Global Accumulation, and Local Contestation

A More Perfect Commodity: Bottled Water, Global
Accumulation, and Local Contestation
Daniel Jaffee
Department of Sociology
Portland State University
Soren Newman
School of the Environment
Washington State University
Abstract Bottled water sits at the intersection of debates regarding the
social and environmental effects of the commodification of nature and the
ways neoliberal globalization alters the provision of public services. Utilizing
Polanyi’s concept of fictitious commodities and Harvey’s work on accumulation by dispossession, this article traces bottled water’s transformation from
elite niche item to a product consumed by three fourths of U.S. households.
Drawing on ethnographic research with participants in two cases of proposed
spring water extraction from rural communities by industry leader Nestlé
Waters, we make two principal arguments. First, the case of bottled water
necessitates a reevaluation of existing theoretical frameworks regarding water
privatization and commodification. Municipal tap water networks pose substantial barriers to capital accumulation, leading one influential scholar to
frame water as an “uncooperative commodity.” However, bottled water’s characteristics enable it to evade many of these constraints, rendering it a “more
perfect commodity” for accumulation. Second, expansion of the market good
of bottled water alters the prospects for the largely publicly provided good of
tap water. We conclude that the growth of this relatively new commodity
represents a more serious threat to the project of universal public drinking
water provision than that posed by tap water privatization.
The biggest enemy is tap water.
—Robert S. Morrison, chairman, PepsiCo North American Beverage
and Food Division
When we’re done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing
—Susan Wellington, president, Quaker Oats U.S. Beverage Division
Thirty years ago, the prospect of a large segment of the population
shunning tap water and families spending hundreds of dollars or more
annually on bottled water would have struck most people as ludicrous.
Yet today, bottled water is second only to soft drinks as the world’s
Rural Sociology 78(1), 2013, pp. 1–28
DOI: 10.1111/j.1549-0831.2012.00095.x
Copyright © 2012, by the Rural Sociological Society
most-consumed beverage, surpassing 56 billion gallons in 2010. U.S.
consumers collectively guzzled 8.7 billion gallons, or 28 gallons per
capita, below Italy at 49 gallons and Mexico at 64 gallons (Rodwan 2011).
Much of that growth has come at the expense of the tap: Since 1980, per
capita consumption of tap water in the United States has fallen by 36
gallons (Gleick 2010). As the epigraphs above indicate, the bottled water
and beverage industries are engaged in a public relations battle against
municipal tap water, one that has proved strikingly effective.
The commodity of bottled water sits intriguingly at the intersection of
current debates regarding the appropriate boundary between the
private and public spheres (e.g., Laxer and Soron 2006); the ways neoliberal globalization has altered nation-states and the social compact
regarding provision of basic public services (e.g., Dilworth 2007;
McMichael 2011); the construction of identity through consumption
(e.g., Wilk 2006); and the social and ecological implications of the
commodification or “neoliberalization” of nature (e.g., Castree 2008).
The riddles posed by the meteoric rise of this commodity—for which
consumers pay thousands of times more per gallon than tap water (Environmental Working Group 2008) to consume a product that is less
regulated, can contain more toxic substances, and uses over 1,000 times
more energy (Gleick and Cooley 2009; Parag and Roberts 2009; Stephenson 2009), yet (at least in most of the global North) is largely unnecessary
for meeting physical need—presumably would be of great interest to
social scientists. Yet despite bottled water’s dramatic growth over the past
quarter century, its present ubiquity, and the not insignificant local
contestation it has generated, scholarly attention to this phenomenon
has been surprisingly sparse. This is true regarding not only its social,
political-economic, and environmental effects but also the ways that
bottled water parallels and diverges from the process of privatization and
commodification of municipal drinking water systems in the global
South and North. That latter phenomenon—the privatization of tap
water—has received far greater scrutiny, in particular the efforts by
transnational water corporations to open municipal public water systems
in the global South to private ownership and management, and the often
dramatic protests that have accompanied this phenomenon (e.g.,
Bakker 2010; Goldman 2005). Bottled water extraction, as we explain
below, represents a distinct (though related) set of processes, and the
industry is dominated by a different group of multinational firms.
Sociologists and other observers of such instances of privatization
have found utility in a range of analytical frameworks, among these
David Harvey’s prominent notion of “accumulation by dispossession,”
and have generated a substantial body of literature focusing on water as
2 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013
an exemplar (e.g., Ahlers 2010; Bakker 2005; Castro 2007; Goldman
2007; Roberts 2008; Spronk and Webber 2007; Swyngedouw 2005). Yet a
key issue remains undertheorized: the differential barriers to accumulation that are posed by distinct forms of what is ostensibly a single
resource. By extending this analysis to incorporate the complex relationship between bottled and municipal water, this article contributes to a
more nuanced debate regarding the manner in which commodification,
accumulation, and social contestation intersect.
In the following section, we chart key debates over the commodification and enclosure of nature, drawing parallels to scholarship on the
political economy of food systems regarding biotechnology. We briefly
synopsize the issues raised by the privatization of drinking water globally,
examining both the contestation it has engendered and the barriers it
has posed to capital accumulation. The third section focuses on bottled
water specifically, charting its meteoric rise from an elite niche product
to a $65 billion annual market. We trace the growing opposition to
bottled water extraction in the United States as well as the industry’s
changing strategies in response to this activism. The fourth section
examines these issues through ethnographic research on two specific
instances of local contestation over bottled water. A fifth section evaluates the ways that bottled water diverges conceptually from tap water, but
how the expansion of the former is intimately linked to the fortunes of
the latter.
