Bottled Water Industry Is Booming: So Is The Criticism from Public Officials and Consumers

Municipal, environmental, consumer and health critics seems to be ganging up on the American bottled water industry these days, but it just keeps on setting new sales records.

Consider the recent growth of the industry, which now includes bottled spring water, bottled artesian water, bottled tap water that has been purified and bottled "flavored water", which the industry prefers to call "designer water" or "enhanced water":

--The number of gallons of bottled water sold has grown from 5.2 billion in 2011 to an estimated 8.3 billion in 2016. That’s about a 60% increase in six years. The wholesale dollar amounts have increased from $6.9 billion to nearly $11 billion.

--Bottled water has grown into the second largest commercial beverage in the nation and it is gaining on the leader, carbonated soft drinks.

--In 2015, Americans drank an average of 26.1 gallons of bottled water per person. That’s about 200 of those 17-ounce bottles of water. In 1961, when the industry started counting, the percapita average was 1.6 gallons.

--The International Bottled Water Association reported that a national survey indicated that 58% of Americans selected water as the "bottled beverage" they "associate most with living a healthy lifestyle?" The carefully worded questionnaire excluded unbottled tap water and the IBWA news release did not say who sponsored the survey. However, the association indicated the results were understandable because bottled water has no calories, no caffeine and no sugar and the product is watched over by the Food and Drug Administration.

--In 2015, for the first time ever, Americans drank more bottled water than milk.

The industry has had to overcome two major psychological barriers to achieve its growth.

  1. For centuries Americans were unaccustomed to paying for water, except the relative pittance they paid for tap water.
  2. Once they had accepted the idea of paying for pristine spring water, Americans then had to be sold on paying premium prices for tap water that had been bottled.

Since those psychological barriers have been hurdled, price seems to be more of a competitive factor between the various brands rather than a concern of the consumer. The market cry seems to be: Bottle it and they will buy it.

In California, they're started marketing a $55 bottled water called Bling H2O in 2007. It comes in a frosted bottle with Swarovski crystals and is bottled at a Tennessee spring following a nine-step purification. It's been given celebrity treatment in Los Angeles. The media attention and the shock price will probably help other premium waters to raise their prices.

The acceptance of bottled water has grown to the point that at least one website devoted to the restaurant industry has criticized restaurants for not providing diverse selections of bottled water to accompany different foods, as is done with wine.

The next question: If milk sales can be topped, can soft drinks be next? The question probably intrigues soft drink producers because they market much of the bottled water.

The answer may depend upon how the bottled water industry copes with growing criticism focusing on health, price, environmental and labeling issues.