This morning I read about Molecule, a new “water-only café” that’s just opened in New York City. The café takes NYC tap water and runs it through a purifier, then sells it at the price of $2.50 per 16-ounce glass. Bring in your own container and you could get a price as low as $1. Next, add vitamins and other supplements to your water, starting at $1 per serving. Admittedly, I couldn’t help but feel amused and awed all at once as I thought: “wait a minute — is this really a criticism of bottled water, embodied as a storefront?” Culture-jamming as a water café? Practical lesson in economics? Maybe both?
Guest Jennifer Lacey wrote earlier on my blog about the popularity of bottled water across the globe, and much has been made of how bottled water is not uncommon despite its cost being orders of magnitude higher than the same volume of tap water. As of today, Arlington County is charging its residents $3.98 per 1,000 gallons for tap water. A quick query on Google gave me about $5 for a 24-pack of 16.9 fluid-ounce bottles of water, which is about 20 cents per bottle or $1.57 per gallon — more expensive than Arlington tap water by a factor 396. And yet, numerous media outlets have stormed over Molecule — partly because of the price per glass (about a factor 13 more expensive than a bottle of water), but mainly because of the sheer audacity of expecting people to buy filtered tap water as a connoisseur product. The Wall Street Journal’s headline was, “Something in the Water?,” a Village Voice blogger labeled Molecule’s site a “snake oil factory,” and the Atlantic Wire described Molecule’s product as “what you sell when people will buy anything.” Well, Atlantic Wire, it seems many of us have been happy anything-buyers for quite some time now. For instance, Pepsi and Coca-Cola revealed years ago that their Aquafina and Dasani bottled water products originate from “public reservoirs,” and the International Bottled Water Association even has a position on the labeling issue.
We know from basic economic theory that the price people are willing to pay for an item or service isn’t well-correlated with production cost. I’m also of course aware of arguments that when people buy a bottle of water, they’re essentially expressing their valuation of convenience, embodied in a particular form factor. Grabbing a bottle of water at a vending machine is a different act than hopping down to East Village to visit Molecule, but the difference isn’t as huge as some media outlets might express. Time will tell whether trendy New Yorkers line up to buy what co-owner Adam Ruhf calls “Gatorade for yogis,” but the shock and outrage at this new business venture would make even the Yes Men proud.
Photo “water drop medley” by theilr, on Flickr.