We make two principal arguments in this article. First, we contend
that bottled water represents a challenge to the primary ways that scholars have so far conceptualized the privatization and commodification of
water. Specifically, bottled water does not present many of the barriers to
capital accumulation posed by tap water networks, in contrast with Bakker’s (2005) influential framing of water as an “uncooperative commodity.” Many observers confirm that the privatization of municipal (tap)
water systems around the world has encountered significant obstacles to
capital accumulation (Bakker 2005; Loftus 2009; Swyngedouw 2005).
However, bottled water’s material traits—as well as the technological and
political-economic transformations facilitating its dramatic growth
globally—have enabled it to evade many of these constraints, rendering
it a “more perfect commodity” for accumulation. Second, expansion of
the market good of bottled water alters the prospects for the largely
publicly provided good of tap water. Half of all bottled water sold in the
United States today is filtered municipal tap water (Food and Water
Watch 2010a), yet the bottled water industry contributes to the devalorization and deterioration of public drinking water systems in both the
global North and South, both directly and indirectly (Parag and Roberts
A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 3
2009). However, its rapid expansion has not gone unchallenged. In this
article, we draw on interviews with participants in two U.S. cases of
proposed spring water extraction from rural communities by the industry
leader Nestlé Waters to illuminate the tensions between differing conceptions regarding the nature and ownership of water. As the case studies
illustrate, the opposition generated by bottled water’s extraction and
consumption has raised the industry’s costs and helped to alter its accumulation strategies. Nonetheless, given the large proportion of the public
in both North and South that already relies on bottled water for at least
part of its drinking water supply, we conclude that the continued growth
of this commodity represents a tangible threat to the project of universal
safe public drinking water provision, one likely more serious than that
posed by the broader phenomenon of tap water privatization itself.
Water: Privatization, Commodification, and Resistance
Theoretical Perspectives on Commodification
In his foundational work The Great Transformation (1944), Karl Polanyi
identified what he termed the “fictitious commodities” of land, labor,
and money as central to the destructive tendencies of an unregulated
market economy. While genuine commodities are produced for sale in
the market,
Labor is only another name for a human activity which goes with
life itself, which in its turn is not produced for sale but for
entirely different reasons, nor can that activity be detached from
the rest of life, be stored or mobilized; land is only another
name for nature, which is not produced by man; actual money,
finally, is merely a token of purchasing power. . . . None of them
is produced for sale. The commodity description of labor, land,
and money is entirely fictitious. (72).
Polanyi wrote that nineteenth-century society had undergone a
“double movement” in which “the extension of the market organization
in respect to genuine commodities was accompanied by its restriction in
respect to fictitious ones” (76), through increased state regulation of
capital and the rise of labor movements and the welfare state. However,
neoliberal globalization has since removed or weakened many of these
safeguards, and stretched the fictitious commodities even further into
new areas such as knowledge, body parts, life forms, and genes (Kloppenburg 2004; Laxer and Soron 2006). The commodification of
water—an element of Polanyi’s land—likewise offers a provocative
modern case study of the perils of the commodity fiction.
4 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013
Some scholars (e.g., Roberts 2008) describe the conversion of water
and other public goods into marketable commodities as a form of primitive accumulation, drawing on Marx’s (1867) analysis stressing the historical process by which capitalism has separated producers from the
social means of subsistence and production (Glassman 2006). However,
the geographer David Harvey (2003) has usefully extended Marx’s
framework to emphasize the variants of these dynamics occurring in the
present day, coining the term “accumulation by dispossession.” This
phenomenon, Harvey argues, is a response by capital to a crisis of
overaccumulation—“a condition where surpluses of capital . . . lie idle
with no profitable outlets in sight” (149)—in which it must conquer new
terrains in order to retain or return to profitability. “What accumulation
by dispossession does,” writes Harvey (149), “is to release a set of assets
. . . at very low (and in some instances zero) cost. Overaccumulated
capital can seize hold of such assets and immediately turn them to
profitable use.”
At the heart of this phenomenon is the process of commodification—
the incorporation of formerly public, common-pool, or otherwise nonmarket goods, resources, and services into the market. Harvey describes
privatization as the “cutting edge” of accumulation by dispossession,
stressing the role played by the World Bank, IMF, and WTO in imposing
privatization of public goods, services, and property on southern debtor
nations under structural adjustment regimes, through conditions
attached to debt renegotiation (2003:148).
Several scholars have applied Harvey’s influential framework to water
and extended it, analyzing both the broad process of commodification
and specific instances of water privatization in various countries, as well
as the opposition they have engendered (e.g., Ahlers 2010). “Nature
itself has long resisted commodification,” argues Swyngedouw (2005:87),
“but in recent years, nature and its waters have become an increasingly
vital component in the relentless quest of capital for new sources of
accumulation. . . . [A] local/global choreography is forged that is predicated upon mobilizing local H2O, turning it into money, and inserting
this within transnational flows of circulating capital.” Thus, the privatization of drinking water can be understood as one facet of a much
broader, ongoing process of commodification of nature, linked to the
strategies of global capital firms to ensure continued accumulation.
Overcoming Barriers to Accumulation in Agrifood Systems
These core themes are also central to debates within the literature on the
political economy of agrifood systems regarding the nature of enclosures
A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 5
in agricultural production. This extensive literature traces its origins at
least to Mann and Dickinson’s (1978) examination of the persistence
of family agriculture in highly industrialized economies, which they
attribute to the incompatibility of some aspects of commodity production with the requirements of capital accumulation. More recently, this
scholarship has raised the question of which factors have enabled capital
to overcome structural obstacles to accumulation under neoliberalism,
centering in particular on the role played by genetic engineering and
seed biotechnology. Kloppenburg (2004) and others have persuasively
argued that seeds, because of their unique structural characteristics—
they are self-reproducing and can be saved—“have offered a particularly
large stumbling block to capital accumulation” (Mascarenhas and Busch
2006:125). Their dual structural character, as both the means of production and as grain, “is antagonistic to the complete assimilation of seed
(as opposed to grain) under the commodity form” (Kloppenburg
2010:370). However, genetic engineering (GE) has managed to overcome that barrier to enclosure in several major crops. According to
Pechlaner and Otero (2010:185), GE represents “the key technology
driving capital accumulation in the neoliberal food regime.” Of course,
while this technology is transformative, it has ultimately succeeded only
because of the broader political, institutional, and even discursive frameworks within which it is situated (see, e.g., Kinchy, Kleinman, and Autry
2008). This context includes intellectual property regimes in international trade and investment agreements that offer legal recognition of
patents on life and seed licenses, dramatic industry consolidation, and a
deregulatory agenda that in the United States ironically prohibits the
labeling of foods containing GE ingredients. These transformations in
the agrifood realm have also generated a diverse and growing set of
countermovements, which aim to resist or reverse such enclosures.
