When Did Reusable Water Bottles Become A Status Symbol?

Illustrated by Seung Won Chun.
What’s the most amount of money you’d spend on a water bottle? £20? £50? £1,000? Believe it or not, the latter is not some far-fetched fantasy number. It is an actual, purchasable option, thanks to a recent collaboration between S’well and Swarovski, which asks four figures for a water bottle festooned with over 6,000 crystals, or a somewhat more manageable £110 for one with a crystal-embellished top. That’s right, you could easily drop the equivalent of your monthly rent — and then some, depending on where you live — on what amounts to a bedazzled water bottle. (Albeit a very, very beautiful one.)
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Fifteen years or so ago, reusable water bottles were pretty much a crunchy-granola accessory, used chiefly by regular shoppers at the local health food store and the kind of people who think sleeping in the woods for a month sounds like a fun vacation. In the 1960s, outdoorsy folks began using durable polyethylene bottles from a Rochester, New York-based laboratory supply company called Nalge for storing water and other liquids during hiking trips. Word got back to the company’s president, who fashioned his son’s Boy Scout troop with them, and Nalgene Outdoor Products was born. Perhaps you’ve tried to destroy one of their famously unbreakable bottles.
Today, bottles are a booming industry, valued at £5.5 billion in 2015 and expected to rise to $10.19 billion by 2024. It’s likely that almost everyone you know owns at least one reusable bottle, if not a few. And while there are plenty of inexpensive, bare-bones options out there (like the ones you get for free at sponsored events), companies like S’well, which has also collaborated with Lilly Pulitzer and Liberty London, rely on the fact that people are willing to pay a premium for a product that’s not only high-quality but also aesthetically pleasing. It doesn’t hurt if it’s the same one they see celebrities and influencers carrying.
“People are taking photos of their wellness activities, so of course photos are going to include hydration, and they want it to look cute. A [disposable] water bottle is not cute. So I think that’s a huge influence,” Taryn Tavella, an associate editor at trend forecasting firm WGSN, tells Refinery29.
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Tavella says that, according to the WGSN archives, must-have water bottles first appeared on their radar around 2011. She credits a company called Bobble with helping to really put reusable water bottles on the map. Perhaps you remember Bobble: those clear plastic bottles with a filtration system built into the drinking nozzle, which came in a rainbow of colours. When you drank out of them, they made a kind of wheezing noise that proved especially conspicuous (audible virtuousness!) in classes or meetings. Bobble came onto the market in 2010, and just a couple years later, they were seemingly everywhere, from hipster meccas like American Apparel and Urban Outfitters to Bed Bath and Beyond to their own flagship store in New York’s SoHo neighbourhood.
Bobbles were cool looking, and it helped that they had an element that seemed a little tech-y and promised the benefit of filtered water. The company still exists; you can buy one of their “classic” bottles for just £8.99, and they’ve also developed a range of other options. But it’s safe to say Bobble has been a bit eclipsed, not only by the sleek, style-conscious designs of brands like S’well, Soma, and bkr, but even by smaller, niche companies offering more customised drinking experiences. For example: VitaJuwel, which sells glass bottles with “interchangeable gem pods” for between £60 and £140 on festival girl-facing sites like Free People and Revolve. Compared to that, Nalgene and once-trendy Bobble seem downright pedestrian.
Tavella predicts this kind of semi-personalised luxury may be the future of the industry. “There’s a wellness aspect, but it also is a gorgeous collector’s item, if you think about it,” she says. “I really think it would be a great if a lot of them had more technological integration, and I think that’s where a lot of them are going. I saw some at trade shows that had removable speakers, you could hang it on your bike.”
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Illustrated by Seung Won Chun.
But by far the most common, and in some ways the most conducive to interpretation by design partners, is still the metal style popularised by S’well. Founded in 2010, S’well has spawned many imitators, though none have enjoyed the name recognition and popularity among everyone from college kids — the brand’s site offers student discounts — to celebrities like Jennifer Garner and Kaley Cuoco. According to Kendra Peavy, the company’s global VP of communication, CEO Sarah Kauss was on a hike when she had the idea for a bottle that would look more sophisticated than the other options on the market, and would also have the technology to keep cool things cool and hot things hot for several hours.
“She realised, wait a second, if I can create a reusable water bottle that not only looks better — because she needed something to keep up as she was going up the corporate ladder — but something that works better too, I might be able to do more good in the world,” Peavy tells Refinery29.
Just six years later, in 2016, the company brought home £75 million in revenue, according to Inc. In its relatively short lifetime, S’well has raised significant funds for major charities including UNICEF, (RED), and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. And its bottles, which typically sell for between £25 and £40, are now sold at prominent fashion retailers like Neiman Marcus, Revolve, and Urban Outfitters.
This fashion world connection comes as the wellness industry ballooned to £2.79 trillion in 2015, up more than ten percent from just two years prior, according to the Global Wellness Institute. While the global apparel and footwear industry grew 4% in 2017, the hunger for bespoke water bottles and yoga mats may be surpassing that for designer dresses and heels. After all, everyone just wears athleisure now anyway, right?
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Tavella points out that kitchenware has simultaneously become more design-oriented. “It’s super interesting, because normally you wouldn’t think of having knives be gorgeous, but now they’re beautiful with the rainbow colours, [they come in] bronze or gold, it’s really interesting to see that everywhere, people are a lot more conscious of aesthetics,” she says.
From sterling silver and fur-trimmed keychains to the long tradition of pricey pens and fancy lighters, transforming utilitarian items into status symbols is far from new. But the high-end reusable water bottle — excuse me, that’s “hydration vessel” in industry-speak — feels, in many ways, like an especially ironic addition to the canon of items that have undergone a conspicuous luxe-ification. Chalk it up to their outdoorsy roots, or the very real role they play in preventing disposable plastics from filling up landfills, polluting the ocean, and generally destroying the planet, but something about the reusable water bottle feels like it’s too pure to be corrupted.
But, then again, a portion of the proceeds from S’well’s Swarovski bottles (100 percent of the £1,000 bottles and 20 percent of the £110 ones), for example, go to support the Swarovski Waterschool, which teaches children about sustainable development. In fact, in addition to S'well, tons of reusable water bottle companies participate in charity or sustainability initiatives. And the trendier reusable water bottles become, the more likely people are to use them, which saves the planet and in some cases, directs money to these worthy causes. So it’s kind of a win-win for everyone. Unless, I guess, you’re the type to lose that personalised bottle you just spent £40 on.
Speaking of the fashion industry, Tavella also notes that it feels like only a matter of time before more big-name brands want to get in on the action, whether that means partnering with a company like S’well or creating a hydration accessory of their own in-house. “I’m really surprised Vetements doesn’t have, like, a Poland Springs water bottle,” she laughs.
A funny image, yes, but anyone who watches the runway — or the water bottle world — knows it’s probably not that far afield. Demna Gvasalia, if you’re reading this, we promise not to say anything (or alert Diet Prada) if you take the idea.
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