Reviewing public health, nutrition, and social science literature, this article examines how bottled water consumption and spending in the United States differ along lines of race, ethnicity, and income, how these consumption patterns have changed in recent years, and how those shifts map onto perceptions of the safety and trustworthiness of tap water supplies, both before and since the Flint water disaster. It also addresses the differential impact of bottled water spending on household income. The findings challenge the truism that bottled water consumption is positively correlated with income, instead showing a bimodal racial and class consumption pattern that reflects widely divergent perceptions—and the uneven distribution—of threats to tap water safety. Bottled water consumption and spending, as well as distrust of tap water, are highest among low-income, Black, and Latino/a households, exacerbating social inequality. The article also addresses how the bottled water industry is responding to these dynamics, and considers potential routes to restoring both public water infrastructure and trust in tap water supplies. This contribution links several current and salient topics: the relationship between bottled water's growth and tap water consumption; the dynamics of growing racial and income inequality; historical legacies of systemic racism and economic marginalization; and the uneven effects of disinvestment in US water infrastructure on tap water safety, access, and affordability.
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License, which permits use and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non-commercial and no modifications or adaptations are made.
© 2023 The Authors
Jaffee, D. (2023). Unequal trust: Bottled water consumption, distrust in tap water, and economic and racial inequality in the United States. WIREs Water, e1700. https://doi.org/10.1002/wat2.1700