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Christiana Zenner Explores Ethics of the Convenience of Bottled Water

Christiana Zenner, an associate professor of theology, science, and ethics at Fordham University, delivered a lecture entitled, “The Convenience Just Tastes So Good: Profit, Public Health, and Ethics in Our Ongoing Desire for Bottled Waters,” at Boston College on Wednesday.

The lecture, which addressed the commodification of water and the rise of disposable plastic water bottles, was offered as part of PULSE’s 50th anniversary. Zenner was invited to spend the week of Dec. 2 as a scholar-in-residence for the PULSE program.

Zenner started her talk by addressing the necessity of interdisciplinary thought and teaching.

“It might sound strange that a theology professor is giving a talk on bottled water and a question on the ethics of bottled water, but it's actually not so far afield," Zenner argued. “This talk is an attempt to think a little bit better about the ethics of bottled water, but also about our presumptions about what kind of thing water is, morally."

She reiterated throughout the lecture the importance of understanding where water flows—to wealthy, white neighborhoods.

The lecture was centered around five key concepts: terminology and data, a brief history of bottled water, Catholic social teaching and social thought, “ethical” bottled water in 2019, and conclusions or future directions.

Further, Zenner reminded attendees to keep in mind the vantage point from which she, “a white female academic in North America [...] who has enjoyed abundant, safe infrastructure,” approaches the issue of water accessibility and plastic bottles. With this point, she encouraged the audience to think about whose voices are heard and acknowledged in the discussion of water access and the ethics of water.

During the terminology and data section of her lecture, Zenner defined privatization, commodification, and marketization, using water as an example of a natural resource that has been commodified and is now part of the market for goods.

Zenner also shared data showing a rise in the use of disposable plastic water bottles. Despite the increased movement towards reusable water bottles, seen through the popularity of S’well and Hydro Flasks, the market for bottled water has continued to expand.

According to one statistic Zenner shared, “bottled water constitutes the largest sector of the entire beverage consumption at 23.9%.” 

In “Bottled Water: A Brief History,” Zenner outlined the origins of bottled water as we know it today, beginning with Pierre and Evian in the 1970s. In response to the question of why bottled water is so prevalent and long-standing, Zenner offered convenience, symbols of status, and concerns for public health as possible explanations.

However, Zenner suggested that this view of bottled water as cleaner may be incorrect. Public water, which is controlled by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “is monitored, ideally, several times per day with tight restrictions," Zenner explained. Bottled water, on the other hand, is regulated by the Food and Drug Association (FDA), and is tested weekly.

“The EPA requires public disclosure on public water,” said Zenner. “The FDA does not require public disclosure on treatment processes and contaminants.”

The third part of Zenner's lecture, “Catholic social teaching and social thought on bottled water,” addressed the lack of discussion of the Catholic view of fresh water and access to fresh water. However, she argued that established Catholic social teaching “acknowledges the realities of freshwater scarcities and infrastructure failures, especially for the poor, advocates for the human right to water, and expresses skepticism about the privatization, commodification, and marketization of fresh water.”

Zenner then moved the discussion to the question of the ethics of bottled water. She cited three primary explanations of instances in which bottled water is branded as “ethical.” Firstly, branding is “ethical” because it involves product improvements that “reduce long-term life cycle impacts or tout individual health.” Secondly, offset is “ethical” because the social good produced by the company “make[s] individual consumption less problematic.”

The third reason, which Zenner argued is also the most compelling, is vulnerability. Vulnerability makes bottled water ethical because “marginalized or vulnerable populations benefit from bottled water when infrastructure fails, is non-existent, or disaster strikes.”

Ultimately, Zenner argued that the issue with these “ethical” reasons for bottled water, especially concerning the first and second offerings, is that they do not change the system of extraction. Instead, they offer consumption as a solution to the problem of consumption, thereby replicating the system.

Zenner said she was most concerned “that when bottled water becomes the mechanism of accessing and providing water, it individualizes responsibility for freshwater access.”

Zenner, however, argued that fresh water, in line with Catholic social teaching, is a common good that is a human right.

In her conclusion, Zenner reiterated her skepticism of “ethical” bottled water, reminding the audience to “separate wants from needs,” in order to consider how public goods and common goods intersect.

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