By: Jessica Dawn Ulrich

There is a growing body of literature about the bottled water industry and the commodification of water in general (Castro 2008). The growth of literature and interest in water issues is likely a response to a heightened awareness that scholars and others have of the effects the commodification of vital resources such as water are having on our daily lives. The literature that I reviewed and found important to understanding contrasting perspectives of water are covered in the four following theoretical perspectives: (1) cultural capital and the marketing of bottled water, (2) neoliberal and privatization discourses, (3) water as a natural entitlement, (4) and indigenous views of resources.

Cultural Capital and the Marketing of Bottled Water

As discussed in the previous chapters, the consumption of expensive, high-end bottled water from companies such as Perrier and Evian from the French Alps, Pellegrino from Italy, and FIJI Water has been steadily increasing in recent years.

Connell 2006:343

The growth of the bottled water industry and of high-end bottled waters can be analyzed by looking at the status that consumption of the product infers using Bourdieu‘s framework of cultural capital.

Cultural capital is the forms of knowledge, skills, education, or advantages that a person has which gives one a higher status in society (Bourdieu 1984). According to Bourdieu, cultural capital can be conferred by consuming 26 high status, nonessential goods –in this case, bottled water from remote places such as Fiji. Simply by consuming some brands of bottled water people are making statements about their lifestyle, taste, and status.

They show that they do not need to drink tap water and can afford to pay the high price for bottled water. Even if consumers can‘t always afford expensive bottled waters, if they choose to drink the high end or boutique waters they can become connoisseurs of water and vicariously live a high status lifestyle for a few moments. They can convey to others just by holding the bottled water that they know what good water is and that they can afford it.

Celebrity endorsements, such as Jennifer Aniston‘s endorsement of Smartwater, can also help fuel desire by conveying that the product is an essential part of celebrity lifestyle and taste to potential consumers. People are now paying premium prices for something that was free (or relatively cheap),because of the cultural capital that consumption of the bottled water implies. Marketing and advertising by bottled water companies help propagate the idea that their products confer status and culture on consumers.

Some bottled water companies create their own special niche because of where they are from and the meanings that these places convey to consumers. Opel (1999) points out that advertisements convey not only descriptions of the product, but values and meanings about how the product fits into the social context, and labels become a way of adding symbolic value to products (70).

Advertising for bottled water suggests natural purity through symbols such as mountains, ice, and springs. If one looks at a label of bottled water one will almost certainly see some reference to nature. This connection with nature and pure, pristine water may be effective because of the human desire to connect with 27 nature in an increasingly urbanized and industrialized world. One cheap and convenient way that people can consume nature in this busy society is through drinking it, or so they believe.

This connection to purity and nature is exactly what FIJI Water attempts to cultivate, and what Connell (2006) sees as place or location being used as a means of marketing perceived taste, distinctiveness and quality.

FIJI Water markets the exotic by using the claim that its water is from a faraway and pristine place, far from familiar water sources that are industrialized and possibly polluted. The company website proudly states that ―FIJI Water is a result of rain that fell before the Industrial Revolution and filtered slowly through silica-rich volcanic rock over hundreds of years‖ (FIJI Water 2008).

Cultivating a sense of purity is only part of the industry‘s strategy. Bottled water companies have a ―two-pronged strategy: to establish the purity of their sources while raising the fears of contaminated public drinking waters‖ (Opel 1999:68). As many consumers from high income countries have become more health conscious, they have begun looking for sources of water that they view to be more pure than tap water, and the bottled water industry has capitalized on this trend.

The industry has also pushed the idea that there are special health benefits in their water, and that in order to be healthy you must make sure to consume at least eight glasses a day. Companies have even adjusted their advertising for this trend as was the case when Evian changed its slogan from―L‘original to Your natural source of youth‖ (Kaplan 2007:4). Since water from most sources is so similar, companies must use these tactics so people will choose their bottled 28 water over others and be afraid of water sources that are free to them. FIJI Water claims to produce water that is ―untouched by man‖ and is bottled at the source to prevent contamination. In this way, bottled water companies attempt to link the ideal of purity with the ideal of health in the mind of the consumer. Drinking bottled water thus allows consumers to convey to others that they are both conscious of their health and a person of high status.

The idea that bottled water is healthier than tap water is a common misconception that has increased bottled water sales.

