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Changing Consumer Behavior One Water Bottle at a Time

This week I'm attending the Design Management Institute conference in San Francisco again. The conference is Re-Thinking...The Future of Design, and the conversations on stage are focused on tracking how design thinking is making a difference in business. Design and business continue to mix.

As I sit in the conference, I'm enjoying my bottle of hotel-provided Fiji water—it's easing the discomfort I have from my allergies. But I feel guilty drinking it. Despite Fiji Water's aggressive work in creating carbon offsets, this plastic bottle is made from oil, processed with energy created from oil, and shipped thousands of miles using ships and trucks that burn oil. It's especially poignant to think about this relationship between oil and water in this post-Gulf-Coast-oil-disaster moment.

Water is good. Water is bad.

Ads from Evian and Brita

While we all know this, bottled water is super-convenient. It's not that we want to harm the planet, or think that our immediate need or ongoing healthy habits (water kicks soda's butt for hydration, right?) are more important. It's just that we're busy, and the bottled water is there—and we promise ourselves that we'll recycle the empties.

The fact is that tap water in my country (and probably yours if you're reading this) is super duper. If we only had a way to open the tap, grab a slug of it, put it in our pocket and dispense it at will, we'd have the convenient water that we need accessible when we want it. Fast Company did a fantastic piece about the bottled water industry here, pointing to just how this became such a thriving entity. 

Design—or design thinking, if you prefer—is tackling this problem, if not the impending problem of global drinking water shortage, in a number of inspiring ways that aim to start with the need, provide alternatives, and empower behavior change in us all.

A number of companies are using bottled water revenues to do some philanthropy. These companies are contributing profits to help developing countries without reliable drinking water sources. Good thinking. But I want to ask, how might I participate in that goodness without using the plastic bottle?

I first noticed Ethos water at Starbucks—leveraging their ability to move a lot of "bad" product to create bigger good elsewhere? But still, where's the behavior change?

Then, there are reusable water bottles. Those familiar camping bottles from Nalgene spearheaded the trend. Until, that is, we learned that the robust polycarbonate that they were fashioned from was leeching icky bad stuff into our water. They've since fixed that, and in their wake a multitude of reusable bottles have leapt onto store shelves.

A newcomer, KOR, has jumped into the fray with a contemporary bottle that is a conversation starter at local gyms just for its looks. Their bottle, the KOR ONE, is a vehicle for first order improvement on delivering "greener" water conveniently. But does a chunky water bottle with a modestly improved aesthetic change me? I still have to wash the bottle, and I still have to keep it with me. As the saying goes, I think I first have to want to change.

The KOR ONE elevates the idea of refillable water bottles through material choice and design

Couldn't we play with the semantics of what the water bottle is—and create a visible beacon that shouts, "You can change." A designer in our office, Junggi Sung, did just that in creating the DrinkTapWater bottle. It doesn't need much explaining. The iconic sink faucet cap is both a reminder and a calling card shouting the message: DrinkTapWater.

Going a step further, the bottle top becomes an evangelist, repurposing used bottles for our tap water drinking ambitions. Find a bottle, clean it, fill it and cork it with your DrinkTapWater topper. Glass bottles are durable, easy to come by and by reusing them in this way, we reduce the carbon footprint required to manufacture, clean, fill and ship these bottles. And when you're done with one, recycle it.

Junggi Sung's DrinkTapWater bottle design aims to shift our views about bottled water

We love the humor, warmth, nostalgia and clear semiotics of DrinkTapWater. The concept broadcasts the message well, and in a delightful come-along-with-me manner—not a judgmental activist manner (not that we don't need some of that too). While it hasn't yet been tested in the wild, I think these kinds of designs hold the prospect of tapping (pun intentional) into personal and social motivators to create real behavior change. Read LUNAR's Gretchen Anderson on the subject.

