Liquid Death and the Nonsense of Packaged Water
All water is created equal; as long as it’s clean, the body is happy with it. The brain, though, is harder to please—especially given a modicum of disposable income and an abundance of commercial choice. Some people prefer to quench their thirst with only a Southern-chic Mountain Valley Spring Water, in green glass, others with a nouveau-riche cylinder of Voss, or a minimalist baton of Smartwater, or the outfit-matching aerodynamism of a refillable stainless-steel S’well bottle. There’s water for athletes—with nipple-like caps, for squirtable hydration—and water for kids, in roly-poly little bottles. On the inside, they all contain a triatomic compound of two hydrogens and an oxygen, in liquid form, odorless, colorless, essentially flavorless: one substance, key to life, with packaging options for all.
Last week, an entrepreneur named Mike Cessario announced that he’d brought in $1.6 million in venture funding for a new water brand called Liquid Death, which is designed to appeal to punks who are “straight edge”—eschewing drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. In an interview with Business Insider, Cessario explained that he was inspired to create Liquid Death because he considered other water brands to be catering to “Whole Foods yoga moms” and thus to be insufficiently punk. Wrapped in teen-rebel labelling, complete with skull imagery and heavy blackletter type, Liquid Death comes in 16.9-ounce tallboy cans, each printed with a detailed explanation of the brand’s “proprietary thirst murdering process.” Perhaps to preëmpt haters, Liquid Death touts its virtue not only culturally but ecologically: its aluminum cans are more environmentally friendly than plastic bottles, and the brand claims to donate five cents from each can purchased to ocean recovery. “Everything metal and punk is extreme,” Cessario said, by way of explanation. “Being vegan is extreme. Protesting the deforestation is extreme.”
Other sustainability-minded water companies have embraced aluminum over plastic in recent years: Open Water, which sells its product in twist-top metal bottles; Mana Nalu, the tallboy-water brand launched by the actor Jason Momoa, which capitalizes on his role as Aquaman, superhero guardian of the seas, to raise awareness about ocean pollution. But the benefits of metal packaging are relative. Aluminum may be light to transport and easy to recycle, but the industrial costs of mining and processing are considerable. Then there’s the environmental cost of freighting thousands of gallons of slosh (in Liquid Death’s case, “drinking water from the Austrian alps”) from one continent to another, and the societal cost of treating water as a private commodity. In 2010, an American executive from Fiji Water was deported from Fiji for meddling in local governmental affairs. Closer to home, massive bottled-water brands like Nestlé and Coca-Cola draw from state and municipal water supplies, at sweetheart rates. The most ethical option is to avoid single-serving containers altogether, and to drink from the tap using reusable filters and vessels. (Outrageously, even this is a luxury in America: an estimated 1.6 million Americans currently lack access to clean water, and, as our outdated water infrastructure feels the effects of climate change, those numbers are only going to grow.)
Bottled water is big business—the International Bottled Water Association, an industry group, reported revenues of $18.5 billion in 2017. That’s also the year that retail water surpassed sodas in what the beverage industry evocatively refers to as “share of stomach.” In the grand pool of corporate water, Liquid Death and its million-plus dollars in fund-raising is a mere droplet. We may never see its skull-covered cans in our local bodega’s display case—so far, it’s available only to consumers online. Either way, it’s faint praise for Liquid Death or any other company to claim that its packaged water is superior to another. Arguing about what’s punk is a cornerstone of punk culture. But most of us can agree that logging on to Amazon to buy a twenty-two-dollar twelve-pack of water is definitively not.