Write a 3-page review of the article, utilizing at least one other outside source (not the textbooks or the article).American Academy of Political and Social Science
Constructing Sustainable Consumption: From Ethical Values to the Cultural
Transformation of Unsustainable Markets
Author(s): DOUGLAS B. HOLT
Source: The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 644,
Communication, Consumers, and Citizens: Revisiting the Politics of Consumption
(November 2012), pp. 236-255
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. in association with the American Academy of
Political and Social Science
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23316152
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Twenty years of major policy and activist interventio
that seek to promote sustainable consumption ha
been guided by what I term the ethical values pa
digm, despite that this paradigm has significant c
ceptual flaws and has not produced impressive resul
This article critiques the ethical values paradigm a
proposes an alternative by adapting the market c
structionist paradigm. The author analyzes the de
opment of the American market for bottled water a
From Ethical
Values to the
demonstrates that this unsustainable consumption
an unintended consequence of the construction o
consumption ideology that is specific to the bottl
water market, what the author terms ideological lo
in. This model explains why activist interventions h
not worked and points the way toward more effect
strategies. The author argues that we should realloca
the vast government, NGO, and foundation sustaina
ity investments from promoting consumer value tr
formations toward a federation of market-focused
social movements aimed at leapfrogging the ideological
lock-in in key unsustainable markets.
Keywords: sustainable consumption; market construc
tion; social movements; bottled water
The animated
quest for
public policy
and environ
mental activism since the early 1970s and has
been a central plank of environmental efforts
for climate policy efforts since the Rio “Earth
Summit” in 1992. That conference s policy blue
print, Agenda 21, devoted an entire chapter to
“Changing Consumption Patterns,” which
called for governments, business, and civil soci
ety to engage in actions that would restructure
consumption patterns toward sustainability.
Douglas B. Holt is founder and president of the Cultural
Strategy Group and Planet Strategy, and a fellow at the
Center for Fair and Alternative Trade at Colorado State
University. Formerly, he was a professor of marketing at
Oxford University and the Harvard Business School and
editor of the Journal of Consumer Culture.
NOTE: The author thanks Lew Friedland and Craig
Thompson for their helpful comments.
DOI: 10.1177/0002716212453260
ANNALS, AAPSS, 644, November 2012
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Many ambitious policy initiatives, activist campaigns, and academic
jects have followed suit. The 2002 sustainable development m
Johannesburg called for a 10-year program of research and initiati
able consumption and production. The European Union (SCORE, or
Consumption Research Exchange), Germany (BMBF, or Federa
Education and Research) and the United Kingdom (DEFRA, or Dep
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) have invested tremendous r
this effort. In the United States, the National Academy of Science
scenario for what was termed “The Great Transition,” which posed
values that must be embraced—quality of life, human solidarity, a
sensibility—for the transition to sustainable consumption to occur.
sion of the influential State of the World report, “Transforming C
Consumerism to Sustainability,” focused entirely on how to inspir
consumption. The list of major sustainable consumption initiatives goes
The large majority of these efforts are informed by a single set
assumptions—what I call the ethical values paradigm—concerning
unsustainable consumption and, therefore, the most effective stra
sue sustainable consumption. This paradigm informs most scholar
most of the major activist and public policy initiatives, despite that co
theory and decades of empirical research argue against it. Consum
mental footprints continue to climb, despite poll after poll reporti
majorities declare their allegiance to environmental values. We sh
whether these ethical values assumptions are helpful at all in actu
consumption more sustainable.
It is time to take a critical look at these conceptual underpinnin
mulate an alternative model that leads to more effective interventi
article, I draw on the market construction paradigm to illuminat
flaws in ethical values axioms. I draw from this paradigm to inform an
the American market for bottled water, along with a shorter case s
From these analyses, I develop a new model—what I call the market
of unsustainability. I demonstrate that unsustainable consumptio
water has resulted from the unintended construction of a consump
that is specific to bottled water, resulting in what I term ideological lo
model explains why activist interventions have not worked and po
toward more effective strategies. I argue that we should reallocate
ernment, NGO, and foundation sustainability investments from pr
sumer value transformations toward a federation of market-focused social
movements aimed at leapfrogging the ideological lock-in found in key unsustain
able markets.
The Ethical Values Paradigm
Let us begin by unearthing the assumptions, often implicit, that together serve as
the foundation for the ethical values paradigm, which I synthesize as follows:
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1. Unsustainable consumption is caused in
These choices have a significant environm
those aspects that consumers cannot dire
by economic and technological struct
focuses on influencing consumer cho
economic structures.
2. Our choices as consumers are shaped by consumerism, which is unders
as a set of values that orients our lives around consumption. Some scho
view consumerism as the cultural consequence of industrial capitalism
while others provide multidimensional explanations for consumer
Regardless of the cause, Western societies (the United States in particul
along with the middle classes of developing countries, are viewed as v
cious consumers due to consumerism.
