Water Reading- The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman

“Many civilizations have been crippled or destroyed by an inability to understand water or manage it. We have a huge advantage over the generations of people who have come before us, because we can understand water and we can use it smartly.”

– Charles Fishman, The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water

Charles Fishman, bestselling author of The Wal-Mart Effect has most recently turned his attention to water. The leap from discounted mega-giant to Earth’s most essential resource may seem like a big one, but Fishman is interested in relationships-whether it’s to Wal-Mart or water.  Fishman first began his flirtation with water in a 2007 article entitled, “Message in a Bottle”, published in Fast Company magazine. In this piece Fishman lamented, “Thirty years ago, bottled water barely existed as a business in the United States. Last year, we spent more on Poland Spring, Fiji Water, Evian, Aquafina, and Dasani than we spent on iPods or movie tickets– $15 billion. It will be $16 billion this year” (Fishman, 2007).

Fast forward to 2011, and Fishman tackles both the history and future of water in our world. The Big Thirst seeks to open people’s eyes to the reality of water in the twenty-first century. Similar to what the book and film, Fast Food Nation did for revealing the atrocities of the United States fast food industry, Thirst delves into people’s water consciousness. For example, do you know where your water goes when it swirls down the drain, flushes down the toilet or leaves your washing machine? A majority of Americans have no idea.

Also consider that most Americans don’t know where the majority of their daily water usage comes from. Do you? In 1999, a group of researchers used electronic water-flow sensors in 1,888 homes for four weeks. The results showed that the primary way American’s use water daily is by flushing the toilet. About five times a day per person if you want to put a figure on it. We literally flush 5.7 billion gallons of water down the toilet a day (Fishman, 2011).

The Big Thirst’s strength stems from Fishman’s ability to storytell. He connects you to your relationship with water in a multitude of ways. Take for example, this excerpt, “Like so much of modern life, safe, reliable water and sewer service is both essential and a complete mystery. We have no idea where our water comes from, we have no idea what happens to it when the dishwasher is done with it. We have no idea what effort is required to get the water to us, and no idea what’s required to get rid of it. That ignorance doesn’t matter, until things start to go wrong.”

Water is an essential resource in our daily lives- and most of us do not understand how much we rely on it, how much goes into getting it to our faucet, and what we would do if it were to stop flowing freely. Charles Fishman explores these questions through fascinating stories intertwining his personal travels to the water bottling plants of San Pellegrino, Italy and Poland Spring, Maine.  The main question being, why don’t we value our most essential resource the way we should?

Activate Vitamin Water

Activate bottled waterFans of Vitamin Water may be disappointed to learn that vitamins may lose potency if stored in water for extended periods of time.

Enter Activate – the only brand of bottled water on the market that has vitamins, antioxidants and other supplements in powder form hidden in the cap, which are released with just one twist, just before drinking. How did this concept come to be?

“Friends Anders Eisner and Burke Eiteljorg were sitting in the Denver airport four years ago. Anders was trying to pour Airborne, a supposed cold-fighting dietary supplement, into a bottle of water. Burke was doing the same with Emergen-C, another vitamin drink mix. Both were making a mess. There had to be a tidier way, they decided.”

Activate comes in eight flavors. Some emphasize health and immunity boosters, while others are workout drinks with electrolytes. The drinks contain Stevia, a much healthier alternative to the sugar used in Vitamin Water and other similar beverages. While we applaud the company’s innovation and drive to be healthier than most, we still have the problem of plastic bottle waste on our hands. Perhaps Eisner and Eiteljorg wouldn’t have made such a mess if they had a wide-mouthed reusable bottle like this Klean Kanteen instead. Moreover, the beverage sells for $1.79 to $2.29 per bottle:

“Some balk at the price, but Holland [the company's president] says, ‘If you bought a bottle of water and Emergen-C it would cost you $2.'”

Precisely why we shouldn’t be buying bottles of water in the first place! We’ve said it many times and we’ll say it again. Save money with your own supplement packets and/or pills, and fill up your reusable water bottle with filtered tap water instead.

“Organic” Bottled Water?

organic springs bottled water

The Australian Standard for organic products says that natural products like water cannot be labeled “organic.” But what if that label is part of the brand or company name?

Australian brands, Organic Springs, Active Organic, and Organic Falls sell purified tap water under the Active Organic Spring name, though the water is not organic and is not sourced from a spring. Legitimate organic producers are annoyed at companies that use the term in their brand names, as it can mislead consumers. “Organic” is a term that is typically used to describe agricultural produce, and not natural substances like water or air.

The company, in its defense, states that it is not actually claiming that the water is organic, though the term is used in the brand name. Still – the word can be misleading to consumers, no matter the context. The bottled water industry caught on to the power of this kind of advertising long ago when they began marketing their product with pictures of glaciers, mountains and freshwater springs on the bottles. These days, many consumers will blindly purchase a product labeled “organic”, simply because the word has such a powerful, positive connotation, even if they don’t know what the term itself really means. And some products labeled “organic” are not any healthier or better-tasting than their non-organic versions.

What do you think? If given the choice between a bottle simply labeled “purified tap water” and a bottle labeled “purified tap water” with “organic” in the brand name, which would you be more likely to choose?