In this article, we draw parallels between these phenomena of enclosure and dispossession in the agrifood arena and similar dynamics occurring with regard to water. We focus in particular on the specific ways in
which drinking water has posed obstacles to accumulation, and how the
technological development of bottled water and its transformation into
a global commodity has managed to surmount these hurdles. We first
briefly review some of the key issues regarding the privatization of tap
water, before turning our focus to bottled water.
Privatizing the Tap
An estimated 40 percent of the world’s citizens do not have dependable
access to potable water supplies (Barlow 2007; Shiva 2008). In many
6 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013
cities of the global South, only upper-income residents are served by the
municipal piped water networks taken for granted in much of the North.
Middle- and lower-income neighborhoods often must rely on a mix of
informal sources, including water vendors and locally bottled water, for
which they pay many times more than their often wealthier neighbors
served by tap water (Bakker 2010). Due in part to this growing crisis of
access, water is increasingly viewed as “blue gold” (Barlow and Clarke
2002) and has come to represent a profitable commodity to be sold at
market rates to consumers.
A global water industry has for over 20 years focused on privatizing the
provision of municipal drinking water supplies in the global South, as
well as the North (Snitow, Kaufman, and Fox 2007). Two multinational
corporations, French-based Suez and Veolia, presently control 70
percent of a rapidly growing drinking water market worth over $400
billion (Barlow 2007). In 2011, private water firms supplied over 900
million people, up from 50 million in 1990 (Pinsent Masons 2011).
The privatization of public water services in the global South was
largely imposed, especially during the 1990s, through World Bank and
IMF loan conditions and structural adjustment programs requiring
states to open public utilities for sale, lease, or concession (Conca 2008;
Goldman 2005). Yet the result of two decades of private sector involvement, many observers concur, has been a failure by the market to meet
the stated goal of “water for all” in the global South (Castro 2008;
Kessides 2005; Prasad 2006; Swyngedouw 2005). Even the World Bank
has since acknowledged that privatization has generated social discontent but neither sufficient profits nor adequate numbers of new water
connections (World Bank 2005).
Public resistance to tap water privatization has often been quite
strong. The April 2000 “water war” in Cochabamba, Bolivia, which some
observers have characterized as an early victory against the neoliberal
model, is the subject of particular scholarly interest1 (e.g., Spronk and
Webber 2007), but major antiprivatization protests have also erupted in
Argentina, Uruguay, Tanzania, South Africa, and other nations (Bond
2005; Castro 2008; Vidal 2005). A clear deprivatization trend has
emerged, as both governments and firms terminate concession contracts
(Vidal 2006). Currently, argues Bakker (2010), there is a “stalemate” in
water privatization, with transnational firms retreating from long-term
1 After a World Bank–imposed, single-bidder concession to a local subsidiary of the
U.S.-based Bechtel Corporation led to large water rate hikes, residents of Cochabamba,
Bolivia, responded with mass protests that eventually forced company officials to flee the
country and cancel the contract (Driessen 2008; Spronk and Webber 2007).
A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 7
concessions in urban areas, but remaining involved in the management
of water and sewerage systems (Barlow 2007; Packaging Digest 2010).
The reasons for this stalemate have particular relevance to the contrast with bottled water we draw in the following sections. First, providing
universal tap water service is not sufficiently conducive to accumulation,
in part because of the need for extensive sunk costs in maintaining and
expanding water treatment and delivery networks (Loftus 2009).
Second, tap water has proved insufficiently price elastic to allow firms to
raise water rates high enough to deliver the profit levels they seek; doing
so often leads to mass disconnections for nonpayment or large-scale
social conflict (Swyngedouw 2005). Third, while antiprivatization protests have occurred only in a minority of cases, they have played a key
role in the cancellation of a number of privatization contracts (Bakker
2010; Lobina and Hall 2007).
Bakker argues that water’s geography, its sociocultural qualities, and
its nature as a flow resource render it an “uncooperative commodity”
(2005:559). Likewise, Snitow and colleagues (2007:197) write that
because water is “heavy, slippery, and expensive to transport, it resists
being made into a commodity.” That is, it does not cooperate sufficiently
well with capital to ensure sustained high levels of accumulation.