3. Individuals hold abstract personal values that embody this consumerism—
often described in terms of materialism, possessive individualism, and
sometimes narcissism—that govern consumption choices and actions across
a wide range of categories, leading to unsustainable consumption.
4. Therefore, the pathway to sustainable consumption requires the transfor
mation of these values by importing value systems from outside the modern
capitalist marketplace. The sources of sustainable value systems vary
widely: from various religious traditions to radical ecology to happiness
research to antiquarian calls to return to the values of preindustrial society.
This transformation may proceed in “top-down” fashion (learning about the
problems of consumerist values and the advantages of sustainable values),
or in “bottom-up” fashion (sustainable values become more salient and
attractive through practicing sustainable consumption in one domain and
then diffusing to others). And some sustainable consumption initiatives
pursue the total transformation of society away from consumerism and
toward a society based on sustainable values (what I call ethical transforma
tion), while others pursue the targeted “awakening” of ethical values within
a particular product category (what I call ethical campaigning). Regardless
of the type of initiative, to consume sustainably, people must become reflex
ive about the environmental impacts of their consumption and then choose
to substitute an ethical calculus for their former consumerist calculus.
The vast majority of influential scholarship, policy initiatives, and activist cam
paigning on sustainable consumption either assumes or explicitly invokes these
ethical values axioms.
The Market Construction Paradigm:
Three Orienting Propositions
To explain why the ethical values paradigm has not produced effective interven
tions and to inform the development of an alternative paradigm, I draw from an
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important alternative theoretical tradition—what I call the market con
paradigm—that is a subdisciplinary specialty within consumer cultur
(CCT); management studies; and science, technology and society (STS)
other disciplines. These three literatures each develop a different aspe
ket construction that, when combined, offers a powerful alternative to th
values paradigm. These traditions cohere in their interest in conceptua
markets come into being and are transformed over time. These theor
how market actors repurpose particular cultural, institutional, and tec
resources to construct and transform markets, often leading to unint
sequences as the market evolves. Consumption patterns are a key par
gets “constructed” as markets evolve.
This paradigm suggests that we should abandon the ethical values no
consumption can be treated as an autonomous set of actions that are s
by general ethical frameworks, and move instead toward a view of con
as an integral aspect of the construction of markets. Furthermore,
paradigm, one can infer that we must understand the differing mec
sustainability across particular markets, rather than attempt to gen
consumer society as a whole.
From CCT, I draw on my prior work on the cultural construction of
for new brands (Holt 2004, 2006; Holt and Cameron 2010; also see Th
2004). From management studies, I adapt ideas on the influence of so
ments on market construction (Weber, Heinze, and DeSoucey 2008
way in which different market actors work in unknowing concert to
new “institutional logics” that eventually become sedimented as mar
gies and practices (King and Pearce 2010; Humphreys 2010). From STS
on historical studies of the construction of socio-technical systems (
Hughes, and Pinch 1987; Bijker 1995), which describe how these mar
structions structure the way in which new technologies are transfor
new consumer markets. Applying this market constructionist logic to
consumption reveals three foundational flaws in the ethical values par
From Abstract Values to Market Ideologies
The ethical values paradigm assumes that citizens of consumer societ
consumerist values: generalized abstract beliefs that guide their cons
across many facets of their lives. Consumers are assumed to be philos
consistent actors who hold overarching ideologies and continually co
dots between these abstract values and a wide variety of specific con
behaviors. So consumerist values are assumed to lead to unsustainable
tion. Sustainable consumption strategies, then, should seek to trade ou
erist values for environmental values. Researchers have long sought
empirical support for this axiom by measuring how proenvironmental
attitudes impact environmentally significant consumption, with little s
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considerable confusion (Stern 2000). After nearly 40 years of research t
triously sought out linkages between “environmental concern” and env
tal behaviors, the answer is clear—the relationship barely exists.
An overview of this literature, surveying several meta-analyses, repo
“environmental concern seems to explain not more than 10 percent var
specific environmental behaviors” (Bamberg 2003, 22). In a decade-long
tigation of the ethical values hypothesis, the authors of The Myth of th
Consumer (DeVinney, Auger, and Eckhardt 2010) demonstrate that wh
ple are forced to make real trade-offs between ethical considerations
perceived value of the purchase, they are rarely willing to trade bene
ethics. In consumer research, this type of value-attitude-behavior mode
was in vogue in the 1960s and 1970s, has all but disappeared from conte
theory because it provides little insight or explanatory power (Ho
Thompson and Troester 2002).
Despite this theoretical and empirical dead end, the abstract values
shows no sign of fading. Leading environmental psychologists con
advance this axiom as if it were a widely accepted truth (e.g., Yale’s A
Leiserowitz begins a major review article on sustainability with the cl
“most advocates of sustainable development recognize the need for ch
human values, attitudes and behaviors in order to achieve a sustainabili
tion” [Leiserowitz, Kates, and Parris 2006, 414]). And the assumption ha
traveled to undergird the most influential activist strategy framework
promoted by environmental NGOs and foundations. For example Yale’
Warming’s Six Americas” (Leiserowitz et al. 2011); Earthjustices “R
The Ecological Roadmap,” funded by the Nathan Cummings Foundatio
et al. 2008); and, in the United Kingdom, “Common Cause: The C
Working with Our Cultural Values,” sponsored by the World Wildlife
Friends of the Earth, and Oxfam (Crompton 2010) all promote strategic
works based on implausible values and attitude assumptions.