In some places tap water is polluted, but bottled water has not been proven to have health benefits over tap water or to be any more ―pure as is often claimed by the industry (Wilk 2006). In fact, bottled water is often tested less rigorously than tap water and has been found to actually taste less favorably in blind taste tests than some tap waters (Opel 1999). Multiple surveys conclude that most bottled water is generally no safer or purer than the water that most people get from their taps (Opel 1999).

Often bottled water is just tap water run through a filter and has no other benefits besides psychological ones on an individual level, or the cultural or social capital that it brings from consumption on a social level (Wilk 2006). Various people have contrasting ways of making sense of the system in which the bottled water industry exists. Some people see bottled water as beneficial because of the status consumption of it confers and the health benefits drinking it provides, while some, in particular corporate player, see it as a way to commodify a needed resource.

Neoliberal Discourses on Water

The rapid growth of the bottled water industry is a perfect example of the commodification of a resource that was previously not for sale. Why has there been this recent shift from water as a natural entitlement to a commodity that many people are willing to buy?

According to Wilk (2006), it clearly isn‘t the ―taste (of water) that is the central motivation behind the continuing inexorable increase in the bottled water trade (306). In a capitalist economy, companies must continually increase profits. This means that companies must constantly create new products or services from which to profit. One way companies can do this is to turn items or services that were previously not for sale into products that are for sale to commodify them.

Companies must persuade potential consumers to purchase products that were traditionally free through marketing and advertising. As we have seen, marketers use sophisticated techniques to convey meanings that make their product desirable and something for which consumers are willing to pay a premium price. Playing on fears of tap water and our desire to be healthy, they entice consumers to purchase something we can get cheaply in our homes.

Who benefits from the commodification or privatization of water?

In a market-driven society there are stakeholders who benefit from the commodification of water and some who are burdened. By privatizing water supplies in developing countries, corporate players may argue that they are strengthening the economies and providing affordable water or jobs to local communities. Such neoliberal discourses are often used to justify the commodification or privatization of resources or services (Castro 2008).

Neoliberal discourses have been actively promoted since the 1980s by international financial 30 institutions, such as the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, powerful and influential countries, such as the U.S., donor agencies, think tanks, and academics, among other actors, as a tool to ―solve the problems affecting water and sanitation services in less developed countries‖ (Castro 2008:64). International companies also lobby various governments to enact neoliberal policies that they see as favorable to their businesses.

According to dominant neoliberal discourse, commodifying water sources is the most efficient way to manage water supplies, because consumers will only conserve water if they are forced to pay for it (Castro 2008). In addition, according to neoliberal discourse, water can be better regulated by private companies competing in the marketplace because they are in the best position to distribute resources like water, as opposed to state or other public bodies (Castro 2008).

Advocates of neoliberal discourses argue that allowing free trade among all counties will also help to build a stronger global economy that will ultimately benefit everyone because the optimal prices for goods will occur in a free market. Further, helping less developed countries capitalize on their natural resources is beneficial to all stakeholders since the countries do not always have the ability or the financing to do so themselves (Castro 2008).

Critiques of Neoliberal Discourses on Water

Neoliberal views of water as a commodity are not without their critics.

This section outlines two lines of criticism against the view of water as a commodity: asking questions of justice, and the alternative view of water as a natural entitlement. Advocates of environmental justice apply the concepts of procedural and distributive justice to criticize the commodification and privatization of water sources. According to Kuehn (2000), procedural justice refers to fairness in the manner in which decisions are made, and includes active and informed participation and decision making for all stakeholders, as well as full access and disclosure of information (10688).

According to this logic, when water sources are commodified, questions must be asked regarding whether or not all stakeholders get equal and informed participation on the decision making process.

Additionally, it is important to find out whether the benefits and detriments are equally distributed. According to Kuehn, distributive justice is defined as ―the right to equal treatment, that is, to the same distributions of goods and opportunities as anyone else has or is given‖ (2000:10683). These concepts of procedural justice and distributive justice are applied in depth to the bottled water industry in Fiji in part 9 Nine. Another line of criticism of neoliberal views of water rejects the assumption that resources like water can or should be commodified. Critics of commodification of natural resources argue that it is also possible to understand water consumption in ways that imply resistance to trends towards privatization or market-driven discourses (Shiva 2002; Barlow and Clarke 2002). Many people believe that water in any form is something that is a natural entitlement or universal human right because it is needed for survival. Any form of private control over water supplies is difficult for advocates of such a position to accept because they fear that if water becomes overpriced, then the people that need it the most will not be able to afford it.