However, this useful framing encounters at least two significant limitations. First, it at least partly contradicts the arguments of Harvey and
others that water privatization is a prime example of accumulation by
dispossession, a disjuncture we revisit in the discussion section later in
the article. Second, it does not capture the ways that distinct forms of
water turn out to pose differential barriers to accumulation, as we discuss
The privatization of tap water in the United States illustrates many of
the same contradictions that apply in the global South. Although 86
percent of the U.S. population is served by publicly owned water utilities,
many fiscally strained local governments in the 1990s turned to private
firms as a way to maintain aging water delivery and sewerage systems
(Food and Water Watch 2008; Snitow et al. 2007). However, grassroots
social movements have succeeded in reversing private concessions in
several large cities, including New Orleans; Indianapolis; Atlanta; Stockton, California; and Laredo, Texas (Barlow 2007). Privatization failures
in these and several other cities led to a trend of remunicipalization over
the past decade, in which contracts were canceled either by firms or local
governments, and management reverted to the public sector (Esterl
2006; Food and Water Watch 2008; Snitow et al. 2007). However, the
current recession has caused a renewed surge of system privatizations
and sales (Food and Water Watch 2010b). Estimates for the 20-year cost
8 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013
of maintaining public drinking water and sewage systems in the United
States run as high as $1 trillion, yet public funding has fallen far short of
the need and continues to decline (Szasz 2007:200). These infrastructure backlogs have led to occasional high-profile instances of unsafe
water, contributing to a growing public distrust of tap water quality
(Parag and Roberts 2009). This phenomenon is closely linked to the
growth of bottled water.
Bottled Water
The dramatic surge in bottled water consumption has spawned a global
industry. The international bottled water market—expected to surpass
$65 billion in 2012 (Boreal Water News 2010)—is dominated by four
food and beverage giants: Nestlé, Danone, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi-Cola.
These firms are developing high-capacity bottling plants to extract
groundwater worldwide (Barlow 2007; Packaging Digest 2010; Rodwan
2011). The water itself can be global as well. According to Barlow, almost
25 percent of all bottled water crosses national borders, with firms often
taking “water from poor communities in the global South to sell to rich
markets in the global North” (2007:84). The large majority of bottled
water extracted in southern nations, however, is consumed locally.
Increasingly, the transnational bottled water firms are buying up local
companies and targeting middle- (and upper-) class consumers, while
the remaining local vendors, often unregulated, supply many poorer
residents with water of uncertain quality at far higher prices than their
wealthier neighbors pay for tap water (Girard 2009).
In the United States, the bottled water industry has consolidated
rapidly as demand has skyrocketed. Nestlé Waters is the undisputed
industry leader with a 35 percent share of the $15 billion annual market,
followed by Coca-Cola2 (Dasani) and Pepsi (Aquafina), each with 11
percent (Beverage Marketing Corporation 2010). A substantial portion
of the U.S. population now consumes this commodity. A 2003 Gallup
poll showed that 74 percent of Americans drink bottled water, with 20
percent consuming it “exclusively” (Szasz 2007:133). Prices for bottled
water are dramatically higher than for tap water, ranging from 240 to
10,000 times more per unit volume (Natural Resources Defense Council
1999). Half of the bottled water sold in the United States is simply
municipal tap water that has been treated or filtered (up from one third
in 2000), with the remainder extracted from natural springs or groundwater (Food and Water Watch 2010a). Coke’s Dasani and Pepsi’s Aqua2 Danone Group’s U.S. holdings were acquired by Coca-Cola in 2005, but the firm
remains a major player elsewhere (Clarke 2007).
A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 9
fina are drawn entirely from public tap water systems, while Nestlé sells
several brands from both municipal and spring sources.
The environmental impact of bottled water is also substantial. Its
production and distribution consume between 1,000 and 2,000 times
more energy per unit volume than local tap water, and U.S. bottled water
consumption requires the energy equivalent of between 32 and 54
million barrels of oil per year (Gleick and Cooley 2009). Bottled water’s
negative externalities also include the impact of the extraction itself on
springs and rivers, local ecosystems, agriculture, wells, and other water
Industry advertising campaigns subtly or overtly denigrating tap water
have played a key role in altering public perceptions and behavior. The
disappearance of water fountains in public places3 and the desire to
consume “on the go” have also hastened the move toward bottles (Girard
and Shaker 2008; Szasz 2007). The industry also promotes its product by
associating it with exercise and a healthy lifestyle, contributing to a
long-term shift away from the consumption of soft drinks, but also away
from tap water (Gleick 2010). The overall result has been the normalization of bottled water across society in a remarkably short time.
Given the social and cultural shifts tied to bottled water’s growth in
the past three decades, the paucity of scholarly attention to this phenomenon among sociologists is striking. Nonetheless, a few substantive contributions are worth noting. Sociologist Andrew Szasz describes bottled
water as the prime example of a phenomenon he terms “inverted quarantine”: the pursuit of individual solutions to perceived environmental
risk based on the consumption of safer products. Szasz argues that the
inverted quarantine response diminishes the intensity of public
demands for policy change because it produces a “false sense of security,
undercutting political support for reform” (2007:202). The growth of
bottled water not only feeds a generalized weakening of public policy
responses but also contributes to additional decline in public water
infrastructure. Parag and Roberts (2009) contend that this decline
imperils tap water quality and further accelerates the shift toward the
private solution of bottled water, at least for those able to afford it. John
Vail, in a broader discussion of the effects of commodification on society,
argues that
when people opt for private services, they often prove less
willing to fund public goods, the quality of public services subsequently worsens, thereby weakening the very rationale for
3 Girard and Shaker (2008: n.p.) attribute the decline and deterioration of public water
fountains in Canada to a combination of “profit, underfunding, and ideology.”
10 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013
these goods and creating a vicious spiral of decline that grievously corrodes the public’s trust of government services and
damages the very possibility of cultivating a shared sense of
community upon which a democratic citizenship is founded.
Thus the societal implications of this commodity extend beyond water to
the broader questions of the market’s steady incursion into the public
sphere and its implications for democracy.
Movements against Bottled Water
The dramatic growth of this commodity has not gone unchallenged. An
increasingly effective social movement against bottled water has developed in the past decade, particularly in North America and Europe. This
movement has taken two principal forms: on one hand, campaigns to
“take back the tap” by persuading consumers to eschew bottled water
and pressuring public institutions and local governments to stop buying
it; and on the other hand, local opposition to specific instances of
spring water extraction by the industry. “These efforts,” writes Gleick
(2010:145), “are squeezing the industry at two ends: putting pressure on
demand, and drying up supply.”