If these abstract consumerist values shaped consumption, we would e
see coherent patterns of sustainable and unsustainable consumption. In
what we find is that the sustainability of individuals’ consumer actions vari
across categories: some people drive a Prius but routinely fly long-dis
vacations; some people buy local organic milk but also veggies grown in
sert and shipped by air thousands of miles; some people are tireless recy
think nothing of tearing out their kitchen to install the latest designs.
What sort of theory of unsustainable consumption can explain these
paradoxes? The market construction paradigm demonstrates that consu
ture is not a general force structuring consumer actions but, rather, is
understood as a skeletal metacultural logic—centered on channeling des
identities through consumer choices and actions (Holt 2002)—that gets
lated in very different ways across different markets.
Consider the sudden growth of the American SUV market in th
Americans switched in droves from sedans and minivans to SUVs, cau
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extraordinary increase in greenhouse gas emissions. This devastatin
not caused by consumerism in its generic form as a set of va
American consumer culture has evolved a distinctive set of id
respect to autos and other means of transportation—constructing
convenience, safety, pleasures of using the transport, functionalit
and perhaps environmental and other sustainability issues. As
became pilloried in media discourse as a boring and emasculati
transport kids, Americans yearned for an alternative. Ronald Reaga
Americas historic masculine ideology based on the frontier myth
resonant channel for these desires. Upper-middle-class families b
spartan rural working-class utility vehicles with names such a
Cherokee and turned them into suburban family transportation.
manufacturers caught on to this emergent demand and jumped on
manufacturers, such as Ford, discovered early on in their research
ing market that prospective customers, particularly women, per
SUVs were especially safe due to their grand size and elevated driv
and they reinforced this inference in their advertising. They quick
their utility vehicles to incorporate a plush ride, family functionality,
car trappings and pushed even harder on the frontier ethos (the F
became the best-selling SUV). Consumers flocked to the SUV. Tha
used nearly twice as much fuel as comparable minivans and s
entered their calculus, despite that SUV buyers (highly educat
middle-class) were precisely those Americans most likely to pr
proenvironmental values. This market ideology held firm for mo
ade until environmental social movements created a great stir in
condemning SUVs as one of the most environmentally uncons
sumer choices one could make. SUVS soon gained a stigma, mak
more difficult for self-professed environmentalists to drive them
our attention on the construction of consumer ideologies specific
the market constructionist paradigm allows us to explain hugely s
terns of unsustainable consumption, such as the exploding Ameri
ket, which are enigmatic from the vista of the ethical values parad
From Consumerism to the Unintended
Consequences of Market Construction
The theory of unsustainability implicit in the ethical values paradigm rests on the
idea of consumerism. Leading academics, activists, and policy-makers—from
Alan Durning and Bill McKibben to Gus Speth and Al Gore—routinely point the
finger at consumerism as the prime culprit in creating unsustainable consump
tion. And so, calls for the ethical move of Western societies away from consumer
ism have been a staple since the 1960s. Tim Jackson’s (2011) formulation provides
a typical example of this logic. He begins by recognizing the basic kinds of value
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that people, immersed in the logic of consumerism, perceive that th
tion provides. So the only way to move society toward sustainable co
he argues, is to “substitute” societal benefits that can serve as repla
the benefits that consumption provides. Given the scale of the over
lems we face today, he concludes that the only possible solution is
move away from consumerism. A similar argument animates Bill M
influential books (e.g., McKibben 2008), among many others.
But there is a fundamental problem with the idea of ethical trans
a culture unleashed by industrial capitalism and the mass media for
a century, which is today sedimented across myriad discourses, inst
everyday practices—the firmament of social life for most people,
that George Soros, Joseph Stiglitz, and Tom Frank all refer to it in quas
terms as market fundamentalism—is not easily or speedily tra
Despite a cycling of movements calling for various forms of voluntary s
since the time of Thoreau, Americans and other Westerners living
of consumerism have chosen otherwise. Challenges to consum
absorbed by the market in dialectic market-focused fashion—Who
Ben & Jerrys and Patagonia rather than the widespread support f
dynamic agriculture or downshifted work hours or national he
rationalized mass transit—leading to modest environmental impact
out over many decades (Belasco 1989; Holt and Cameron 2010).
cultural change and the empirical track record both strongly sugge
ronmental strategies based on the ethical transformation of consu
not have the necessary impact in the time that we have remaining
vary by expert and by problem but generally point to the years 202
solve major overshoot problems. This is a Utopian scheme that
resources from strategies that can have much more impact to addre
ronmental problems in the decades ahead.
