The potential judgment of students can lead a teacher to do strange things. For Monique Mongeon, an arts educator in Toronto, starting a job teaching adults sparked a small crisis of confidence. “I was in my mid-20s, and I was looking at things I could do to make myself feel like a person who had authority to stand in front of a bunch of other 20-somethings,” she says. After ruling out fancy bags and shoes as too extravagant, Mongeon settled on a sleek $45 water bottle. “I was scrolling through websites thinking, Which of these S’well bottles looks like the kind of person I want to be?”
Nine years ago, there was only one S’well, and it was blue. Now you can get the curvy, steel-capped bottles in more than 200 size-and-color combinations, including some that look like marble or teakwood. Many are customizable with your initials. The big ones will hold an entire bottle of wine, and smaller versions are made for cocktails or coffee. Teens offer S’well bottles to propose to prospective prom dates. They’re a common sight in Instagram photos of artfully stuffed vacation carry-ons and aesthetically pleasing desk tableaux.
S’well’s success is impressive, but the brand has a host of competitors nipping at its heels in what has become an enormous market for high-end, reusable beverage containers. If nothing in S’well’s inventory calls out to you, maybe you’ll like a Yeti, Sigg, Hydro Flask, Contigo, or bkr. A limited-edition Soma bottle, created in collaboration with the Louis Vuitton designer Virgil Abloh and Evian (itself a legend of designer water), was recently feted at New York Fashion Week. VitaJuwel bottles, which can cost more than $100, promise to “restructure” your tap water using the power of interchangeable crystal pods.
On the surface, water bottles as totems of consumer aspiration sound absurd: If you have access to water, you can drink it out of so many things that already exist in your home. But if you dig a little deeper, you find that these bottles sit at a crossroads of cultural and economic forces that shape Americans’ lives far beyond beverage choices. If you can understand why so many people would spend 50 bucks on a water bottle, you can understand a lot about America in 2019.
The first time I coveted a water bottle was in 2004. When I arrived as a freshman at the University of Georgia, I found that I was somehow the last person alive who didn’t own a Nalgene. The brand’s distinctive, lightweight plastic bottles had long been a cult-favorite camping accessory, but in the mid-2000s, they exploded in popularity beyond just outdoorsmen. A version with the school’s logo on it cost $16 in the bookstore, which was a little steep for me, an unemployed 18-year-old, but I bought one anyway. I wanted to be the kind of person all my new peers apparently were. Plus, it’s hot in Georgia. A nice water bottle seemed like a justifiable extravagance.
Around the same time, I remember noticing the first flares of another trend intimately related to the marketability of water bottles: athleisure. All around me, stylish young women wore colorful Nike running shorts and carried bright plastic Nalgenes to class. “With Millennials, fitness and health are themselves signals,” says Tülin Erdem, a marketing professor at NYU. “They drink more water and carry it with them, so it’s an item that becomes part of them and their self-expression.”
Now, across Instagram, you can find high-end water bottles lurking around the edges of stylized gym photos posted by exercisers and fitness instructors. Usually these people aren’t being rewarded for the placement with anything but likes. Sarah Kauss, S’well’s founder and CEO, says people have been photographing her water bottles since the company began in 2010. “I’d receive hundreds of pictures a week from customers,” she says. “I wasn’t giving them anything for it. There wasn’t a free bottle or a coupon code or anything other than customers just wanting to show their own experience.”
Kauss says she always knew the bottle’s appearance would be important, even though positioning something as simple as a water bottle as a luxury product was a bit of a gamble. “As I moved up in my career, I was upgrading my wardrobe, and the bottle that looked like a camping accessory really didn’t serve my purpose anymore,” she says. When she noticed fashionable New Yorkers were carrying luxe disposable plastic bottles from brands such as Evian and Fiji, she realized reusable bottles could use a makeover, too.
Kauss and her contemporaries struck at the right time. The importance of fitness and wellness were starting to gain a foothold in fashionable crowds, and concerns over consumer waste and plastic’s potential to leach chemicals into food and water were gaining wider attention. People wanted cute workout gear, and they wanted to drink water out of materials other than plastic. Researchers have found that the chance to be conspicuously sustainability-conscious motivates consumers, especially when the product being purchased costs more than its less-green counterparts.
Nearly a decade on, the water-bottle trend shows no signs of slowing, and people just seem to like their fancy bottles a lot. The insulated metal variety, the most popular, does a far better job than plastic of keeping beverages at ideal temperatures. They’re durable and useful. When I put out a call for opinions on Twitter, I heard from hundreds of people about how much they loved theirs. Rebecca Thomas, a 28-year-old in Atlanta who owns three S’wells, says she once paid a ransom to an Uber driver after she left one behind in the car. (“That’s when I decided I’d never put wine in one again,” she says.) Others were similarly dedicated. “I will be buried with all of my different sizes of Hydro Flask,” says Elizabeth Sile, an editor in New York City. “Maybe by then Hydro Flask will come out with a coffin, so I can be buried in that, too.”
The trend’s Instagram visibility might make it seem like high-end water bottles are the sole province of women. Indeed, brands such as bkr, whose bottles are pastel glass and can come with a special top meant to hold lip gloss, are explicitly marketed as products of feminine beauty. (Drinking water, after all, is often lauded as the ultimate skin-care product.) But the category’s origins in camping gear mean that it started out with a strong foothold among male Millennials as well, and brands such as Yeti and Hydro Flask have continued to court a more masculine audience. Mike Ferguson, a 37-year-old in Los Angeles, has four Yetis of various sizes that he usually uses for iced coffee and water. “I have very few vices, but this is one,” he says. “Am I a brand loyalist? I don’t think so, but the evidence suggests otherwise.”
Ferguson, like many other people I spoke with, got his first Yeti as a gift. Kauss says that’s a trend she sees with S’well’s customers, too: People will buy one or two, presumably for themselves, and then come back to the website around the holidays and buy six. Most brands also customize orders for large corporate clients, meaning your employer might hand you a logo bottle at the end of the year. Even if spending 40 or 50 bucks on a water bottle sounds bad, getting one for free can turn reluctant consumers into evangelists.
When those factors are taken together, it’s hard to be surprised that so many $50 water bottles exist, or that people have snapped them up in droves. On a certain level, a nice water bottle fulfills its promise in the way few things do. They hold water. They stay cold. They look nice on your desk. They don’t leave an unsightly sweat ring on your nightstand. For people such as Mongeon, the art teacher, they look like things that are owned by people who know what they’re doing. For a lot of people, they spark a little bit of joy in the otherwise mundane routine of work, exercise, and personal hygiene. For a generation with less expendable income than its parents’, a nice bottle pays for itself with a month of consistent use and lets you feel like you’re being proactive about your health and the environment.
A container of any kind, whether it’s a rented storage unit or a decorative basket, promises order and control. Marie Kondo’s Netflix show about organizing American homes in disarray was a hit for a reason: There’s a small amount of serenity in finding the right vessel and filling it with the right thing. Consumer choices might not be an effective solution to structural problems such as pollution, but it’s nice to feel like you’re making ethical choices. If nothing else, Millennials can buy the best water bottle they can afford and try their best to stay hydrated.