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«A More Perfect Commodity: Bottled Water, Global Accumulation, and Local Contestation Daniel Jaffee Department of Sociology *Washington State ...»

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Fourth, by acting to further public disinvestment and increase public distrust in tap water, bottled water literally builds its own market. According to Gleick (2010:176), “the bottled water industry is successfully capitalizing on, and profiting from, the decay of our comprehensive safe drinking water systems, or, in the poorer countries of the world, their complete absence.” Similarly, in the agrifood realm, genetic drift of patent-protected germplasm advances commodification by contaminating local crop varieties and undermining the long-standing efforts of seed savers, family and organic farmers, and public university plant breeders.

Finally, while the extraction of spring water for bottling is clearly an instance of primitive accumulation, the bottling of already-treated municipal tap water (altered merely with further filtration and mineral A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 23 additives) represents a strange paradox. It constitutes a particularly extreme example of accumulation by dispossession, a process that Harvey (2003:148) describes as involving “cannibalistic, as well as predatory, practices.” By piggybacking on public water systems in this manner, bottled water parasitizes the public investment in clean tap water by serving up the very same substance for hundreds of times the cost, while the industry simultaneously “actively delegitimizes public water” (Parag and Roberts 2009:633). The bottled water industry’s expansion also serves to render those tap water sources—unless subjected to its own “hypertechnological intervention”—less dependable, less available, and less fit to drink (Szasz 2007). This is a neat trick, but one with quite serious implications for society and democracy.

These examples illustrate that compared with municipal water supply systems, bottled water constitutes a “more perfect commodity” for capital accumulation.7 One manifestation of this contrast is the rapid expansion of the bottled water industry globally (Rodwan 2011), as opposed to the far more problematic growth in private management of municipal tap water systems, characterized by high rates of failed privatizations and a trend of remunicipalization in both South and North (Bakker 2010;

Bond 2005; Dilworth 2007; Esterl 2006).

Concluding Observations As Harvey (2003) observes, the process of accumulation by dispossession is continuous, with capital constantly seeking new terrains into which to expand. We have contended here that some forms of the commodification of nature are more amenable to capital accumulation than others, and that both technological and political-economic developments are key to the transformations that enable such shifts. The case of bottled water clearly illustrates these key contentions. Bottled water currently represents the cutting edge of water commodification, and its extraction and manufacture involve processes of accumulation by dispossession that are more extreme, far-reaching, and long lasting than those at work in the privatization of tap water.

In this article, we make two principal arguments. First, bottled water requires a reconsideration of the dominant ways in which scholars have so far conceptualized the privatization and commodification of water.

Bottled water represents a more perfect commodity for capital accumuOther authors have engaged the notion of perfection with regard to commodities in the agrifood realm. DuPuis’s (2002) exploration of the rise of consumption of cow’s milk in the United States centers on milk’s relatively recent social construction as the “perfect food” and a natural part of human diets.

24 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013 lation, because of several intrinsic and extrinsic characteristics. It differs in important ways from municipal tap water systems—including its lower sunk costs and investment requirements, its greater price elasticity, and its defiance of water’s locality—and these differences enable bottled water to escape many of the obstacles to accumulation posed by private operation of the massive piped water treatment and supply networks originally built by governments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, without the political-economic and cultural developments that have facilitated bottled water’s rapid rise—lifestyle shifts driving demands for convenience, neoliberal economic globalization and deregulation permitting the expansion of transnational firms, and weakened states increasingly incapable of defending public goods—it would likely not be nearly as ubiquitous today. These points obligate us to consider how the process of commodification unfolds differently in distinct contexts, and what kinds of developments permit capital to surmount structural barriers or limits to accumulation, as well as how social movements might most effectively respond to such developments.

They also raise questions about the implications of a broad societal move toward such individualized, market-based approaches to meeting human needs.

Second, there is an important, even synergistic, relationship between expansion of the private commodity of bottled water and the deterioration of public tap water systems. The fates of these two modes of water provision are closely linked. “A new conflict has been created,” writes Opel (1999:75), “between a previous public project to create better water and a new corporate product that claims greater purity through patented processes.” Yet beyond simply exploiting public fears in order to increase sales, the industry’s actions help to create a zero-sum game.