Fortunately, consumerism is not the only cause of unsustainable
tion, perhaps not even the most important. While there is no denyin
effect” of consumerism, its impact varies widely. Claims that uns
consumption is caused by consumerism hide huge heterogeneity. T
within consumer societies exists primarily between different marke
a given market at different points in its development), not between
who are more or less environmentally conscious. Unsustainable con
often caused by the development of market ideologies that have b
ralized within specific market institutions and consumer practices
coal-based electricity and industrial agriculture and suburban
the depletion of ocean fish stocks. These different markets have uni
of unsustainable consumption driven by their idiosyncratic develo
by consumers’ general disposition toward materialism or
Environmental consequences do not march lockstep with consume
Some of the most environmentally conscious consumers also desire o
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fruit and vegetables year-round, which, when combined with vast
global logistics and transportation, has led to an immensely unsust
tural practice, draining scarce groundwater in the near-deserts of
Spain, and Mexico to grow products that are shipped by air thousa
These effects result from the contingent and idiosyncratic pathw
evolution in which companies (quite often entrepreneurs) exploit hi
tions of society, culture, and technology. Along the way, the diale
among companies, consumers, institutions, and technologies leads
environmental effects. This meso-level construction of unsustainab
far more malleable, and so much more susceptible to intervention
overarching culture of consumerism that now dominates the modern w
the appropriate strategies, these market-constructed unsustainab
reversed, though such reversals must march forward one market at a t
From Autonomous Ethics to Ethical Movement
In the ethical values paradigm, ethical consumption is viewed as an
toward consumption that must be autonomous from the market.
assumed to be corrupted by consumerism. And so fighting consume
importing ethics from noncommercial spheres. As a result, the e
paradigm often invokes religious and philosophical traditions. Ac
consumers to apply these imported ethical schemes as a lens to ori
sumption toward sustainability (and argue that ethical consumers
considerable identity value in so doing). If one’s ethical commitm
enough, one should be able to trade off the sacrifices required (in term
cost or lower functionality) to enact these noncommercial ethics.
Ethical consumption certainly does exist, but only rarely in the
form assumed by the ethical values paradigm. Rather, the market
paradigm demonstrates that consumer ethics operates as a (potentia
of particular market ideologies. Whether a market has a potent e
nent depends largely on the efforts of social movements and subcu
ded within the market, that challenge the dominant market constr
ethical challenges are tailored to the specific ethical “problems” o
place. Consider the different ethical consumption frameworks that
stock, coffee, cotton, diamonds, coal, and tropical forests (and of
there are multiple ethical consumption frameworks in play within
ket). Thompson and Coskuner-Ballis (2007) study of communit
agriculture (CSA) describes a consumption community dominated b
ethics of a very different stripe than the imported abstract ethical sch
ethical values paradigm. CSA ethics are conceived as contextualized
which participants perceive locally grown produce, small organic
community-building aspects of CSA as ethical challenges to the m
functional food system organized by global agribusiness. Thi
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particular to the anti-industrial-food movement, of which CSA has bec
important expression with its own distinctive inflections (along with an
anti-rGBH, Organic Consumers Association, local foodshed, fair trade, e
an ethics that emerged as a reaction to ethical problems that have bee
structed in Americas produce market and, so, the countercultural reb
indigenous to the market. Markets often repurpose and commercialize
ethical ideologies (consider successful efforts by Whole Foods, Starbuc
Chipotle to act as fast followers branding ethical food supply chains pro
social movements). And so we should understand the advance of et
sumption as a dialectical evolution that unfolds as market-focused soc
ments make ethical challenges and the mass market acts to commercial
challenges when they resonate with a critical mass of consumers.
Construction of the American Single-Serve
Bottled Water Market
Informed by this market construction paradigm, I conduct a case study
Americas unsustainable consumption pariahs—bottled water. In the Am
market, bottled water sold in single-serve plastic containers has taken of
past 20 years and has become a major environmental problem (Gleick [2
Royte [2008] provide useful overviews). Water bottled in ready-to-drink
containers is associated with environmental problems and health risks in all
of its product lifecycle. The production of plastic releases toxic chemicals, su
benzene and vinyl chloride, which can cause cancer. And the incineration
tic pollutes air, land, and water despite efforts to scrub emissions. Becau
bottles slowly disintegrate into small particles rather than decompose, t
tic bits notoriously clutter not only dumps but also the oceans. As plasti
pose, they are eaten and move up the food chain, which has led to a c
human endocrine disruption (including pthalates and Bisphenol A as well
hormonally active compounds). And finally, bottled water consumptio
intensive use of energy, a discretionary purchase that has materially increas
country’s carbon footprint. Bottled water consumes an energy equival
approximately 32 to 54 million barrels of oil per year (Gleick and Coole
equivalent to the gasoline used by more than 1 million autos in a year (
percent of total annual U.S. oil consumption)—an environmental tally th
environmentalists deem particularly wasteful since it seems so easy to av
I examine how this market was constructed and reproduced over tim
historical analysis that aims to reveal the key mechanisms that gener
explosive growth of single-serve bottled water in the United States and t
sustained this market despite widespread acknowledgement of its enviro
As a case study, bottled water is both theoretically and strategically important.