Admittedly, for pampered Americans, DrinkTapWater is still a "push" campaign. I have to clean a bottle, fill it and always make sure it comes with me. Seeking an alternative, our sustainable design champions, LUNAR Elements, asked the question differently: how might we create a "pull" system that draws us into being part of a better way?

The answer is the Re:Faktory water bottle. It's the centerpiece of a closed loop system that reinvents the refillable soda bottle systems still active in parts of the world. Bottles are purchased full from the grocery store, used like conventional bottles—and then returned to the store where they are automatically washed and refilled with filtered local tap water.

LUNAR's Elements team created this Re:Faktory system that transforms bottled water into a local service built around a compelling bottle design

The real magic in this system lies in what we do with the bottle. At each refilling, a laser etches each bottle with another slice of a story, a piece of artwork or the day's leading headline. These become bottles with messages, in a way. The message gradually appears on the blank bottle over time, with use. And it only appears when it remains part of the system. The bottle accumulates meaning—even emotional value, whether it’s sentiment, social connection, curiosity—through its metamorphosis. This emotional component enriches the system, engages people, and keeps bottles in use and in the system.

One version of Re:Faktory bottles is etched with a daily headline each time they get refilled so that over time and use, it becomes an intriguing record of events over its lifetime. At a glance, you can tell how old the bottle is by how many lines have been etched on it.

On top of the intrinsic motivators, the system includes economic incentives too. Consumers have proven that they will pay top dollar merely for the convenience of portable, clean drinking water—even when it doesn't come from the springs of a remote Pacific island or the peak of some European mountain. Within the purchase price for premium water, there's plenty of room to pay for the refilling of the bottle with cheap, filtered local water while at the same time creating an economic incentive for stray bottles to find their way back into the system. Heck, we could even scrape off some of the profits to support NGOs creating clean water for children, too.

What are you ideas for changing behaviors around drinking water that meet the needs of convenience in a more sustainable way?

Read more of John Edson's Powers of Design blog
Browse blogs by other Expert Designers

As a seasoned product developer with a background in both analytical and creative thinking, John Edson's primary role at LUNAR is to build new programs for clients with the right innovation processes led by the right creative team to make a real difference for clients. His experience includes managing the birth of successful products for Philips, Motorola, InFocus, and several startups. Products developed under John's management have been honored with accolades from the Chicago Athenaeum Good Design Award, iF Hannover, PC Magazine's Editor's Choice Award, and IDSA's Industrial Design Excellence Award. Developing the contribution of design creativity and innovation process in the service of business, society and the environment, John explores the impact of design creativity in a weekly podcast, Icon-o-Cast. John is also a regular speaker, having lectured at Wharton School, given a keynote at Intertech's Flexible Display Technologies conference, and participated in a talk for the Business Marketing Association of Northern California. A lecturer at Stanford, John teaches courses in product design and creativity.

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  • Jane Lazgin

    I was interested to read your piece, examining bottled water packaging and delivery as a design challenge. I work at Nestlé Waters North America where we are also thinking about the best ways to manage the environmental impact of our bottled water products. I wanted to share what we have learned as we have mapped our footprint and implemented innovations in our packaging.

    We recently commissioned a life cycle analysis of our Eco-Shape bottle, which is our most common, half-liter water bottle and which you may have seen used for our brands, such as Arrowhead and Poland Spring. The results have been surprising to some people, as they show that bottled water has the least impact of any packaged beverage. And our Eco-Shape bottles contain the least amount of plastic among the packaged beverage options reviewed in the study and travel relatively short distances from source to shelf. The study also found that people can reduce the overall environmental impact associated with drinking a bottle of water by 25%, just by recycling the bottle after use. You can learn more about the study here:

    We also created a new spring water brand, called re-source, through which we seek to close the loop and inspire better recycling in America, which is big challenge and requires action from all of us. We developed partnerships with Whole Foods, Green Ops, and McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry to seek a cradle-to-cradle solution to sustainable recycling needs. This year, the re-source bottle will increase its recycling PET plastic content to 50%!

