Few things are more American than Coca-Cola. ... But bottled water is washing away the palate trained to drain a bubbly soda. By the end of this decade, if not sooner, sales of bottled water are expected to surpass those of carbonated soft drinks, according to Michael C. Bellas, chief executive of the Beverage Marketing Corporation. ... “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Mr. Bellas, who has watched water’s rise in the industry since the 1980s. ... Sales of water in standard lightweight plastic bottles grew at a rate of more than 20 percent every quarter from 1993 to 2005, he said. The growth has continued since, but now it has settled into percentages within the high single digits. ... If the estimated drinking of water from the household tap is included, water consumption began exceeding that of soda in the mid-2000s.
Right now, the global bottled water industry is in one of those strange and energetic boom phases where every week, it seems, a new product finds its way on to the shelves. Not just another bland still or sparkling, but some entirely new definition of the element. It is a case of capitalism at its most hyperactive and brazenly inventive: take a freely available substance, dress it up in countless different costumes and then sell it as something new and capable of transforming body, mind, soul. Water is no longer simply water – it has become a commercial blank slate, a word on to which any possible ingredient or fantastical, life-enhancing promise can be attached. ... The global market was valued at $157bn in 2013, and is expected to reach $280bn by 2020. Last year, in the UK alone, consumption of water drinks grew by 8.2%, equating to a retail value of more than £2.5bn. Sales of water are 100 times higher than in 1980. Of water: a substance that, in developed countries, can be drunk for free from a tap without fear of contracting cholera. What is going on? ... There now seems to be no limit on what a water can be, or what consumers are willing to buy. It is no longer enough for water to simply be water: it must have special powers. ... At some point, surely, we will reach “peak” water. Perhaps it will be the moment consumers lose faith in the cellulite-eradicating powers of Buddha water or wonder if it’s really worth paying over the odds for birch sap.