It is an environmental problem that should be relatively easy to solve. While
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many of our most challenging environmental problems are hidden fro
because they occur several steps removed from consumption in the va
(what Thomas Princen [1997] calls “distancing”), bottled water is a fr
problem. Plastic bottles create an aesthetic “eyesore” that most everyo
ences, and it is easy for most people to imagine these bottles filling up dum
getting incinerated and letting off toxic fumes. It is also a problem with d
easily understandable causes and consequences, unlike the technically
labyrinth of environmental impacts and solutions that characterize mo
in the agriculture, transportation, and energy sectors. And the pathw
tainability seem all too obvious and much less arduous than, say, givin
car for a bicycle. After all, tap water is widely available and for a tiny fra
the price. Finally anti-bottled water campaigning has received extrao
attention and resources from the environmental movement. So bottled water
should have become a leading example for how the ethical values paradigm can
be used to formulate interventions that generate sustainable consumption. Yet
bottled water consumption has continued to expand, pausing briefly only for the
severe recession of 2008-2009.
Before the late 1980s, the consumer market for bottled water in the United
States was environmentally inconsequential. Perrier pioneered the idea that
drinking bottled water in small single-serve glass bottles was an affordable way to
grasp a bit of European sophistication, which resonated among so-called yuppies,
as Reagan and Wall Street ignited Americas fondness for symbols of luxurious
upper-class living in the 1980s. At the height of its market dominance, its envi
ronmental impact was miniscule: Perrier sold 300 million bottles at its zenith,
which is far less than 1 percent of todays American market.
An important barrier to the diffusion of a bottled water market lifted in 1989
when bottle manufacturers developed technology that allowed PET (polyethyl
ene terephthalate) to be used in half-liter and smaller bottles, a significantly
cheaper and much more aesthetically pleasing plastic than the prior PVC (poly
vinyl chloride) bottles. Most bottled water companies soon offered their product
in PET, even Perrier. This technological innovation was crucial: it allowed manu
facturers to hit ever lower price points for water, and the low weight and durabil
ity allowed for new consumer uses for bottled water. However, while this new
packaging technology was a necessary condition for the construction of an envi
ronmentally unsustainable market, it was by no means sufficient.
Cultural Construction of the Market for
Healthy Portable Drinking Water
The takeoff of bottled water, from the late 1980s through the present, was
driven by health considerations, launching a market very different from the
original status-driven drinking. Three synergistic health constructs emerged
beginning in the late 1980s and became ever more dominant over the following
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two decades. These new cultural constructs were advanced by the
and environmental NGOs: the two most important actors in the lau
new market segment.
Media construction of tap water as health risk
Single-serve bottles of water took off in the United States on the b
tural disruption that would unfold throughout the nineties. Previously,
had no reason to doubt the safety of the public water supply. They
modern technologies provided them with water that was safe to drin
water purification systems occasionally broke down and outbreaks o
bacteria would follow. Historical data show that the number of outbreaks caused
by public water supplies had peaked several decades prior and was on the decline
(Royte 2008). But these sporadic outbreaks, while widely reported in the media,
did not resonate with Americans, who maintained an unshakeable belief in the
effectiveness of modern science and technology to improve their lives. They were
happy to continue to drink tap water at home and in drinking fountains.
What changed was Americans’ receptivity and interpretation of such stories,
reflecting their growing distrust in modern public institutions to protect their
interests (what Ulrich Beck has called “risk society”; see Wilk 2006) and, likewise,
their growing interest in self-monitoring the health risks of food and drinks. A
consistent flow of public health scares in the media were the proximate cause.
Well-publicized regulatory failings, framed by stories of government corruption
and collusion, led to an expanding distrust in the federal government that has
continued to this day. With this new risk society ideology in place, stories that
spoke of the risks of tap water tainted with carcinogens well above government
approved levels took on new meaning. These widely disseminated stories piled
atop many other media reports on bacteria outbreaks and carcinogenic chemicals
in the food supply. In response, Americans began to suspect the safety of tap
water and looked for alternatives.
