A More Perfect Commodity: Bottled Water, Global Accumulation, and Local Contestation


  • Correction added on 9 May 2013 after first online publication on 14 December 2012. The affiliation has been changed to Washington State University in this version of the article.


Bottled water sits at the intersection of debates regarding the social and environmental effects of the commodification of nature and the ways neoliberal globalization alters the provision of public services. Utilizing Polanyi's concept of fictitious commodities and Harvey's work on accumulation by dispossession, this article traces bottled water's transformation from elite niche item to a product consumed by three fourths of U.S. households. Drawing on ethnographic research with participants in two cases of proposed spring water extraction from rural communities by industry leader Nestlé Waters, we make two principal arguments. First, the case of bottled water necessitates a reevaluation of existing theoretical frameworks regarding water privatization and commodification. Municipal tap water networks pose substantial barriers to capital accumulation, leading one influential scholar to frame water as an “uncooperative commodity.” However, bottled water's characteristics enable it to evade many of these constraints, rendering it a “more perfect commodity” for accumulation. Second, expansion of the market good of bottled water alters the prospects for the largely publicly provided good of tap water. We conclude that the growth of this relatively new commodity represents a more serious threat to the project of universal public drinking water provision than that posed by tap water privatization.