We've swallowed the bottle

REFLECTION; David Nicholson-Lord explains why tap water lacks popular appeal
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The Independent Online
In the North, they used to call it "corporation pop" and the great thing about it was that it was free. But as every market economist will tell you, if something's free, it's probably worthless. Put a price on it, and the picture changes.

Bottling water ought to be as inherently silly as canning air and there was a time when everybody in Britain would have shared this view. At the end of the Seventies the market for bottled mineral waters was a paltry £9m. Then came the Eighties, upward mobility and style. Bottled water was not only fashionable; it was healthy too. Worries about diet and lifestyle were compounded by a series of accidents and scares involving drinking water: lead, nitrates, bacteria.

Mineral water, in consequence, became the drink of choice in cafe-bars. Supermarket shelves bloomed with tall green bottles. Obscure foreign places - Volvic, Vittel, San Pellegrino - became household names. Today the market is worth £350m and we consume nine litres each per year. At up to £1.60 a litre, this lesson in market economics does not come cheap - not least because, according to the Consumers' Association, we may be wasting our money.

Yesterday's report from Which? magazine takes a coldly logical view of the likes of Perrier and Evian. It says their health-giving claims are ill-founded, their taste undistinctive and their prices, in some cases, extortionate. Buy a filter, says Which?, and enjoy your corporation pop. It's cheaper - tap water costs 0.07p a litre - and its quality is "good and improving". The privatised water companies were understandably jubilant. You can have 50 glasses of our water, they boasted, for a penny.

The industry has invested £1bn on tap water in the past five years and claims it is now of an "exceptionally high standard". Which? points out that 98 per cent of samples pass bacterial and chemical tests. As to whether tap water is completely safe, the jury is still out: too little is known about the long-term effects of low-level exposure to pesticides or hormones, for example. But by comparison with the water most of the world is forced to drink, ours is a top-class product.

Whether that - or reports from Which? - will produce a sudden rush to the taps is another issue entirely. For what analyses like yesterday's miss is the iconic quality of modern consumerism - the idea that to purchase an object is to purchase status, prestige, a lifestyle: you become what you buy. In that sense, consumerism is a form of contemporary cargo cult - we make fetishes of products, endowing them with our aspirations. Perrier's green bottle was the symbol of successful social ascent, of Continental elegance and up-market chic. This is what marketing and branding specialists seek to achieve and with bottled water they were, in the Eighties, remarkably successful.

In the Nineties growth has tailed off somewhat, thanks to recession, cooler summers and the appearance of cheaper rivals, many of them filtered tap water or "table water". Yet more bottles of water are sold every year and there is every reason to believe the industry's claim that it has become embedded in the British way of life: no dinner table now seems complete without one.

The future of bottled water will thus prove a fascinating test of our maturity, and rationality, as consumers. If our tap water continues to improve, will we forsake the tall green bottle for the humble tap? Or will the cult established in the Eighties prove ineradicable? The industry is confident, observers less so. According to the research organisation Mintel, much more "marketing and promotion" (ie, irrationality) will be needed to keep sales growing. As for corporation pop, rising water bills may soon make it as desired a consumer good as the pricey stuff we now buy in bottles.