The catalyzing event: Dying from tap water in Milwaukee
Tipping points in ideology are often caused by media events that strike the col
lective imagination: events that resonate so powerfully that they disturb previ
ously taken-for-granted assumptions, cause people to question them and talk
about them, and, eventually, forge a new ideology. The trajectory of environmen
tal ideology is filled with such examples: the Cayahuga River catching fire,
Bhopal, Chernobyl, mad cow disease, Three-Mile Island, Love Canal, Brent
Spar, Exxon Valdez, and Hurricane Katrina. Water fears were added to the list in
the wake of just such an event: the extraordinary Cryptosporidium outbreak that
hit Milwaukee in 1993. The local newspaper headline screamed, “Don’t Drink
the Water.” Four hundred thousand Milwaukeans would get sick and sixty-nine
would die before the problem was contained. The event lent itself to disconcerting
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images, such as the huge lines that formed to collect water at the one
well in Milwaukee, and narratives, such as people hauling water up fro
ninety miles away. There was so much Cryptosporidium in Milwaukee’s wa
even a person who drank from an airport water fountain got terribly
1994; Royte 2008). The shocking death toll and striking images meant
story instantly became national headline news, covered by all of the m
and weeklies across a long news cycle. They portrayed shocked citizen
posedly modern country having to boil water to get rid of parasites.
who had previously ignored media reporting on tap water safety had
but to pay attention. Many Americans looked to bottled water as an u
contaminant-free choice.
NGOs legitimize and amplify the tap water scare
With the public increasingly alarmed about tap water safety, enviro
NGOs—particularly the Environmental Working Group (EWG)
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)—jumped into the fray
legitimizing advocates for the problem. Beginning in 1995, EWG lau
tenacious run of exposes on the carcinogens and other contaminants t
in tap water. These reports were widely referenced in the media, tu
disaster into a major public health issue. It is quite possible that the M
Cryptosporidium disaster would have faded from public memory af
years had it not been for these NGO efforts. This “tap water is unsaf
construct was by far the most important driver of the new market. But t
new health constructs also gave this market a substantial push.
Eight-glasses hydration ritual and the demand for convenient water
In 1988, influential New York Times health columnist Jane Brody wrote an
indicating that experts recommended that people should drink eight
glasses of water a day to stay properly hydrated. The simple idea caug
wildfire and a new health practice was born, which Americans pursued wit
zeal. Americans soon became fastidious hydrators, carrying bottles whe
went. This hydration ritual was another significant driver of the bot
market because it demanded that water was always in arms reach. D
water and public fountains did not provide enough access to hydration
bottles were too heavy and fragile to cart around.
High-fructose corn syrup and the sugar-obesity discourse
Bottled water was given a third cultural push by a media-generated m
against sugar, specifically high-fructose corn syrup, which was the pr
sweetener used in carbonated and noncarbonated soft drinks. Inkling
challenge emerged in the early 1990s but did not diffuse widely until
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2000s. The cultural breakthrough was driven by muckraking
Schosser s Fast-Food Nation, Morgan Spurlocks Supersize Me, and
Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma—which resonated powerfully with
Americans in search of an explanation for the country’s obesity
media played off this interest, picking up on public health studies sug
sugar consumption was at the root of obesity, Type II diabetes, and
health problems. And Americans paid attention; the discourse fo
accept that the drinks they found most pleasurable were bad for t
to shift en masse from soft drinks to waters (and to “impostor w
Vitaminwater; see Holt and Cameron 2010). This shift moved singl
from one category to another, rather than create a net increase in
usage. However, had this shift been to tap water, the unintended p
on sustainable consumption would have been enormous. Instead,
ers simply drank water, rather than soda, from plastic bottles.
With these three cultural constructs in place, bottled water bec
standard for healthy beverages: a drink that has nothing dangerous in
of possible bad things being the most important new criterion for a h
And it was portable.
Big companies enter as market parasites
While the market was already exploding in the early 1990s, it was
by carbonated drinks. So these were early days from the perspect
sumer marketing companies. While Nestle was aggressively build
ket, PepsiCo and The Coca-Cola Company entered later simp
promoting bottled water would necessarily cannibalize their spark
ness. These companies could enter late and still dominate the ma
except for the boutique status waters, consumers perceived bottl
commodity. Since these companies controlled the key distributio
from vending machines and grocery shelf space, to the cold cases o
stores and offerings at stadiums and colleges and schools—they c
wrestle control of the category simply by delivering the convenie
ers demanded. And that is what they did. PepsiCo entered the m
Aquafina in 1994 and The Coca-Cola Company with Dasani in 1999
massive distribution power to put bottles of water within an arm s re
possible usage occasion.
The big three bottled water companies—Nestle, Coca-Cola, Peps
advertised their brands as a safe alternative to tap. They did not
category demand had already been nurtured by the media and N
ade. Rather, they were intent on maximizing market share. In a discou
of the first decade of bottled water advertising (detailed reporting of
push beyond the page limits of this article), I discovered that th
focused on differentiation strategies that tried to convince consum
brands were particularly pure by associating their brands with em
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However, once bottled water became a key profit center, these thre
nies did everything in their power to sustain the institutional underpi
the market, regardless of whether this perpetuated unsustainable con
These “backstage” institutional structures are crucial to understandin
unsustainable consumption ideologies become so powerfully “made m
the commercial context that surrounds consumers in everyday life.
