Tag Archives: consumerism

Reading a Bottled Water Menu

There is a restaurant in Los Angeles with a ~40-page “Water Menu.”* The menu, which features about 20 different brands of bottled water, is curated by Martin Riese, “America’s only certified water sommelier.” What are we to make of this?

R and S menu 3

Ray’s & Stark Water Menu. Photo: M. Gero. Used with permission.

Maybe it suggests nothing more than the success of clever marketing, or that some people just “have more money than good sense,” as a favoured saying in my family goes. But maybe there is more to it. After all, I’m old enough to remember when bottled water was almost unheard of in North America, but it is ubiquitous today. And while most people are well aware of the pernicious effects of bottled water consumption, and there are plenty of campaigns to ban or limit it, US per capita bottled water consumption increased tenfold in the last quarter of the 20th century, and more than doubled again in the first 15 years of this one (Canadian figures are not much different).  And most of us think of “water” (singular) as homogeneous and tasteless, but there are something like 3000 different brands of bottled water available globally.

So I spent some time looking at, and thinking about, this water menu. And writing a pretty detailed analysis of it, which is being published in the Journal of Consumer Culture, here. (It is paywalled, but if you can’t access it and want to, let me know.) If you just want the short version, read on.

The article starts with two epigraphs. One is from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who literally wrote the book on taste. In one of his most famous phrases (just yesterday quoted by – ugh – David Brooks): “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.” Bourdieu’s work emphasizes the difficulty, if not impossibility, of separating the physical sensation of taste from the social phenomenon of taste as an assertion of cultivation, refinement, or status.

This insight is helpful for understanding both the water menu specifically and the evolution of bottled water more generally. When bottled water was relatively rare, its mere consumption was a mark of distinction. Paying for a bottle of water, rather than contenting yourself with the free tap water that everyone else drinks, was a way to signal an elevated or refined sense of taste. A relatively early (2001) critical analysis of this phenomenon, commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund, explains: “Drinking expensive bottled water (compared to tap water) is a sign of a rise in the social scale” (p18).

But things are more complicated now. What does bottled water signify when it is itself produced and consumed on a mass basis? When environmental and other critiques of the industry are widespread? When big brands are produced by soft drink conglomerates and are known to be little more than tap water in a plastic container? Since I wrote the article, water sommelier Martin Riese has provided an answer to these questions that is short enough to fit into a single tweet:

Riese tweet

“Water from nature and not from a factory.” But how do you tell the difference?

A number of previous studies have shown how bottled water brands rely on images of nature to sell their product (pictures of mountains or lakes, implicitly distinguishing it from municipal water that comes out of a metal tap). A content analysis of the water menu confirms this is one of the more prominent themes. A majority of the brands are described using words like “natural,” “untouched,” “pristine,” or “pure.” Moreover, “purity” is almost always assured by association with human-free wilderness – the water source’s spatial or temporal distance from human influence – than by human regulation.

One interesting finding was that (by about a 2-1 margin) more of the menu discusses how particular waters are produced (where they come from), than what it is like to consume them (how they taste). Even in a restaurant, when portability isn’t a concern, and it is just as “convenient” to order a glass of tap water, the menu suggests that it isn’t necessary to inform readers how a brand of water tastes, in order to cultivate a taste for it.

Another surprising finding was the prevalence of geological references in the brand descriptions. Geological terms or phrases (“ancient volcanic rock” or “layers of ignimbrite” – note also the references to low or high mineral content in Riese’s tweet above) appear in a majority of the brands. Sometimes the implication of this specific geology are clear (“the reason for the inimitable freshness”). But other times it remains unstated. This seems to pose something of a paradox: to sense something’s “naturalness” requires specialized scientific knowledge?

Bourdieu again provides a clue. He insists that “taste” is acquired, through “a labour of identification and decoding” (Distinction, p.100). Using the example of art connoisseurs, he notes how it takes time and work to develop a good sense of taste in art. Since Bourdieu didn’t endorse a distinction between “aesthetic consumption” (e.g. viewing art) and “ordinary consumption” (e.g. drinking water), it would stand to reason that he would agree that being able to taste differences between waters also requires a “labour of identification and decoding.” But here is one difference: for Bourdieu, writing in 20th century France, taste was seen as a marker of “the progress from nature to culture” (Distinction, p.490). In 21st century North America, taste may mark a kind of progress in the other direction: the desire for, ability to sense, and acquisition of experiences of, (non-anthropogenic) “nature.”