A number of cities have recently passed laws prohibiting municipal
purchases of bottled water, sometimes linked with commitments to reinvest in public infrastructure such as drinking fountains (VelasquezManoff 2009).4 These cities and others have also launched advertising
and public relations campaigns to revalorize tap water, promoting the
quality of public water supplies and distributing refillable bottles to
residents (Gentile 2008). Several university campuses have banned sales
of bottled water in the wake of student campaigns, and some restaurateurs have ceased offering it to customers. Many of these efforts have
received support from a network of national and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), most prominent among them Corporate Accountability International, Food and Water Watch, and the
Polaris Institute. Increased media coverage of the negative environmental effects of bottled water has also contributed to shifting public
The other arena involves contestation over the extraction of spring
water. In the United States, Nestlé’s efforts to meet increasing demand,
by siting new high-capacity wells and bottling plants and expanding
4 These cities include San Francisco, New York, St. Louis, Vancouver, Toronto, and
A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 11
others, have been the focus of protracted grassroots opposition (Barlow
2007; Clarke 2007; Velasquez-Manoff 2009). In these areas, residents and
environmental groups have raised concerns about issues including the
depletion of local groundwater supplies, harm to local fisheries, and the
minimal compensation paid to local communities or governments relative to the high water volumes extracted (Snitow et al. 2007). In many of
these cases, Nestlé has acquired legal rights or title to the water or land
and actively courted local officials, often prior to making its plans public
(Hall 2009; Snitow et al. 2007). Bottled water extraction has also been a
flash point for local activism in the global South, with major conflicts
erupting in Pakistan (Nestlé), Indonesia (Danone and Coca-Cola), India
(Coca-Cola), and Mexico (Coca-Cola) (Barlow 2007; Raman 2010).
The net effect of these various movements has been to contribute to
shifts both in public attitudes toward bottled water and in the fortunes of
the industry. In 2008 and 2009, the global market for bottled water
shrank for the first time ever, a reversal due in part to the global
recession but also to push-back from opposition movements (Packaging
Digest 2010).
The bottled water industry has responded to the growing controversy
in several ways. It has waged an aggressive public relations campaign to
oppose “take back the tap” efforts (Gleick 2010). Nestlé has changed its
commercial strategies, increasingly moving away from outright acquisition of land and water rights toward extracting spring water as the
customer of local public water utilities, but with long-term contractual
access rights—a strategy employed in the case studies we profile in the
following section. The firm is also shifting from establishing new spring
water extraction sites toward the (so far) less conflictive practice of
drawing from municipal sources, as its main competitors Coke and Pepsi
do exclusively (Food and Water Watch 2010a). While spring water by
federal law must be bottled with little or no alteration and is marketed
for its allegedly “pristine” qualities, bottled tap water is typically filtered
and supplemented with minerals, and often marketed with reference to
the “hypertechnological intervention” involved (Szasz 2007:123–24).
The rapid growth of Nestlé’s municipally sourced Pure Life brand indicates that many consumers do not find drinking filtered tap water objectionable or problematic, yet it also raises intriguing questions. What are
the implications of a major increase in extraction from public tap
systems by the very actors who are simultaneously waging an all-out
campaign to persuade consumers that tap water is unsafe to drink?
In regard to the broader issues raised in this section, the extraction of
water by beverage firms—depending on the property rights regime
involved—can be conceptualized as ranging from privatization to
12 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013
“merely” commodification. Yet in all of the contexts mentioned above,
we argue, it does constitute accumulation by dispossession. Moreover,
bottled water merits particular attention because it is not hindered by
many of the obligations and tethers for capital that have limited the
commodification of tap water globally. Nevertheless, the paucity of
empirical case study research examining how bottled water commodification unfolds and is contested in specific locations—particularly within
the United States—is noteworthy. Existing scholarly analyses have either
placed bottled water as a minor coda to discussions of tap water privatization or conflated the two processes, overlooking the fundamental
distinctions we have outlined above. In the following section, we
examine two instances of conflict over proposed bottled water extraction
by the world’s largest agrifood firm, Nestlé. These cases serve to illuminate our principal contention that bottled water has posed lower barriers
to commodification than municipal supplies, and they illustrate capital’s
shifting accumulation strategies regarding both forms of water.
Contesting Bottled Water Extraction in the North: Local Conflicts,
Global Implications
In this section we examine two case studies of contestation over bottled
water extraction: McCloud, California, situated at the foot of Mount
Shasta in the state’s far north, and Cascade Locks, Oregon, located in
the Columbia River gorge 40 miles east of Portland. Both are economically distressed former mill towns that have recently been riven by proposals by Nestlé Waters to tap local springs and establish high-capacity
water bottling plants for its Arrowhead spring water brand. Nestlé
Waters is the largest and most profitable bottled water firm and the
biggest supplier of spring water, with North American profits of $4.2
billion in 2009. It owns 15 water brands and operates 50 spring water
extraction sites in 15 U.S. states (Ball 2010; Correll 2009). As two of the
most recent proposals by Nestlé to establish new bottling facilities,5
these cases are broadly representative of the conflicts that have arisen
over bottled water extraction elsewhere in the United States; they illustrate major trends within the industry as well as the tactical and strategic approaches of the organizations opposing it (Clarke 2007; Snitow
et al. 2007).