Ethical values campaigning
The NRDC began the environmentalist backlash against bottled water
scathing report published in 1999, with the subtitle: “Pure Drin
Hype?” Other damning reports soon appeared, and eventually films an
Campaigning began in earnest in 2006, with the most influential cam
Take Back the Tap—launched by Food & Water Watch in 2007. A host
ist efforts with unusual coherence and marketing savvy soon follow
included teach-ins, efforts to get students to use refillable container
pus, restaurants that served tap instead of bottled water, and so
Leonard’s immensely popular YouTube video The Story of Bottle
released in March 2010, was the most impactful media intervention, g
over 2 million hits.
While climate change was far and away the focal environmental issu
period, bottled water was arguably the most intensive and best-organ
ronmental campaign focused on a particular issue. The core argumen
these efforts, regardless of creative spin, was to switch from bottled wate
The lead argument came straight from the ethical values paradigm: bot
is a big environmental problem and it is such an easy one to fix, so you sh
something about it. Leonards video attacked the bottled water compa
“manufacturing demand” for a product that was not necessary (an argu
my analysis above clearly refutes) and celebrated tap water. Supporting
ment were claims that tap water was safe. For instance, the Center
American Dream (CNAD) tried to motivate its members to switch to t
ing them that “the Environmental Protection Agency had found that 9
of tap water domestically is safe to drink.”1
Drinking bottled water did become stigmatized on some college cam
and in some niche cultural elite circles, but the campaigns impact on
market was negligible. Sales predictably contracted during the acute re
2008-2009, but then grew again. In 2011, Americans consumed an ave
29.2 gallons of bottled water a year, the highest rate on record
Marketing Corporation 2012).
Incumbents defend against activism
The bottled water market incumbents acted to defend future revenue
even though there were clear environmental externalities. They partic
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the management of environmental problems only when doing so wo
a significant negative business impact. The big three companies all c
reducing the plastic content in their bottles as their signature com
solving the environmental problem. Since this effort decreases th
goods, they have a strong “win-win” incentive. As a result, bottle weigh
significantly (32 percent reduction in PET from 2002 to 2010). Com
these bottle improvements to trumpet their environmental bona fi
advertising campaigns geared toward countering the discourse that b
is an environmental problem.
In addition, incumbents often try to counter activism with adver
public relations, usually through industry associations so that their bran
directly associated with these efforts. For example, the Internatio
Water Association attempted to rebut The Story of Bottled Water w
Story of Bottled Water, a flimsy effort that attracted a meager sixt
hits as of the end of 2011.
However, when unsustainable consumption is embedded in market
way that it cannot be resolved without companies taking a profit hit, in
will act to sustain the market regardless of the environmental dam
same companies that earnestly devoted R&D to shrink the footprint
tles were simultaneously working backstage to squash regulations
threaten their profitability. As long as the demand for bottled water re
and plastic is the dominant packaging material, the only viable path
the carbon footprint for bottled water is recycling. Voluntary recy
marginal results, while recycling that is incentivized with a deposit
cents has proven very effective (Royte 2008). With this clear eviden
environmental groups have long sought to institute bottle deposit l
states (initiatives that span all beverage bottles, not just water). M
initiatives have not passed due to the intensive lobbying efforts of b
keters and bottle manufacturers.
Why Do Americans Still Drink Bottled Water?
This analysis of the construction of the American bottled water market details
the mechanisms through which this unsustainable market was constructed and
reproduced and reveals why major activist campaigning did not work. The cen
tral strategic weakness of the campaigning is that it did not address the market
ideology—the sedimented value perceptions that sustain bottled water con
sumption. Appeals to drink tap water did not resolve American s murky belief,
driven by media reports of NGO findings, that public water is contaminated
with carcinogens and that drinking a glass is playing Russian roulette with
deadly pathogens such as E. coli. Americans drink bottled water because they
believe that they are healthier for so doing, have developed routines around
this belief, and circulate in a society that continually reinforces this ideology.
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This ideology is sustained by a decrepit and underfunded public w
that the public does not trust, environmental NGOs’ aggressive c
against tap waters health risks, and the media’s continued fascinat
“scare” story. As long as these cultural mechanics are in place, th
ceptions of tap water are not going to change. This is what I call
Ideological lock-in is not static. The dialectical interplay among
course, market competition, and evolving consumer desires tends
the cultural codes that serve as ideological benchmarks. The net e
decades of the tap water safety discourse dramatically shifted wh
perceived as safe water. Water that comes out of a tap came to be
problematic, regardless of the quality of the municipal water syste
filtered, otherwise it is not safe. And healthy water should have no tas
the typical off-taste of disinfectants, such as chlorine, in the water si
sumers that the water is inferior. While the rehabilitation of the n
water supply was a viable if hugely expensive solution two decades ago,
is no longer true. “Healthy water” is now conveyed by new cultura
must be filtered, water must have no taste. This is what I term cultur
tion (Holt and Cameron 2010). Activists must grapple with the ma
tion of tap water risks that has become sedimented as a taken
ideology in today’s bottled water market and construct strategies t
this skepticism.
