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Virgil Abloh’s reusable water bottle for Evian is indicative of luxury’s new mindset – but shouldn’t sustainable products be accessible and desirable to all?
Last week, Evian launched its new reusable water bottle concept in Paris at a lavish fashion party in collaboration with hyped fashion designer Virgil Abloh. Paper Magazine called it ‘refreshing', while Fast Company said ‘leave it to Abloh to make reusable water bottles fashionable'.
The artistic director gushed at the opportunity to create the £45 Soma water bottle with the world's third-largest bottled water company. ‘Water is an essential and necessary ingredient for life. As a designer, I have always wanted to make design a universal language accessible to all,’ Abloh said at the launch.
And yet, something about this collaboration feels off. Abloh was not just appointed to apply his brand of fashion cool to the water industry; he has also been appointed Evian's Creative Advisor for Sustainable Innovation Design, tasked with helping the brand meet its goal of becoming fully circular by 2025.
Evian’s goal makes sense when you consider that disposable water bottles are a particularly absurd waste of plastic. By some estimates, annual consumption of plastic bottles is set to top half a trillion by 2021, far outstripping recycling efforts. According to Citi GPS, only 14% of plastic is currently recycled, with water bottles the third most-common item found in ocean debris.
In this way, Abloh claims he is making sustainable design accessible to all, but what about the small issue that we still don’t live in a world in which water is accessible to all? One in every nine people still does not have access to safe drinking water. In Pakistan, for example, water scarcity is causing occasional rioting and long queues at public wells or safe water sources.
The luxury premium that currently comes with sustainable consumption means that products are often out of reach for the average consumer.
In our macro trend Uneasy Affluence, we recently explored how premium reusable water bottles like the Soma have become representative of Western luxurians' anxiety around the planet’s depleting resources. Not only this, but reducing plastic has become a virtue signal that lets affluent consumers convey their morals and ethics in a visible manner. Thanks to their new status, reusable bottles have become a booming industry, one that is expected to rise to £7.91bn ($10.4bn, €9.20bn) by 2025.
‘There is nothing wrong with showing that you care about the environment, of course – that should be applauded,’ explains brand strategist Arwa Mahdawi. ‘It’s just a convenient way for polluting companies to make themselves look good without really changing or jeopardising their bottom line.’
The reality is that tackling sustainability on an individual level is an act of privilege for many. The luxury premium that currently comes with sustainable consumption means that products are often out of reach for even the average consumer. This past year, the Conscious Consumer Spending Index found that price emerged as the number one reason Americans aren’t spending more on socially responsible products and services.
By separating the idea of water as a necessity and water as a luxury product, Evian is missing the opportunity to create a whole-system solution that is truly inclusive.
‘That’s not an incitement to panic, or an indictment on the sustainability of business as a force for good, but merely an invitation to take a moment and examine our blind spots,’ says Heather Shackleford, founder of Good Must Grow, a socially responsible marketing agency.
One brand that does seem to get it is Chromat. It chose to protest ‘whitewashing’ in ethical fashion at New York Fashion Week in February 2019. ‘When thinking about sustainability it's going to need an intersectional approach, because the reality is class and race will affect how people can engage with it,’ says Chromat designer and founder Becca McCharen-Tran. ‘We need to ensure that sustainability remains diverse and that we are creating solutions for all.’
In hiring a hyped fashion designer, Evian has tried to separate the idea of water as a necessity for life and water as a luxury product, missing the opportunity to create a whole-system solution that is truly inclusive for all.
There is nothing disruptive in the approach Evian has taken. If it isn’t accessible, it is neither radical or revolutionary.