After working in the packaging industry for 25 years, this I know for sure: Innovating isn’t easy. A good idea is merely a starting place. Implementing a new packaging innovation at scale requires patience, experience, and know-how. But even more importantly, it requires having the right team in place — a team with the right vision and the right attitude, because no one achieves this alone. Supply chains are far too complex and interdependent for that to be feasible.
Take, for example, Brita Premium Purified Water, an alternative to single-use plastic that is taking on the $20 billion dollar bottled water industry. Brita Water is packaged in 100 percent aluminum containers that are highly durable and refillable, resulting in a product that is reusable many times over as well as completely recyclable.
There’s no plastic to be found in four and six-packs of Brita Water either: Multipacks of the bottles are grouped together using a new paper-based carrier system called Fishbone, which is curbside recyclable. (Full disclosure: I am part of the team responsible for commercializing Fishbone.)
Brita Water was launched onto the market earlier this year and is available nationwide at Albertsons, Safeway, Harris Teeter, ACME, Lowe’s Foods, Tom Thumb, Randall’s Foods, Price Chopper, Tony’s Finer Foods, IGA, and a growing list of other retailers. It is the result of a partnership between Brita — the Clorox brand synonymous with pitchers that filter tap water — and B Water & Beverages, a benefits corporation. Their partnership was formalized via a trademark manufacturer’s licensing agreement in the spring of 2020, but in reality, the research and development that made this new sustainable offering possible have been nearly a decade in the making.
“Brita Water is revolutionary in the sense that we are looking at the total solution for the consumer,” explained Jennifer Brooks, president of B Water & Beverages, in a phone interview. “We’re very averse to any kind of waste, which is why we love Fishbone and its minimal packaging. We’re not just selling water; we’re selling a solution that is an alternative to single-use plastic.”
In terms of sustainability and value, Brita Water stands out from other water brands — even those in thin aluminum cans — because of the bottle’s durability, allowing it to be refilled many times. “The refillability factor alone is key to reducing waste, while also saving consumers money,” said Brooks. Compared to expensive stainless-steel bottles, Brita Water is affordably priced.
The Innovations Needed to Revolutionize How Americans Drink Water
For the fifth year in a row, Americans bought more bottled water than any other beverage. Surprisingly, research conducted by Brita in 2018 revealed that 60 percent of single-use plastic water bottles are actually consumed in the home, not on the go.
“When people decide to buy our filters and use them, they are doing so to replace, generally speaking, active and plentiful use of bottled water,” explained Eric Schwartz, Brita’s general manager. “That’s why we believe we have a special role to play in helping consumers live a more sustainable lifestyle by providing options that allow them to avoid those single-use plastic bottles that end up in a waste stream.”
Brita estimates that using one of its filter systems in lieu of purchasing bottled water replaces up to 1,800 bottles per household per year. In that sense, it’s been a leader in reducing the use of single-use plastic to drink water for over 40 years. Brita had been keen on developing a direct competitor to single-use plastic bottles for some time, but it wasn’t until representatives met Brooks at a trade show in 2019 that the company committed to taking on the challenge of disrupting an entrenched industry together.
“B Water & Beverages had the technical expertise and capability to put the vessel together and deliver great-tasting water, but not a brand that resonates with consumers. Pairing that all together is really where we could make an impact,” said Rory Wehrlie, director of strategic alliances, partnerships, and licensing at Brita.
The CEO of B Water & Beverages, James Skylar, began packaging water in aluminum cans in 2013. Concerned about the presence of microplastics in water, he was motivated to invent and patent a system that would allow him to filter, sterilize, and hermetically seal water in aluminum cans with a lab-certified shelf life of 50 years. Today, his other company Blue Can Water supplies canned water to FEMA, NASA, American Red Cross and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, among many others.
But it wasn’t just B Water & Beverage’s success packaging and distributing great-tasting water in aluminum that ultimately cemented their deal. Wehrlie and Schwartz knew they needed a leader who could coordinate among many different players to deliver a unique and impactful final product.
“When we look at partners, it’s a lot about capability, but it’s also about the people, and Jennifer and James are very passionate about sustainability. When you consider all of the stakeholders and different entities involved in making this come together, it really is a masterpiece,” Wehrlie said.
Brita Water is unique in part because even its cap is made entirely of aluminum. When Brooks approached Trivium Packaging, the bottle supplier for B Water & Beverages, with a request to design packaging that was 100% aluminum, they were game to invest in new machinery to make it happen.
“Manufacturing 100 percent aluminum beverage bottles with a screw cap is a very technically challenging product to produce,” said Ryan Noward, head of the global beverage department at Trivium, in an email. “Our R&D teams went through a significant amount of trial and error to bring these bottles to life.”