In short, it isn’t enough to say that bottled water drinkers are deluded, or that the taste differences between bottled waters are invented or imagined. Maybe they are, but these delusions or imaginings are collective ones, and, like all distinctions and discriminations, they have real social consequences.

If the cultivation of taste requires work, and tastes therefore evolve over time, we might be better to ask what kind of history has been required to produce the taste distinctions that the water menu evokes, and what price has been paid to develop this rich sensory capacity. Which brings me, finally, to the second epigraph for the article about the water menu, from Walter Benjamin: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”


* Or maybe there was such a restaurant. The restaurant’s website no longer has a separate “water menu,” and now only lists 10 different brands of water on its “cocktail menu“. Some evidence that the water menu did exist can be found, for example, here, here, and here.

The Orenda, sacrifice, desire

There is an excellent exchange on Canada Reads between Wab Kinew and Stephen Lewis about violence in Joseph Boyden’s novel The Orenda, which Kinew nominated for the book that he thinks all Canadians should read (video here).

While Lewis criticizes the level of violence in the book, calling it “torture as pornography” (the depictions are extreme and pervasive), Kinew defends it as essential to what the book is trying to do. The problem, he asserts, is looking at it “strictly from a Western perspective,” which leads to the conclusion that the Indigenous characters are “savages.” Following the book’s “clues,” however, allows us to see a different “relationship” between torturer and tortured, that is alien to the Western mindset. Where Western (secularized, materialist, anti-metaphysical) eyes see torture as domination and objectification, Indigenous eyes see “caresses” (a term Boyden uses repeatedly) and the “chance to prove your honour and your dignity one last time” (Kinew).

At issue is the book’s preservation and transmission of the radical foreignness of Indigenous culture, affording the (settler) reader a glimpse into a radically different world. The preservation of difference is important, as Kinew powerfully puts it, because “reconciliation [between settlers and Indigenous peoples] must not become a second chance at assimilation.”

As a settler, reading The Orenda, and hearing Kinew’s reading of it, that opening to difference provides more than just an invitation to recognize and tolerate difference, however. If great novels allow you to experience the world from the perspective of another, what is perhaps the most politically charged moment in that process is when you see yourself, and your own taken-for-granted world, from the perspective of another. It provides the opportunity to assimilate (in this case in the reverse direction) some of that difference, or in other words to learn and grow from that experience of otherness.

So what have I learned in starting to think with Boyden and Kinew?

In my “environmental political theory” course this semester, one of the themes that has emerged through readings and class discussions, has been the question of sacrifice, and whether the demand for sacrifice (e.g. “consume less”) is an effective strategy for environmentalists. The premise of The Breakthrough Institute is that such a strategy has been environmentalism’s downfall (we read “The Death of Environmentalism” earlier in the semester), and that environmentalists need to focus on more “positive” messages. And just this week we read an article by Kate Soper on the promise of “alternative hedonism.” For Soper, “alternative hedonism” (pleasurable but environmentally sustainable forms of consumption) emerges through the contradictions that make traditional (Western, consumerist) conceptions of the good life “site[s] of problematic pleasure.” Having your own car seems great, until you are stuck in traffic, or working overtime to pay for gas, parking, insurance, repairs, etc. Then alternative forms of “the good life” (still framed in terms of “pleasure”) might seem more attractive.

While the strategic benefits of appealing to things that people already (think they) know that they want are obvious, it is important to register what is lost in not challenging the authenticity or depth or truth of felt needs and desires. We live in an era in which the planet is being profoundly reshaped by human activity, in which genetic engineering technologies and ideas of “neuroplasticity” are emptying “human nature” of any concrete content. And yet we seem to be unwilling to ask the now-urgent questions about whether the kinds of desires that we have – particularly for more and more stuff – are really the ones that we should want.

Is it possible to desire different desires? Thanks to Joseph Boyden and Wab Kinew, our eyes are opened to a world in which “honour” and “dignity” are more important than the satisfaction of bodily desires or even bodily integrity. A world where “suffering is key to achieving something meaningful” (Kinew). A world in which three-dimensional, human characters live lives that are meaningful yet utterly devoid of the trappings that many of us think give our lives meaning.

Asking if our desires are the right ones ultimately means asking ourselves: what kinds of beings do we want to be? More than just how should I live, the reach of our technologies means that it is a question that has to be answered collectively, across cultures, across space, and over time – a world in which (to cite the closing words of the novel) “the past and the future are present.”