    Thanks for your creative thinking John. I hope you will appreciate our problem-solving approaches too.

    Jane Lazgin
    Corporate Communications

  • John Edson

    Wonderful comments, gentlemen! Thanks for the feedback.
    I think the best design solution for this problem is multiple solutions. Water fountains, paper cartons, rating systems -- super. People have different preferences and different lives. It's the job of smart business to tap into the motivations of real people to create offerings that at once resonate with those people, motivate behavior change in them, and create value for the business, sustainably.
    On a side note Daniel, my company recently evaluated our water usage. We were having water delivered for our cooler on a regular basis, a costly proposition to provide clean drinking water to our staff. At a fraction of the cost, we replaced the cooler with one that filters tap water (we can argue if filtering is even necessary, of course) and serves water at one of 3 temperatures: hot, cold and my favorite -- room temp. We aren't burning any diesel to move water around the countryside and we have no degradation in availability. Cheaper, greener!

  • Eric Barnes

    Hi John!  Years ago you wrote this article on the many efforts aimed at changing consumer behavior toward bottled water.  Despite all our progress, bottle water still holds the upper hand.  KOR is going right after bottled water with our latest release of Nava, a reusable filtered bottle unlike any other.  We've launched on Kickstarter this week and received an overwhelming reception (times are changing indeed).  I hope you will consider covering at Fast Company, or at least an update on how design is still attacking this issue.  Here's the link to our page:

  • Neil Tomlinson

    An interesting article John and I love and agree with the sentiment of Daniel's comment, particularly the call to make public water fountains more accessible!!!
    The facts we perceived when researching the bottled water area led me to genuinely believe it's convenience which consumers buy rather than asking them to think ahead and buy a re-usable package which they then have some kind of 'responsibility' for.
    We ultimately developed our 'bottled water without a bottle' (aquapax mineral water in paper cartons) precisely because of this convenience factor. It's an award winning eco-chic package design which keeps the pure natural mineral water inside cool for longer within a leach free environment. We encourage people to re-use their empty cartons, because they are re-usable! But even if consumers do only use them once to drink the original contents and then 'bin or recycle them', they don't have to feel guilty and beat themselves up about that.
    The beverage carton has a proven lower carbon footprint than any alternative package type and that was (and still is) what we believed the issue to be. Our market share is growing steadily, but the reason why cartons haven't taken off in the mainstream yet is because plastic is so cheap! Until government does something to encourage lower carbon footprint alternatives (preferrably via a simple to administer differential tax regiume) that's when we'll really start to change consumer behaviour - one bottle at a time... :)
    Warm wishes
    Neil T aka neiltwaterguy founder of

  • Daniel Erwin

    I'm also visiting SF this week, and while I didn't have the couple thousand bucks to spare on the DMI conference, I'm staying at a nice hostel. I say it's nice because on every floor they have filtered water dispensers specifically designed for filling water bottles. They have delicious, chilled water, plus a sign with some reading material about why not to fill up a plastic bottle.
    Most of the travelers here carry metal water bottles (mine is a 1 liter siig I've had for almost 1 year), and the hostel sells new ones at the front desk for under $20. My experience is that the biggest deterrents to carrying a bottle are the weight of the water and - a distant second - the hassle of having to keep up with something, having my hands full, not being able to also drink a cup of coffee and open a door without struggling.
    If we wanted to encourage more people to carry water bottles, there are a few little details to pay attention to:
    - make public water fountains more easily accessible, ubiquitous, and findable (or publicize the fact that almost any coffee shop or restaurant will gladly fill them for free)
    - develop some kind of taste and purity rating system (even if it's just a subjective and crowdsourced one) to display at the water fountain
    - put a separate nozzle on water fountains with about 20 cm underneath to accommodate large bottles
    - create hooks and/or ledges near doors with handles to set down bottles and bags