Likewise, as long as Americans continue to believe that they requ
hydration throughout the day for good health, they will continue
convenient source of safe water on the go, whatever the environ
quence. The campaigners’ proposed alternative—carrying arou
containers—never caught on beyond young cultural elites (who e
identity value they earned from their devotion to such a clunky so
because it requires consumers to give up the convenience they wa
they can hydrate on the go all day long.
Because the campaigns ignored the structures that sustained un
consumption, their foundational premise was faulty. They asked in
reject the market ideologies and practices that they had embraced
ades and that they are surrounded by in everyday life. Moving ma
sustainable consumption requires strategies that acknowledge and o
structures holding unsustainable consumption in place. Let me off
lative examples to demonstrate this logic.
Better than Bottled
An effective strategy must provide an alternative that is perceived
as safe as bottled water. So I developed a campaign concept based
filtered water fountains, both for drinking and to refill bottles, which
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to a higher standard than is required for bottled water. These pub
sources are advertised as such and given a modern design, borrowi
munication codes that the bottled water industry has diffused for c
purity of water. The fountains are installed at a high enough densit
spaces that a fountain is always convenient. Consumers would a
where the closest fountain is via a consumer-friendly Smartphone app t
the locations of all the fountains.
This concept could be extended into the household via a governmen
to facilitate the installation of inexpensive filter systems in homes and
(perhaps $200 installed at scale), using a financing model that adds a
to the utility bill spread over a year. An institutional strategy could be
top of this concept, which would seek to ban the sale of bottled w
geographies wherever public dispensers are installed.
Pepsi, Nestle, Coke, Close the Loop!
The analysis also reveals a prime opportunity to go after the m
water companies: not for tricking Americans into drinking bottled
did not, and convincing people that this is so would not change the
but for their behind-the-scenes efforts to stall sustainability effo
cling. Recycling is the simplest solution to the bottled water p
recycling captures more than 80 percent of the embedded energy a
percent of the greenhouse gas emissions compared to virgin PE
about 14 percent of water bottles get recycled (Royte 2008). Howeve
with bottle deposits that include water bottles, the percentage ris
cent or more. Recycling is one of the most robust and resonant env
rituals in the United States, and so consumers will likely support
that require them to recycle more as long as they are not onerous. T
companies fight against recycling is not well known and, if it were
tainly be hugely damaging from a public relations perspective. All
panies make strong claims about their commitment to sustain
corporate level, which leaves them very vulnerable if such a poign
of their support for unsustainable practices were to emerge. A cam
pursues plastic bottle deposits on a national basis has tremendo
Furthermore, all these companies have developed the ability to ma
with high recycled content, or with a high percentage of sugarcan
(what the Coca-Cola Company has trademarked and promoted as Pl
But they have been very slow to push these products into the mar
they are more expensive. A Close the Loop campaign could be prem
idea that not only should these companies embrace deposit laws as
truly sustainable but should play a leadership role in ensuring tha
bottles are 100 percent recyclable and plant-based. This campaign i
include sodas and noncarbonated beverages as well.
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Ideological Lock-In: How Markets Reproduce
Unsustainable Consumption
Many highly significant unsustainable consumption patterns accu
unintended consequences of market construction processes. Unsustai
sumption becomes sedimented in the structure of the market, resulting in
of path dependence that differs from standard economic accounts. Ad
economic concept of lock-in, I use the term ideological lock-in to desc
cultural underpinnings of unsustainable consumption. Ideological loc
unsustainable consumption in place by shaping the taken-for-grante
tions of the value that consumers receive from their current consum
terns. And ideological lock-in is dynamic, influenced in unexpec
through the process of cultural code inflation, such as I describe for t
water market. Ideological lock-in becomes institutionally “sticky,” thro
mechanisms: the naturalization of the market ideology in the cultural
the habituation of everyday consumption practices that embody the
and the materialization of the ideology in backstage market institut
structure the market according to ideological assumptions.
Sustainable Consumption through Movement-Led
While consumerism certainly impacts unsustainable consumption, it
dominant meta-ideology that is impossible to overturn quickly enoug
tively manage the worlds overshoot problems. Instead, policy and
should focus on the large percentage of unsustainable consumption t
ated as unintended consequences of the development of specific mar
pathway toward sustainable consumption requires either transformi
frogging the ideological lock-in that reproduces unsustainable con
across many markets.
This alternative sustainability strategy requires effective market-fa
movements. And since the transformation process must aim at specif
ideologies, institutions, and practices, effective strategies must proce
by market, rather than pursue an overarching shift in consumer
Sustainable consumption, then, requires a federation of market mov
each of which has a specific strategy that is tailored to take advanta
market s most vulnerable “lock in” features. This conclusion is no doubt discour
aging news for many longtime environmentalists who have galvanized for dec
ades around a single revolutionary environmental war. However, this
constructionist model suggests that winning hundreds of specific marketplace
battles is, paradoxically, the swiftest path to a societal transformation moving
toward sustainable consumption.
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