While the majority of northern citizen-consumers presently drink both private and public water, their choice to do the former contributes to the weakening of the latter, and of public goods and public life more broadly.

Similarly, on a global level, disinvestment or underinvestment in safe public drinking water supply renders water more amenable to commodication by the bottling industry, but less accessible to the majority of humanity, to whom it is essential for life. The inverse applies as well. “If everyone on the planet had access to affordable safe tap water,” argues Gleick (2010:175), “bottled water use would be seen as unnecessary.” The local and supralocal movements opposing bottled water siting and consumption—such as the two communities profiled above— exemplify Polanyian countermovements in the challenges and obstacles they pose to expansion of the fictitious commodity of water. While A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 25 Polanyi likely would not have foreseen the conversion of water into a mass-market commodity via bottling, his incisive arguments for the rolling back of market power in relation to fictitious commodities clearly apply to this context. Several observers have employed the concept of “decommodification” to characterize these challenges, expanding on Esping-Andersen’s original use of the term as a response to the commodification of labor power (Bond 2005; Laxer and Soron 2006; Vail 2010).8 Kloppenburg (2010) adopts the term repossession to describe such movements, emphasizing their opposition to the dynamics of accumulation by dispossession.

In closing, we find it valuable to take a view of this issue that acknowledges the profound ecological and social-justice costs of bottled water’s continued worldwide growth. Given the enormous energy expenditures, carbon emissions, and pollution problems generated by the production and disposal of hundreds of billions of single-use plastic bottles annually—when a far lower impact alternative (the tap) is readily available in many cases—few other commodities illustrate the notion of unsustainability quite so dramatically. Considering that the continued growth of this commodity threatens the provision of universal safe public drinking water, a compelling case could be made for greatly restricting its production and sale, except in natural disasters and emergencies or in settings where clean tap water is unavailable.

By contesting the bottling of local water by transnational firms and by advocating for policy and cultural change to take back the tap, communities and activists involved in the bottled water issue in both North and South are acting on the terrain of decommodification and repossession in efforts to raise barriers to capital accumulation. In doing so, they are complicating prevailing understandings of privatization, and rendering the fictitious, yet quite real, commodity of bottled water somewhat less perfect.


Ahlers, Rhodante. 2010. “Fixing and Nixing: The Politics of Water Privatization.” Review of Radical Political Economics 42(2):213–30.

Bakker, Karen. 2005. “Neoliberalizing Nature? Market Environmentalism in Water Supply in England and Wales.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 95(3):542–65.

———. 2010. Privatizing Water: Governance Failure and the World’s Urban Water Crisis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Ball, Deborah. 2010. “Bottled Water Pits Nestlé vs. Greens.” Wall Street Journal, May 25.

Retrieved July 27, 2010 (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405274870441 4504575243921712969144.html).

8 Vail (2010:313) defines decommodification as “any political, social, or cultural process that reduces the scope and influence of the market in everyday life.” 26 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013 Barlow, Maude. 2007. Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. New York: New Press.

Barlow, Maude and Tony Clarke. 2002. Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water. New York: New Press.

Beverage Marketing Corporation. 2010. “Bottled Water Confronts Persistent Challenges, New Report From Beverage Marketing Corporation Shows.” Retrieved August 30, 2011 (http://www.beveragemarketing.com/?section=pressreleases).

Bond, Patrick. 2005. “Globalisation/Commodification or Deglobalisation/ Decommodification in Urban South Africa.” Policy Studies 26(3–4):337–58.

Boreal Water News. 2010. “Global Bottled Water Market to Reach $65.9 Billion by 2012, According to a New Report by Global Industry Analysts, Inc.” Boreal Water News.

Retrieved August 30, 2011 (http://www.borealwater.com/boreal_water_news/2010/ 06/global-bottled-water-market-to.php?var=news).