They cite evidence that privatization or commodification of water sources is not beneficial to the greatest number 32 of people (Castro 2008). Castro (2008) argues that the findings of his research refute the claim that privatization has helped developing countries. He also believes he provides evidence that neoliberal policies have actually worsened the systems of inequality developing countries while more developed countries and their MNCs have prospered.

Following the logic of those who view water as a universal right, this could mean that a small number of corporations, or countries, could come to have a monopoly over are source that is needed for human life. Critics of neoliberal discourses regarding privatization also argue that such discourses do not take into account that the people who can afford to pay a lot for water also may not care if they spend more to use it in decadent or unnecessary ways (Castro 2008), as perhaps in the case of the consumption of bottled water in places where tap water is safe and plentiful.

Advocates of neoliberal discourses argue that commodifying water supplies will ultimately lead to increased water conservations.

However, critics of these discourses argue that this is illogical. Critics point out that profit making enterprises want consumers to use more water, not less, in order to maximize profit for their shareholders. This means that companies may encourage consumers to use water in ways that are not beneficial to a large number of people but to the smaller number of people who are willing to pay for it.

There has been widespread condemnation of damming rivers and polluting of the world‘s water systems, but there has been far less resistance to exporting water and to privatization of local water services (Shiva 2002).

In these types of conflicts, the large companies pour significant resources into getting access to the water sources because they know how lucrative the bottled water business is, and they usually have a lot of influence over political entities that make the laws that regulate the industry. But in the Wisconsin case, we see an example of residents‘ views of their water supply taking precedence over the profit motives of a large corporation. How are indigenous discourses surrounding water issues different from neoliberal discourses, and have they been changing with the growth of the bottled water industry?

Indigenous Views of Water Resources

Has the lure of money led some indigenous people to change the values and meanings they place on resources such as water?

Commodifying water includes increasing its economic value, transferring it to higher-value uses, international trade in water, and expanding existing water markets. These values conflict with a view of water as a communal good which includes a priority on water‘s emotional and symbolic value, an emphasis on fairness, participation and local control, opportunity (economic), caring for the resource, and collective decision making (Brown and Ingram 1987). How do MNCs or MICs views of resources differ from those of native users of the resources?

According to Barlow and Clarke (2002) Those living closer to the sources of nature in today‘s world knew that to destroy water was to destroy life itself; only modern advanced‘ cultures, driven by acquisition and convinced of their supremacy over nature, have failed to revere water.

Indigenous people may view water as something that belongs to the people and has sacred and religious roots, not as something to be taken away from the land and sold for a profit. Until an outside entity proved that there was a profit to be made off of the resource they may have only thought of water in terms of something needed for daily life and to share amongst their people.

The neoliberal way of thinking about resources is something that is an anathema to many indigenous beliefs throughout the world.

The culture of the global north has a history of colonialism which plays out in how resources are viewed and thus consumed. Resources, land, and even people become something to extract and consume as we have seen throughout history when dominant entities invade less powerful ones. Indigenous cultures tend to have a contrasting view, and traditional cultures are often built around the sacredness of resources (Shiva 2002).

Some literature claims that outside values and meanings regarding water have been imposed upon indigenous people in order to make a profit. It is also possible that discourses of some indigenous people have recently changed because rather than emphasizing the negative social, cultural and environmental impacts the industry may be having, some have begun to demand their share in the profits, thus validating the market- driven discourses in the eyes of local residents (Kaplan 2005).


Academics, environmentalists, policy analysts and corporate actors in the global north are all familiar to some extent with the discourses outlined above, but this paper analyzes the discourses that some Fijians use to make sense of the situation. Are the 35 discourses that Fijians use similar to those used in academics or do they have their own way of understanding the bottled water industry? Have Fijians become dependent on this commodity and how do they view their place in this system? The discourses Fijians use regarding water may depend on whether or not they feel that they are benefitting from the bottled water industry.

If they feel the FIJI Water Company has been a positive impact on them as individuals or on their communities it is likely that they may now see water as a commodity and something from which they themselves want to profit. However, if other stakeholders have not seen improvements in their standard of living while others around them have, they might reject the commodification of water. Alternatively, they might see water as something from which they too should profit. The subsequent chapters examine Fijians‘ own views of water in more detail.