For water bottlers, the windfall is quickly disappearing. Just yesterday, it seems, Voss’s cool, cylindrical bottles represented the height of sophistication, B.C.’s glaciers were being bled dry to meet the global demand for $60 water, and the 535 bottled brands sold in the U.S. included Canine Quencher, bottled water for dogs. But as we tut-tut about consumer excess and carbon calculus, tap has come roaring back. In 2008, for the first time in years, dominant players PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Nestlé—which posted double-digit growth every year from 2002 to 2007—reported limp sales in North America. One-time market leader Aquafina was down a stunning 14 per cent.
But when shoppers close a door, they always open a window. A brand-new Manhattan-based start-up, uscanteen, founded by New York-based entrepreneurs Victoria Meakin and Peter Bobley, is offering the eco-guilty a hip alternative to utilitarian bottles. Like Sigg, Switzerland’s century-old, retro-chic aluminum-bottle maker—whose sales have surged past the $100-million mark, up from roughly $1 million a few years ago—uscanteen turned to a past classic for inspiration: the U.S. Army’s one-quart, aluminum M1910 canteen, replaced in 1962 by the olive-green polyethylene plastic version used in Vietnam and thereafter. Their ads on the New York Times website and on MySpace (where they were aimed at a younger audience) feature hip, natural-looking models carrying contoured flasks in holders almost as if they’re toting Jackie Kennedy’s Gucci hobos.
When Meakin and Bobley decided to launch the company, growing green awareness, a softening economy and consumer fears about plastic bottles containing bisphenol A were already creating the perfect storm conditions for makers of stainless steel and aluminum reusable bottles. The pair’s unique version was born when Bobley showed up one day, 18 months ago, with his dad’s beat-up, army-issue canteen. “Do you think this could work as a water bottle?” he asked Meakin. Long-time business partners who share an interest in design and the environment, they were looking for a retail venture, having sold their $3-billion electronic-payment company. Only if made to look “chic enough,” they decided, and devoted the next 16 months to “redesigning, retooling, and making it sleeker.”
They halved the size of the 100-year-old design—a contemporary, plastic version sells at Army Surplus for $9.99 and corroded originals can be found on eBay for roughly $25—to a more portable 25 ounces. Made from medical-grade stainless steel, the voguish canteen, whose first shipment went out six weeks ago, has been polished to a mirror-like finish. With a pouch fitted for a BlackBerry or iPhone and a zippered pocket for cash and credit cards, its carrying case is being marketed to both men and women. (Because of their nostalgic appeal, they’re also aiming them at parents sending children off to summer camp.) The canteen itself costs US$30. Their top-selling canteen-and-carrier set, the Como, priced at US$90, features a bag covered in black, cream, khaki or orange canvas with leather piping, and adheres most closely to the original army canteen, which was lined in canvas and grey wool. It has a “gearish, retro look” that appeals to men, says Meakin, “but we sell lots and lots to women.” The Bouchet, a canteen ensconced in camel-coloured leather, will meanwhile run you US$123.
To establish the brand, Meakin and Bobley selected trusted, high-end U.S. department stores and their favourite boutiques as retail partners. But as the economic crisis deepened over the summer and fall, that plan “went out the window,” says Meakin. Shops who’d initially said “we love it, we love it, we love it,” came back and said they didn’t have the budget, or weren’t able to buy products without a track record—“if anything at all.”
So they went online—a decision that perhaps allowed uscanteen to appeal to “a much broader range of potential customers” than the swanky niche market found at a high-end boutique, says Meakin. And because their margins are stronger, it’s allowed them to drop their prices, she says—admitting that a lot of customers would have balked at the initial retail cost.
The canteens are eco-friendly without “clobbering you over the head with the green message,” says Meakin. The hip design, of course, is one way to lure consumers aboard the eco-wagon. And in the end they do eliminate the need for water sommeliers.