Stanley water bottle madness grips America

Viral videos, circulating on TikTok and the news, show people absolutely freaking out over the latest Stanley water bottle drops at Target. New colors trigger social-media fueled stampedes that Eater recently called "inevitable." They explain:

As Eater reported back in 2022, Stanley's ascent was explosive. The TikTok algorithm was a huge part of its success, shoving the pastel-colored cups in the faces of millions of viewers who'd never heard of Stanley or only associated the brand with its rugged, old-school thermoses. In the early phases of the trend in 2022, you could only order the cups online, which added a feeling of exclusivity to buying a Stanley. Then, the brand launched in Target and other retailers, officially going mainstream. 

By then, just any old Stanley cup wasn't enough. You had to score a coveted color, like the Winter Pink cup folks are currently waiting in line at Target to buy. People started filling their cabinets with a dazzling array of varying colors, often neatly arranged on shelves just waiting to go viral on TikTok. When December 2023 rolled around, things had reached a full-on fervor, with people paying exorbitant prices — sometimes more than 200 percent of the cup's retail price — to sellers on eBay and Facebook Marketplace to get that wildly popular Watermelon Moonshine cup, made in collaboration with country singer Lainey Wilson. I even saw Stanley dupes, complete with branding, on the site DHGate, known for selling "replica" (aka knock-off) luxury goods.

If you are even the slightest bit aware of consumer trends, you'll know that this Stanley water bottle craze isn't the first of its kind. This recent piece in The Washington Post provides a succinct overview of hydration receptacle trends. The New York Times, too, recently published a short history of consumer desire for reusable water bottles. They explain that consumer demand for such products has continued to grow. In 2020 Americans spent $1.5 billion on reusable water bottles, and this amount grew to $2 billion in 2022. Time also recently published a history of America's obsession with bottled water and then reusable water bottles. Here's an excerpt from that excellent piece:

Bottled water has been sold in the U.S. since nationhood, as Francis H. Chapelle has recounted. By 1920, most municipalities provided free, chlorinated water straight from the tap, which consumers at the time considered a modern marvel. As a result, by 1930 basic bottled water was viewed as "low class," indicative of substandard sanitation infrastructure.

American bottled water perceptions shifted again in the early 1980s, as the "yuppie" generation embraced conspicuous consumption and health pursuits. They purchased chic bottled waters, like Evian and Perrier, which expanded in the American market in the late 1970s. Bottled water consumption also increased after 1989, when inexpensive, lightweight PET plastic became available, and in the 1990s, when soda giants Pepsi and Coca-Cola launched bottled water brands Aquafina and Dasani.

As bottled water purchases climbed in the 2000s, numerous critics decried the environmental waste of single-use plastics. Nevertheless, millions of Americans still avoid tap water, distrusting it even before the Flint water crisis in 2014. In fact, by 2016, Americans drank more bottled water than any other bottled beverage.

For those who trust or filter their tap water, reusable water bottles posed an environmentally conscious consumer habit that took off in the mid-2000s, especially among college students.

The roots of this trend largely lie in the countercultural 1960s and 1970s, when bottles like those made by Nalgene became available and popular among a niche market of hikers, campers, and "crunchy" eco-conscious consumers, early adopters of consumerist environmentalism, such as the rise of "reduce, reuse, recycle" in 1970. Nalgene bottles grew popular again in the new millennium, especially after 2002, when they came in new colors beyond the original gray.

After Nalgene had its moment, the 2010s saw the rise of HydroFlasks, S'Well bottles, and more. The current darling is, of course, Stanley.

You might think, then, that with the rise of reusable water bottles, we are doing something great for the planet, cutting back on the consumption of single-use plastic water bottles, and inching our way toward more sustainable hydration practices. Sadly, though, you'd be wrong. In fact, consumer demand for bottled water has also grown. Plastics Today reports, using data from the Beverage Marketing Corp. (BMC), that in the United States, bottled water has reached "new peaks in revenue and volume." In the United States, in 2022, 15.9 billion gallons of bottled water—the highest volume to date—were sold. This amounted to record high sales of $46 billion, up from 2021's $40.8 billion. The New York Times comments that:

In other words, consumers are spending billions of dollars a year on reusable bottles to stay hydrated and then buying bottled water anyway, even as faucet water remains free.

So what's driving the reusable water bottle trend? I'm sure many people actually do use their Stanley and other water bottles to drink out of. But I'm certainly dubious of any environmentalist motivation when I head over to "StanleyTok" and see folks displaying dozens of them, or when I see the Target stampeded videos that I introduced at the beginning of this essay. What it really comes down to is folks crafting their identity through consumption which, obviously, is nothing new, and also not inherently bad. However, there's something about this particular completely unnecessary overconsumption trend that really bugs me. Perhaps it's because folks could, with even a tiny bit of restraint, turn this water bottle trend into something actually even slightly positive for the planet (even with the huge caveat that individual actions have very little impact on the environment, compared to industrial drivers of waste; in fact, Max Liboiron and Josh Lepawsky, authors of Discard Studies, state that only 3% of all solid waste produced is municipal solid waste, and the other 97% is industrial solid waste). But, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that something with the potential to be more eco-friendly is really just one more fashion trend. The Washington Post explains:

Like shoes, handbags and watches, water bottles are now accessories that can subtly communicate something about the person who chooses to tote them around. Health, yes. An active lifestyle, sure. Money, frequently.

And Time further comments on the aestheticization of hydration:

Around the same time in the U.S., water bottles evolved into must-have items that communicated not just eco-consciousness and health, but also style, taste, and personality. Indeed, forecasting firm WGSN dates water bottles as a lifestyle trend to 2011. Like the world of fashion, specific brands drove cyclic consumer desire: Nalgene, Bobble, and S'well, followed by Yeti, Hydro Flask, and Stanley, to name but a few.

Social media also recast water bottles from a tree hugger's eco-tool to lifestyle objects, desired by more mainstream clientele. Particularly when targeting women and girls, good-looking water bottles, clutched in a well-manicured hand or delicately set upon a desk, perfectly fit the aesthetic code of Instagram, which launched in 2010. 

Aesthetics also drove some water bottle trends on TikTok, whose user numbers expanded during the pandemic, garnering new cultural influence. On the app, #waterbottle boasts 3.1 billion views, along with hashtags like #waterbottleobsession (11.5 million), #waterbottlehack (25.3 million), and #waterbottlecollection (5.5 million). As such hashtags reveal, water bottles further transformed into obsessive consumer objects intended for collecting as much as drinking from.

Call me a capitalist killjoy. I don't care. But I can't help being sad about all of those water bottles ending up in landfills when they are no longer the hot new thing.