Castree, Noel. 2008. “Neoliberalising Nature: Processes, Effects, and Evaluations.” Environment and Planning A 40:153–73.

Castro, José Esteban. 2007. “Poverty and Citizenship: Sociological Perspectives on Water Services and Public-Private Participation.” Geoforum 38:756–71.

———. 2008. “Water Struggles, Citizenship and Governance in Latin America.” Development 51:72–76.

Clarke, Tony. 2007. Inside the Bottle: An Exposé of the Bottled Water Industry. Rev. ed. Toronto, ON: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Conca, Ken. 2008. “The United States and International Water Policy.” Journal of Environment and Development 17(3):215–37.

Conlin, Michelle. 2008a. “A Community Goes Up—and Wins a Round—against Nestle.” Business Week, May 28. Retrieved July 27, 2010 (http://www.businessweek.com/ careers/managementiq/archives/2008/05/a_community_goe_1.html).

———. 2008b. “A Town Torn Apart by Nestlé.” Business Week, April 16. Retrieved July 27, 2010 (http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2008-04-15/a-town-torn-apart-by-nestl).

Correll, DeeDee. 2009. “Nestlé Wins Approval to Tap Colorado Ground Water.” Los Angeles Times, August 20. Retrieved July 29, 2010 (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/ greenspace/2009/08/nestle-wins-approval-to-tap-colorado-ground-water-.html).

Dilworth, Richardson. 2007. “Privatization, the World Water Crisis, and the Social Contract.” PS, Political Science and Politics 40(1):49–54.

Driessen, Travis. 2008. “Collective Management Strategies and Elite Resistance in Cochabamba, Bolivia.” Development 51(1):89–95.

DuPuis, Melanie. 2002. Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink. New York: New York University Press.

Environmental Working Group. 2008. “Bottled Water Quality Investigation: 10 Major Brands, 38 Pollutants.” Environmental Working Group, Washington, DC.

Esterl, Mike. 2006. “Dry Hole: Great Expectations for Private Water Fail to Pan Out.” Wall Street Journal, June 26. Retrieved July 29, 2010 (http://online.wsj.com/article/ SB115128641717890452.html).

Food and Water Watch. 2008. “Faulty Pipes: Why Public Funding—Not Privatization—Is the Answer for U.S. Water Systems.” Food and Water Watch, Washington, DC.

———. 2010a. “Bottling Our Cities’ Tap Water: Share of Bottled Water from Municipal Supplies Up 50 Percent.” Food and Water Watch, Washington, DC.

———. 2010b. “Trends in Water Privatization: The Post-Recession Economy and the Fight for Public Water in the United States.” Food and Water Watch, Washington, DC.

Gentile, Annie. 2008. “Mayors Push Benefits of Cities’ Tap Water.” American City and County 123(9):18–20.

Girard, Richard. 2009. “Bottled Water Industry Targets a New Market: The Global South.” AlterNet, June 15. Retrieved September 1, 2011 (http://www.alternet.org/story/ 140671/).

Girard, Richard and Erika Shaker. 2008. “Bottled Up or Tapped Out: Where Have all the Water Fountains Gone?” Academic Matters: The Journal of Higher Education (November).

A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 27 Retrieved November 23, 2011 (http://www.academicmatters.ca/2008/11/bottled-upor-tapped-out-where-have-all-the-water-fountains-gone/).

Glassman, Jim. 2006. “Primitive Accumulation, Accumulation by Dispossession, Accumulation by ‘Extra-Economic’ Means.” Progress in Human Geography 30(5):608–625.

Gleick, Peter H. 2010. Bottled and Sold: The Story behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water.

Washington, DC: Island Press.

Gleick, Peter H. and H. S. Cooley. 2009. “Energy Implications of Bottled Water.” Environmental Research Letters 4(1). DOI: 10.1088/1748–9326/4/1/014009.

Gleick, Peter H., Heather Cooley, David Katz, and Emily Lee. 2007. The World’s Water, 2006–2007: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Goldman, Michael. 2005. Imperial Nature: The World Bank and Struggles for Social Justice in the Age of Globalization. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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