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A few months ago, Carlos Ferrando, a Spanish engineer-turned-entrepreneur, saw a piece of art that profoundly affected him. “What Lies Under”, a photorealistic montage by Indonesia-based digital artist Ferdi Rizkiyanto, shows a child crouching by the edge of the ocean and “lifting up” a wave, to reveal a cluster of assorted plastic detritus, from polyethylene bags to water bottles.
The artwork left Ferrando angry — and fuelled by entrepreneurial zeal. He runs a Spain-based design company, Closca, that produces a clever foldable bicycle helmet (I use one, and love it). But he has now designed a stylish glass water bottle with a stretchy silicone strap and magnetic-closure mechanism that means it can be attached to almost anything, from a bike to a bag to a pushchair handle.
The product comes with an app that tells people where they can fill their bottles with water for free. Ferrando’s aim is to persuade people to stop buying water in plastic bottles, thus saving consumers money — and reducing the plastic waste piling up in our oceans. “Bottled water is now a $100bn business, and 81 per cent of the bottles are not recycled. It’s a complete waste — water is only 1.5 per cent of the price of the bottle!” Ferrando tells me. Indeed, environmentalists estimate that by 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish — and that’s mainly down to such bottles.
“We are trying to create a sense that being environmentally sophisticated is a status symbol,” he adds. “We want people to clip their bottles on to what they are wearing, to show that they are recycling water — and to look cool.”
I don’t know whether Closca will succeed in this: although its foldable bike helmet is available in some outlets in New York, including the Museum of Modern Art, it can be very hard for any design entrepreneur to really take off in the mass market. But Ferrando’s story fascinates me since it seems like a bellwether of our times, a symbol of millennial culture. For one thing, it shows how the cultural concept of cachet is changing. Three decades ago, conspicuous consumption — of handbags, shoes, cars etc — conferred social status. Indeed, the closing decades of the 20th century were a time when it seemed that anything could be turned into a commodity. Hence the fact that water became a consumer item, sold in plastic bottles, instead of just emerging (for free) from a tap.
Today, though, conspicuous extravagance no longer seems cool — or not, at least, for millennials. Recycling is fashionable. So is real bicycling. Plastic water bottles are so ubiquitous that they do not command status; instead, what many millennials and teenagers prefer to post on social media are “real” (refillable) bottles or even retro Thermos bottles. My teen daughters currently think that stainless-steel vacuum-insulated water bottles made by the company S’well, for example, are ultra “cool”; never mind the fact that they feel oddly retro to me (when I was a teenager in 1970s Britain, we thought that Thermos flasks were incredibly uncool).
The way these products come to market is also fascinating. If an engineer-turned-entrepreneur had wanted to fund a smart invention a few decades ago, he or she would have either raised a bank loan, begged for money from friends, or (during the 2002-2007 credit boom) maxed out on a credit card.
Entrepreneurs are still using the last two options. But some (lucky) ventures are also tapping into the ever-swelling pot of money that is being earmarked in the asset management world for “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) investments. Indeed, the idea of investing in CSR-friendly start-ups is becoming so popular that even the Vatican is now getting on board.
For of-the-moment innovations there is the of-the-moment option. A few weeks ago, Ferrando posted details about his water-bottle venture on Kickstarter, appealing for people to donate $30,000 of seed money, and promising to give a bottle to anyone who provides more than $39 of “donations”. If he gets the funds, the company will produce bottles in grey and white; if $60,000 is raised, a multicoloured one will be made.
This cannot be accurately described as equity finance, since none of the donors has a stake. Nor is it debt. Instead, it is almost a pre-sale of prod-cuts — in a manner that tests demand in advance, and creates a potential crowd of enthusiasts. Either way, this old-fashioned community funding with a digital twist is supporting a growing array of projects ranging from films to ventures to card games, videos, watches and so on. And, at last count, Closca had raised some $52,838 from 803 backers.
Now, I dare say some cynics may dismiss this as just another fad — or argue that humans are far too lazy to keep refilling their bottles. Perhaps. But the next time you grab a plastic bottle of water, it is worth thinking about how our concept of a consumer commodity can subtly change over time, without us even noticing. Maybe, 20 years from now, it will be the now-ubiquitous plastic bottle that seems peculiarly retro.
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Illustration by Shonagh Rae