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On the surface, water bottles as totems of consumer aspiration sound absurd: If you have access to water, you can drink it out of so many things that already exist in your home. But if you dig a little deeper, you find that these bottles sit at a crossroads of cultural and economic forces that shape Americans’ lives far beyond beverage choices. If you can understand why so many people would spend 50 bucks on a water bottle, then you can understand a lot about America in 2019.
The first time I coveted a water bottle was in 2004. When I arrived as a freshman at the University of Georgia, I found that I was somehow the last person alive who didn’t own a Nalgene. The brand’s distinctive, lightweight plastic bottles had long been a cult-favorite camping accessory, but in the mid-2000s, they exploded in popularity beyond just outdoorsmen. A version with the school’s logo on it cost $16 in the bookstore, which was a little steep for me, an unemployed 18-year-old, but I bought one anyway. I wanted to be the kind of person all my new peers apparently were. Plus, it’s hot in Georgia. A nice water bottle seemed like a justifiable extravagance.
Around the same time, I remember noticing the first flares of another trend intimately related to the marketability of water bottles: athleisure. All around me, stylish young women wore colorful Nike running shorts and carried bright plastic Nalgenes to class. “With millennials, fitness and health are themselves signals,” says Tülin Erdem, a marketing professor at New York University. “They drink more water and carry it with them, so it’s an item that becomes part of them and their self-expression.”
Now, across Instagram, you can find high-end water bottles lurking around the edges of stylized gym photos posted by exercisers and fitness instructors. Usually, these people aren’t being rewarded for the placement by anything but likes. Sarah Kauss, S’well’s founder and CEO, says people have been photographing her water bottles since the company began in 2010. “I’d receive hundreds of pictures a week from customers,” she says. “I wasn’t giving them anything for it. There wasn’t a free bottle or a coupon code or anything other than customers just wanting to show their own experience.”
Kauss says she always knew the bottle’s appearance would be important, even though positioning something as simple as a water bottle as a luxury product was a bit of a gamble. “As I moved up in my career, I was upgrading my wardrobe, and the bottle that looked like a camping accessory really didn’t serve my purpose anymore,” she says. When she noticed fashionable New Yorkers were carrying upscale disposable plastic bottles from brands like Evian and Fiji, she realized reusable bottles could use a makeover, too
Kauss and her contemporaries struck at the right time. The importance of fitness and wellness were starting to gain a foothold in fashionable crowds, and concerns over consumer waste and plastic’s potential to leach chemicals into food and water were gaining wider attention. People wanted cute workout gear, and they wanted to drink water out of materials other than plastic. Researchers have found that the chance to be conspicuously sustainability-conscious motivates consumers, especially when the product being purchased costs more than its less-green counterparts.