Bottled water companies often use images of nature to entice consumers with the allure of pure, remote sources. Whistler Water, a Canadian bottled water company, boasts that its water comes from a glacier-fed aquifer at the base of the coastal mountain range in British Columbia. The company draws heavily on nature and mountain themes in its advertising and images. Its social media pages brim with photos of hikers atop snowy peaks, lush forests and bubbling streams. Like many companies, however, the environmental content and sustainability promoted by the company belies its plastic products and unsustainable wellspring.
Whistler Water has incorporated sustainability into their company by using 100 percent recyclable bottles and Forest Stewardship Council certified boxes, which indicates the boxes are sourced from responsibly managed forests. However, the company’s steps towards more sustainable resource use do not directly address climate change, which is taking its toll on Whistler Water’s vital resources. According to a study published in 2015, glaciers in Western Canada––including those of the coastal mountain range––are shrinking rapidly. The study projects glaciers in western Canada will lose 70 percent of their volume by the year 2100. Place Glacier, which feeds Whistler Water’s underground aquifer, is among those quickly decreasing in mass.
GlacierHub caught up with Richard Wilk, professor emeritus in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University, Bloomington. The branding of bottled water is an area of interest for Wilk, who has published the results of his research on the cultural influences on marketing of bottled water and consumer opposition of the product. He noted that bottled water companies use both nature and technology to provide a sense of cleanliness and safety. Whistler Water for example, uses nature and technology to promote the purity of their products– advertising ancient, untouched glaciers as well as BPA-free, recyclable bottles that make sure their water remains “exactly as nature intended.” Wilk said this was “a great example of how [companies] use nature as a form of authentication and then turn around and use technology as a form of authentication,” stating “nature undoes the danger of technology and technology undoes the danger of nature.”
The emphasis on both nature and technology provides a false sense of security to consumers who would be afraid to drink water directly from the source or even straight from the tap. Wilk explained distrust of public water can be traced as far back as mid-19th century London, to the discovery of cholera spreading via a public water pump. Modern issues such as the contamination of drinking water inFlint, Michigan have only fueled suspicion.
Plastic water bottles have come to dominate the beverage industry. In 2016, bottled water became the most consumed beverage in the US. The global bottled water industry is predicted to be worth $334 billion in 2023, which would be a 55 percent increase from the $185 billion it was worth in 2015. Despite the industry’s success, bottled water remains a controversial product. Wilk told GlacierHub that bottled water usually comes from a public source but is used for private profit, a process with which many take issue. Whistler Water is a prime example of using a public freshwater resource for private gain. As of 2014, British Columbia (where Whistler Water is produced) did not regulate groundwater use, nor did it charge companies for groundwater withdrawals.
Environmental concerns also plague the industry. Whistler Water has tried to create a natural, pure image for themselves, but plastic bottles depict one of waste. In an age where single-use plastics have become cultural ignominies, reusable water bottles have been promoted as a sustainable alternative. Wilk told GlacierHub, “water bottles can be status symbols because you have the money to buy the bottle and you’re conscious of environmental problems.” This month, Whistler Water posted an advertisement to their Instagram, Facebook and Twitter pages showing a woman refilling her reusable water bottle with a four-liter plastic jug of Whistler Water–the latter undercutting the sustainability that the former could support. While Whistler Water does use 100 percent recyclable bottles, Wilk says this is not a cure-all. His reasoning is that “we know most bottles are not recycled—to say this absolves [Whistler Water] of any responsibility is disingenuous.”
Whistler Water is not the first bottled water company to use glaciers as a marketing device. The water company Svalbardi sells 80 Euro bottles of polar iceberg water, which derive ultimately from glaciers in Greenland, and Alaska Glacier Products sells bottles of water sourced from Alaska’s Eklutna Glacier. As part of his research, Wilk invited 25 marketing professionals and professors to engage in an activity in which they proposed ways to market water. Among them was selling meltwater from named glaciers and jacking up the price as the glaciers shrunk. As controversial as this marketing technique might seem, companies, including Whistler Water, employ similar tactics. The company says its water comes from “ancient glaciers located high in the alpine peaks of the coastal mountain range just north of Whistler, British Columbia, Canada,” appealing to the consumer with its rare resources.
Glaciers provide drinking water to communities around the globe. But they continue to be threatened by environmental dangers. Waste products of human society, such as carbon dioxide, which warms the atmosphere, and plastic particles that have become ubiquitous are causing glaciers to shrink and have littered their surfaces with plastic. Some community-based organizations in mountain regions have sought to address plastic pollution, including Nepal, which has banned single-use plastics in the region around Mount Everest. As with addressing single-use plastics, combating the threats glaciers face from climate change will also require drastic policy and societal changes.