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Selling Tap Water

A New York City entrepreneur is selling water from his city's municipal pipes -- and he's counting on green consumers to buy it.

Originally published in, October 27, 2008


Craig Zucker sells a product that is available free in every kitchen, bathroom, and drinking fountain in New York City. His business plan? Charge $1.50 a bottle. The gambit is hardly unique in the bottled water industry. Plenty of popular brands get their supply from public pipes, run it through a purification process and resell it to the public.

But Mr. Zucker, who calls his water Tap’d New York, is trying to turn what competitors regard as a dirty little secret into his brand’s biggest selling point. Each of the 35,000 bottles he’s released to Manhattan coffee shops say prominently on the label, “purified New York City tap water.” Even company slogans reinforce the message: “refreshingly honest” and “refills available at any New York City Tap.”

“I think consumers will embrace us,” Mr. Zucker says, noting that although 40 percent of bottled water comes from the faucet, few companies admit as much.

It isn’t just honesty, however, that he’s counting on to win customers. His larger argument is that the whole bottled water industry is damaging the environment, and that locally bottled water — his brand is sold only within a 200-mile radius of Manhattan to minimize its carbon footprint — is the best version of a bad thing.

“Our first and biggest point is drink tap water when you can,” he says. “But when you’re on Second Avenue and it’s 90 degrees outside, and you don’t have a bottle, buy our water instead.”

The sales pitch is targeted at the growing number of socially conscious consumers. An estimated 50 million Americans say they make some purchases specifically because the product or service on offer promotes social or cultural values.

The bottled water industry, in particular, is both huge, with sales worth $11.7 billion in 2007, and an object of environmental scrutiny. The Container Recycling Institute estimates that 28 billion single serving bottles of water are purchased each year — 845 bottles are thrown away every second, and the bottles transported from Europe to New York City alone creates an estimated 3,800 tons of green house gasses.

“There’s a whole lot of pollution and energy connected to creating, delivering, and disposing the bottles,” says Jenny Powers, a spokesperson for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “And it takes oil, a non-renewable resource, to create them.”

Peter Gleick, president of the Oakland based Pacific Institute, has another critique. He worries that the widespread availability of bottled water might lead consumers to stop insisting on a high quality tap water system.

Due to such concerns, Mr. Zucker himself says he carries around his own reusable, stainless steel water bottle, which his company also sells. But he says that even consumers who drink tap water at home are sometimes going to wind up somewhere without a faucet or a bottle, where buying a bottle of water is a convenience.

His bet is that given the choice, some people partaking of that convenience will prefer a brand that hasn’t traveled 800 miles to end up on the shelf. (And it can’t hurt that New York City’s tap water beat more than 150 other municipal water systems in a blind taste test at the State Fair in Syracuse.)

“I know we’re taking a chance here, by doing something that has never been done in bottled water,” Mr. Zucker says. “But hopefully people will look at it, and see that we’re a social movement that sells water on the side. If we end up shrinking the sales of bottled water it would mean people are inspired by our message.”

The irony, of course, is that the success of the social movement would sow the seeds for the decimation of the bottled water industry.

So will it work?

My own unscientific survey on the streets of New York City confirms at least that some New Yorkers are drawn to the idea. “I’d absolutely buy it,” says Erin De Loisier, a 33-year old New York City resident, an avid recycler and a composter. “I’m not always prepared to have a water bottle with me all of the time, and when I’m in a pinch it sounds like a good alternative. It’s like a Band-Aid, use it for an emergency.”

Only time will tell if there are enough like-minded consumers to keep Mr. Zucker in business, and possibly even spread the locally bottled water phenomenon to other cities — already he’s working on Tap’d Chicago.

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