5 In 2009, Colorado officials approved a controversial proposal by Nestlé to build a
facility in Chaffee County to extract 65 million gallons of groundwater annually (Correll
A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 13
McCloud, California
An unincorporated hamlet of just over 1,200 residents, McCloud was
long a company town owned by the local lumber mill. The timber
industry faded in the 1990s, and the mill closed entirely in 2002, pushing
the town’s unemployment rate to over 20 percent. In September 2003,
officials of the McCloud Community Services District (MCSD) voted to
approve a contract with Nestlé that had been negotiated in secret, with
no public input. The contract would have allowed the firm to build the
nation’s largest water bottling plant, giving it access to 520 million
gallons of water from local springs annually for 99 years as a customer of
the services district. Although Nestlé would have paid the district only
$0.00008 per gallon (one cent for each 123 gallons of water), far below
industry norms, the contract would have generated $350,000 annually
for MCSD, whose total revenues were close to $1 million (Conlin 2008b).
After several legal challenges, Nestlé was obligated to prepare an
environmental impact report required by California law, which slowed
approval significantly. In the meantime, local opposition became organized. Several local residents formed the McCloud Watershed Council
(MWC), which worked in coalition with angler groups Trout Unlimited
and California Trout, and later collaborated separately with Food and
Water Watch.
When Nestlé announced in 2008 that it would dramatically reduce the
size of the proposed plant, Business Week described the case as a “cautionary tale for any company. [Formerly], multinationals could arrive in
economically depressed communities and pretty much have their way.
But in the age of hyper-connectedness, residents in McCloud were able
to turn their issue into an international sensation. Now Nestlé has capitulated” (Conlin 2008a). Then in September 2009, Nestlé rescinded its
McCloud proposal entirely, saying it no longer had a need for the site.
Only a few months earlier, the firm had reached agreement with city
officials in Sacramento, California, to build a large plant there to bottle
municipal water, which began operation in 2010.
Cascade Locks, Oregon
As Nestlé was beginning its withdrawal from McCloud in 2008, the firm
announced a proposal for another bottling plant in Cascade Locks,
Oregon, a village of 1,100 located on Interstate 84 along the Columbia
River. With a projected extraction of less than 200 million gallons per
year, this plant would be considerably smaller than that proposed for
McCloud, although other aspects of the deal were similar, such as giving
Nestlé a long-term (50-year) guarantee to spring flows. Cascade Locks
14 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013
officials are eagerly supporting a complex water-swap proposal that
would give Nestlé access to spring water currently used by a state fish
hatchery, in exchange for providing higher volumes of city-owned well
water to the hatchery. According to company and city officials, Nestlé
would pay one fifth of a cent per gallon as a customer of the municipal
water utility, generating about $350,000 annually for Cascade Locks, plus
another $150,000 in taxes—a sum roughly triple the town’s total current
property tax revenues. The company promises that the plant will generate 48 full-time, living-wage jobs in this economically depressed community, a contention challenged by opponents (Ball 2010).
In contrast to McCloud, little public opposition has emerged within
Cascade Locks to the proposal. However, a coalition of NGOs formed
to challenge Nestlé’s plans at the state level, including the Sierra Club
and Food and Water Watch. While the state Department of Fish and
Wildlife supports the proposal, opponents are mobilizing public opposition in an effort to defeat the water swap. As of this writing, no decision has been taken, and Nestlé—perhaps learning from its lessons in
McCloud—to date has not committed in writing to build the proposed
bottling plant.
Data and Research Methods
The data on which the analysis in this section is based are principally
drawn from ethnographic field research. Between March 2010 and June
2011, we conducted semistructured interviews with a range of participants involved in the controversies over bottled water in McCloud and
Cascade Locks. These included community residents; local and state
officials; staff and volunteers with local, regional, and national NGOs
and advocacy groups; and a Nestlé representative involved in negotiating
both proposed bottling plants. We conducted 29 interviews with 28
participants (one was interviewed twice), two by telephone and 27 in
person. Of these respondents, four represented organizations involved
in both case study sites; eight were community residents or representatives of organizations involved in the McCloud case; and 16 were community residents, elected officials, or organizational representatives
involved in the Cascade Locks case. Table 1 depicts the distribution of
interview respondents by organization and by community. The interviews lasted between 45 minutes and two hours and were audio
recorded. We initially assembled a core list of respondents from a small
number of key informants; once interviews had begun, we expanded the
list through snowball sampling. Our aim was to construct a sample
broadly representative of the range of participants and opinions involved
A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 15
Table 1. Key Organizations and Respondents in Bottled Water Case Studies.
Organization or Group of
Respondents Headquarters/Location Scope of Operations Type of Organization Case Study Site(s)
Number of
Nestlé Waters North
America (Nestlé S.A.)
Stamford, CT (Vevey,
U.S., Canada (global) For-profit corporation McCloud, Cascade
Food and Water Watch Washington, DC International Nonprofit McCloud, Cascade
California Trout San Francisco Statewide (CA) Nonprofit McCloud 1
McCloud Watershed
McCloud, CA Local Nonprofit, grassroots McCloud 2
Sierra Club Washington, DC National, regional Nonprofit McCloud, Cascade
Alliance for Democracy Waltham, MA National, local Nonprofit Cascade Locks 1
Community residents
— — — Cascade Locks 12
Community residents
— — — McCloud 4
Public officials — — — Cascade Locks 3
Public officials — — — McCloud 1
Total 28
Dash indicates not applicable.
16 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013
in each site. While in this article we quote only from a subset of the
interviews with the aim of representing the key actors and major issues,
the remainder of the interview data strongly informs the broader analysis. These interviews were supplemented with observation at public meetings and other events.
Local Contestation: Key Dimensions
In our interviews, several common foci emerged that help to illuminate
the broader conceptual and theoretical issues involved in the commodification of water. These recurring topics include divergent local
framings of water’s significance, perceptions of ownership and control
(or the lack thereof) over water, the relationship between local
instances of water extraction and broader issues of privatization, and
tactical or strategic choices made by opponents and assessments of the
outcomes and future prospects of these struggles. Each of these themes
illuminates distinct facets of the earlier theoretical discussion, as we
describe below.
