditioning. But once companies figured out how to make them available to the masses, the elites suddenly condemned them as dangerous and socially destructive.

So long as only a few people were drinking Evian, Perrier, and San Pellegrino, bottled water wasn't perceived as a societal ill. Now that everybody is toting bottles of Poland Spring, Aquafina, and Dasani, it's a big problem.

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