Drink up, do good

To the seemingly endless stream of bottled waters, add this: Water for a cause.

Posted: August 16, 2012

Remember the days when water merely soothed your body and quenched your thirst?

Then came flavored water, vitamin water, diet water, caffeinated water, even glacier water - and with it a drenching wave of blame about the environmental impact of manufacturing, delivering, and trashing plastic bottles.

Bottled-water lovers can now counter that criticism with H2O that does good - philanthropic water.

There's the Give water brand: Give Hope to benefit a breast cancer organization; Give Love for environmental causes; Give Strength to "fight muscular disorders"; or Give Life to help children. Starbucks owns and sells Ethos Water, and a Maryland company, Panacea Beverage, expects to have its MyCause Water at a national grocery chain in Pennsylvania in September.

Each brand operates a little differently, but they all share a similar principle: With each bottle purchased, they donate money to causes or nonprofit groups that have signed up with their effort.

"We're not here to compete with the tap; we're here to offer socially conscious choice," says Michael Fitzgerald 2d, founder of Panacea Beverage and MyCause Water. "When we come to work every day, it's not about marketing or profitability - it's about making a difference."

With or without a mission, Americans can't seem to put down bottled water. A recent study from the Beverage Marketing Corp. showed a record-breaking 29.2 gallons per capita consumption of bottled water in the United States in 2011, rising from 18.2 gallons per capita in 2001.

Even as companies slap high price tags on waters that come from unusual sources, are flavored or fortified with vitamins, and delivered in glitzy packaging - try $2,600 for Bling H2O's glass bottle with 10,000 hand-applied Swarovski crystals - people still drink it up.

What makes bottled water, which studies show is not necessarily any better than tap, so popular?

"You can go back to way before the Romans," says Richard Wilk, a professor of anthropology and gender studies at Indiana University who has studied the marketing and cultural meaning of bottled water. "In most cultures, places where water came out of the ground have always been seen as places of power or places where magic takes place. There is a scientific basis for it. . . . There are lots of minerals in water that have real effects on your body."

In 1990, he says, the major soft drink companies saw Evian and Perrier making inroads into the beverage market in the United States and abroad, and created their own bottled water brands. As sales grew, so did concerns about the environmental and health effects of bottled water. The start of the millennium saw the emergence of "water with a conscience, so you could have your bottled water and feel good about it. This is kind of the way we handle all our moral problems with consumption," Wilk says. "We will drink that latte, but have it with soy."

The Give water brand contributes 10 cents per bottle to a charity in the purchaser's home community. For every bottle of Ethos Water sold, Starbucks contributes at least 5 cents to the Ethos Water Fund, part of the Starbucks Foundation. Since 2008, Starbucks says, it has given a total of $7.2 million for water, sanitation, and hygiene education programs in impoverished countries that lack access to clean water.

Fitzgerald's company donates 5 cents for each bottle sold to a nonprofit organization that the purchaser selects off the MyCauseWater.com website. To donate the money, the purchaser can use a smartphone and a special code, or go to MyCauseWater.com and enter a code from the bottle. At the end of each month, money that hasn't been designated for a particular group is raffled off to a nonprofit registered with MyCause Water. Sometimes MyCause approaches nonprofits to sign up with it; sometimes nonprofits contact MyCause. Customers also can nominate a group.

One of the charities that registered about a year ago with MyCause Water is a Bensalem nonprofit, Healthy Thoughts, whose mission is stroke awareness and prevention. Its funding comes mainly from little donations, so founder Davida Godett, who at 37 already has suffered three strokes, eagerly signed up about a year ago after a friend told her about the company. Her small organization - there is an advisory board, Godett says, but she is the only staff member - hasn't received any direct donations from MyCause Water, but did win a few hundred dollars from one of the monthly raffles.

Fitzgerald, 24, who graduated in 2009 from Clemson University with a bachelor's degree in management, would not say how much money his water, which costs about $1.29 for a 500-ml. bottle, has made in the little more than a year that he has been selling it.

It is hard to monitor whether donating bottled water revenue to nonprofits is effective. It also isn't clear yet whether consumers will look for philanthropic water and pay more for it.

On a summer Wednesday afternoon at a Saxbys coffee house on the Temple University campus, one 23-ounce bottle of $1.89 Give Hope water was left among more than a dozen 16.9-ounce bottles of Deer Park water that cost $1.62 each. Manager Adam Cottman says a few faculty members and administrators have mentioned they like paying a little extra with some of the money going to a favorite cause.

Jami-lyn Garey, 23, was buying coffee, not water. The senior psychology major says she has seen the Give bottles before, and "if it's really going to help, that's great." She might spend an extra 20 cents for it, but "I wouldn't go out of my way too much." There are better approaches to helping charities, she says.

Maybe so, but marketing bottled water as a philanthropic purchase is likely to continue, as will entrepreneurs finding other ways to reconstitute and repackage water.

Wilk says that every time he thinks of a water variation that sounds crazy, it comes to pass.

"I used to joke about diet water and vitamin water," he says. "I thought glacier water was a ridiculous idea - and sure enough . . . ."

Contact Carolyn Davis at 215-854-4214 or cdavis@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @carolyntweets.


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