First, residents of McCloud and Cascade Locks and Nestlé staff vocalized a range of distinct understandings of the nature of local water, its
relation to economic well-being, and the appropriateness of commodifying it. These concerns speak to the question of water’s uniqueness and
whether or not its transfer from the public sphere to the market constitutes accumulation by dispossession. “This is the only thing the service
district has to sell,” said a McCloud resident who strongly supported
Nestlé’s proposal: “We have water—pure, simply, end of the story, water.
That’s all we have to sell, other than what you get from me every month
[in taxes]. And you have no sales tax [receipts] here, because we’re not
incorporated. And so we have water. . . . So we thought, ‘gee, who could
complain about a clean industry, a water bottling plant?’ ” Other residents of both communities similarly expressed bafflement over their
neighbors’ and NGOs’ opposition to the siting of what they perceived as
a job-creating industry like any other. The company’s rhetorical
approach echoes this framing of water as merely another commodity.
“It’s unfortunate that these organizations are taking a stance of banning
bottled water,” argued the Nestlé representative active in both the
McCloud and Cascade Locks proposals:
Our company has taken the position that people should drink
more water, whether it’s bottled or tap water. We think the
consumer should have a choice out in the marketplace when
they’re looking for a beverage. We are not in competition with
tap water. . . . There’s an epidemic of diabetes and obesity in this
A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 17
country and if bottled water disappeared today, people would
not be turning to tap water.
On the other hand, a staff member of California Trout who was actively
involved in the anti-Nestlé coalition focused on the polarized politics
that have often pitted greens against resource-dependent communities:
This is a town that was booming in the timber industry days, and
then from their perspective, environmentalists said, “Oh we’re
going to run out of trees.” And the timber industry collapsed.
. . . So now, we’re never going to run out of water, there’s
glaciers on the mountain for heaven’s sake; water just bursts up
out of the ground all over the place. But environmentalists came
in and said, “Oh we’re going to run out of water.” . . . And that’s
how they look at it; the environmentalists are trying to take their
water. Why would they give it to the environmentalists for free
when they could sell it to Nestlé for nothing?
Second, many residents and activists also spoke passionately about the
issue of local control over water resources, and the perceived threats to
such control. These concerns speak to the question of the nature of the
enclosure entailed by bottling local springs. A resident of Cascade Locks
opposed to Nestlé described the central issue as one of public ownership
of water (literal state ownership, in this case) being compromised by
negotiations between Nestlé, the city, and one state agency: “When I
found out that they wanted to trade spring water with the Department of
Fisheries over here, I thought, ‘why?’ You know, the water belongs to the
state—to all of the people—not just the fisheries, not just to Nestlé or the
city. It’s all of ours and they have no business selling it for nothing so that
this company can make a huge profit on it.” This appeal to a notion of
water as part of a commons echoes themes used by social movements
elsewhere opposed to privatization of water and other natural resources
(Harvey 2003). A representative of the Oregon Department of Fish and
Wildlife, in contrast, argued that the arrangement poses no threat to
public ownership: “We’re not going to give up our water rights, so that
leaves us in control. If the only way forward would have been for us to
give some of our water rights away, I highly doubt we would have continued to talk, [but] we will remain the owner of that water resource up
there. And we’ll protect it.”
In McCloud, concern about the potential loss of local control over
water was a powerful theme for opposition groups. According to the
town resident who founded the McCloud Watershed Council and led the
anti-Nestlé effort, “The main reason that the people who switched from
18 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013
pro-Nestlé to anti-Nestlé [did so] was the fact that in the contract, it
stated that if we were to go into drought. . . . McCloud would have to dig
the wells, we would have to drink the well water, and Nestlé would get
our pure spring water.” Nestlé’s purchase of the bottling plant site in
McCloud did not come with rights to access to the springs, so the firm
proposed a long-term contract to purchase the water from MCSD as a
customer. Another McCloud resident addressed how this strategy relates
to questions of control: “A lot of [water companies] like to own the
spring and the rights and everything, because they can do whatever they
want. [But] Nestlé in a lot of places prefers to be a customer, because
then you can’t really directly blame them for the overpumping.”
A third issue—central to the relevance of the frame of accumulation
by dispossession to this context—is whether bottled water extraction is
understood as constituting privatization of a local water resource. “Sometimes the issue of privatization of water comes up,” said the mayor of
Cascade Locks. “Well, it’s not the case. We are essentially selling them a
water resource. They will become an industrial customer just like any
other, whether it’s them selling me the water that comes out of my tap,
or any other large user of water.” This description, however, elides the
question of the long-term contractual rights Nestlé insisted on in both
communities. When asked whether bottled water extraction equaled
privatization, a member of the McCloud Watershed Council answered
unequivocally, “Yes, because they were taking from our water supply and
they were claiming hold over our water supply. Yes. That is water privatization. That’s taking local control of a water resource out of local
A final theme regards the tactical and strategic choices made by
opponents, and the future prospects for Nestlé’s extraction of bottled
water. In their claims, the various actors challenging the two bottling
facilities drew on (and reinforced) shared understandings of water’s
scarcity to argue for the need to erect higher obstacles to accumulation
through legal, regulatory, and corporate campaigning strategies, thus
raising Nestlé’s costs and changing the firm’s calculus. At the same time,
many of these arguments ironically ended up conceding the market
frame. When Nestlé withdrew its McCloud proposal in 2009, local opponents and the NGO coalition supporting them had held off the company
for six years. The California Trout staff member discussed the question
of which themes had found the greatest resonance among residents of
We framed it with two things. That really we are sort of interwoven, that water is more valuable than this [Nestlé plant]. And
A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 19
that . . . you guys are getting screwed. You’re getting paid
nothing for this water. Nestlé is going to make billions of dollars
. . . and you got treated like a third world nation by them. And
you deserve better than that. If selling water is a good idea, then
think about what you just did—you just sold the farm for almost
In analyzing the outcome, several local residents said they had prevailed
because of a mix of local opposition, legal challenges, and public relations harm to Nestlé from unfavorable media coverage. However, the
California Trout staff member attributed the victory to a different set of
In my most honest moments I think we ran out the clock for
them. We had enough hook with CEQA6 to hold them off while
the whole thing unraveled. And it unraveled for Nestlé on its
own—bottled water, the economy, all those other things. They
came because they had a business model that worked, and they
left because their business model no longer worked, and I don’t
have any illusions about me convincing Nestlé that McCloud was
not the place.
Many of the NGO representatives assert that in announcing its plans
for Cascade Locks, Nestlé had transferred the McCloud proposal to
Oregon, in hopes of finding a more favorable community and regulatory
environment. “Their water sources in California are drying up,” said the
Oregon Food and Water Watch organizer, “and they just got kicked out
of the Mt. Shasta area…. [T]hey don’t have a single water bottling
operation in the Northwest and they know that this is a wet region and
they want to get a foothold.” Nevertheless, with Nestlé both continuing
to pursue the Cascade Locks spring water site and expanding its municipal water bottling, whether local opposition has been successful in significantly raising barriers to future instances of commodification or
obliging the firm to fundamentally reassess its strategies is unclear. We
now turn to discussing the implications of these local conflicts for our
broader analysis of the dynamics of commodification.
Discussion: A More Perfect Commodity
As the previous section indicates, bottled water raises intriguing issues
regarding the dynamics of privatization and accumulation. The two cases
6 CEQA is the California Environmental Quality Act, which required an environmental
impact assessment of Nestlé’s proposal.
20 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013
of proposed water extraction profiled above—if approved—would
unambiguously constitute commodification, as Nestlé would tap publicly
owned local springs to sell bottled water to distant markets. They would
also represent clear instances of accumulation by dispossession, since
they would alter public water rights (community ownership in the case of
McCloud, or state ownership in Cascade Locks) through contractual
obligations that—while technically maintaining Nestlé’s status as a utility
customer—would nonetheless give the corporation priority rights to
spring water flows over local needs. On the other hand, since the
company would acquire legal title to neither land nor water, these
examples do not constitute the privatization of water, the opinions of
some local residents notwithstanding. This suggests the need for additional interrogation of the boundary between commodification and
privatization, both in the case of water and more generally.
These case studies also illustrate the two key contentions made in this
article, concerning both the challenge bottled water poses to existing
theoretical framings regarding the commodification of water and the
relationship between this market commodity and the (largely) publicly
provided good of tap water. Bottled water, regardless of its origin, does
not present many of the barriers to capital accumulation posed by tap
water networks, rendering it—in contrast with Bakker’s (2005) framing
of water as an “uncooperative commodity”—a more mobile and more
profitable commodity. This, in turn, presents a serious challenge to the
prospects of public drinking water. Several examples illustrate these
linked arguments.
First, bottled water requires virtually none of the sunk fixed infrastructure costs and obligations of municipal water systems. Private management contracts for municipal networks typically require firms to make
substantial investments to maintain water quality and the physical water
treatment and distribution network, as well as meet increasing public
health and environmental standards, hire and train staff, manage billing,
and handle other imponderables that can reduce profit margins or
make returns unpredictable. In contrast, bottled water firms have a very
limited set of investments (particularly if they use municipal water
sources): they frequently bottle water at the same plants as other beverages and distribute them through existing networks. An industry newsletter underscores this point: “Entry barriers are low, and decreasing by
the day” (Boreal Water News 2010). These factors enhance profitability.
While the protests in Bolivia and other nations were sparked when
private firms raised tap water rates enough to achieve a contractually
guaranteed return of 15 to 17 percent (Bond 2005; Castro 2007; Spronk
and Webber 2007), profit margins for bottled water are higher, typically
A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 21
25 to 35 percent and sometimes more for large bottlers (Gleick et al.
2007; Natural Resources Defense Council 1999).
Second, bottled water defies, at least partially, the locality of water.
Bakker asserts that because of its nature as a flow resource, “water is used
and disposed of locally,” typically close to the point of extraction
(2010:200). However—much as the technological package of genetically
engineered seeds removes a crucial obstacle to commodification of the
food supply—the plastic integument of bottled water enables it to escape
these fundamental constraints. Over one quarter of all bottled water
crosses national boundaries, making it truly a global commodity (Barlow
2007:84), and much more travels long distances domestically, beyond
local watersheds.
Third, bottled water is characterized by far more price elasticity than
tap water. This is true in affluent nations, where bottled water sales are
positively correlated with income and families spend hundreds of dollars
per year on it (Gleick 2010), but it also pertains to places in the global
South where safe public water supplies are lacking. While many of the
effective popular protests against tap water privatization in the South
were triggered by rate increases of 20 to 30 percent, the (often poorer)
residents of the same countries not served by the municipal piped water
system already typically pay many times those rates for water from local
vendors, much of it bottled (Bakker 2010; Driessen 2008). The inability
of the public sector to provide safe tap water to well over a billion people
in the global South—often reinforced through debt conditionality—has
facilitated the growth of the bottled water market, further exacerbating
social inequality. Yet since water is essential for life, people faced with a
lack of other options will often pay what the market demands. Where
bottled water is the best or only option, its price elasticity—and the
resulting profits—can be quite high indeed (Girard 2009).
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
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
22 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013
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 accumu7 Other 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.
A More Perfect Commodity — Jaffee and Newman 23
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
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
Similarly, on a global level, disinvestment or underinvestment in safe
public drinking water supply renders water more amenable to commodification 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
24 Rural Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1, March 2013
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
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