That effort was warranted because studies show that more and more consumers are seeking out sustainable packaging and refusing to buy products whose packaging is harmful to the environment. They’re also willing to pay more for eco-friendly solutions. This is a trend that has remained resilient in the face of the global pandemic, Noward observed, strongly indicating that the momentum for sustainability is not a fad.
Partnership and Innovation Come Together for Healthier Oceans
Sustainability is what motivated Fishbone cofounders Kevin L’Heureux and Keith Elliott to begin developing a plastic-free alternative to the plastic rings commonly used to carry multipacks of beverages that are known to choke and kill marine life, clog landfills and waterways, and persist as ingestible microplastics way back in 2014.
“Hi-Cone rings, as they’re known in the industry, are cheap, lightweight, and easily stored. We knew we couldn’t make something that was just as good; it had to be better,” L’Heureux told me. “Our goal has always been to develop end-to-end solutions for customers that are as committed to sustainability.”
Today, countless carrier and machine application iterations later, with a patent portfolio to match, Fishbone is showing up on food and beverage products around the world. It endorsed by the prestigious Ocean Foundation for its sustainability benefits and advantageous for manufacturers in that it increases space for branding and awareness.
“We recognized at the beginning how important this technology would be to demonstrate that society can replace single-use plastic that ends up in the environment, and especially in the ocean,” said Ocean Foundation president Mark J. Spalding. “There are a lot of applications that use plastic that simply should not. Fishbone has proven they don’t have to.”
In 2020, Fishbone was licensed onto the market by Atlantic Packaging, the largest privately held packaging company in North America. Atlantic services primarily Fortune 500 consumer products companies. Wes Carter, Atlantic’s third-generation president, is committed to ushering in a new era of sustainability across his industry.
Historically, he pointed out, packaging has been designed for function, cost, and convenience, with its environmental impact not even being on the radar. That must change, he told me. In his view, the packaging industry has an “incredible responsibility” to take ownership of the products it sells beyond the sale. That won’t be possible without cross-collaboration and the development of sustainable closed-loop systems.
“Honestly, the key to all of the [innovation] is people. It’s always people. You’ve got to have highly skilled people who enjoy working together. And when you can combine that with a state-of-the-art packaging testing technology center like we have here in Charlotte, you can cultivate the exchange of ideas where the magic happens,” Carter emphasized. “There’s nothing more fun than working on a team and creating a new system and a new product that changes the world. And sustainability is asking us to do that across the entire supply chain!”
Commercializing a new packaging innovation requires that you consider the equipment necessary to manufacture it. Developing new equipment is typically required, so finding the right partner is critical. Important considerations include line speeds, cost, and the footprint of the equipment.
Atlantic was able to find the perfect partner in Serpa Packaging Solutions, a designer and manufacturer of custom high-end equipment for the pharmaceutical, food, beverage, and automotive product industries, among others. Serpa is known for guaranteeing that its machines will run at 98 percent efficiency for 24/7 operations.
Aaron Metzler, Serpa’s national sales and applications manager, told me that Fishbone’s potential impact on the beverage industry made them want to be a part of the project from the get-go.
“It was more of a question of, how can we develop this solution so that any customer at any point can have a system that gets this into the marketplace at the different rates that they require, be it a craft brewer or a large beverage producer,” he said.
Will People Drink Water They Can’t See?
Drinking water out of aluminum is novel enough that consumers aren’t sure what to make of it. The assumption being, if you’re sipping from aluminum, you’re most likely drinking beer or soda. Packaging water in aluminum clearly breaks with form. But because Brita is already synonymous with better tasting filtered water, consumers are much less likely to question what’s inside.
“The less doubt in the consumer’s mind, the more open they’re going to be to experimenting with a new product,” Schwartz pointed out.
The result? Everyone wins. Licensing the Brita trademark means B Water has an easier time convincing retailers to run trials. Retailers can expect higher velocity. And Brita is able to reach new consumers at a lower price point.
“Having a partner that is focused and independent is going to get you further, faster in a competitive environment that’s different from the one you’re operating in,” Schwartz explained.
Crucially, what the Brita brand offers consumers is trust — specifically, trust that water they can’t see will be of a quality they expect and want to drink. After all, unlike plastic, aluminum bottles are opaque. The power of Brita’s brand is significant: Brita ranks highest among consumers not only as a water filtration brand, but compared to top water brands, period. According to Brooks, a whopping 94 percent of American consumers are familiar with Brita. As the premium water category becomes increasingly crowded, brand differentiation is more important than ever.
There’s no doubt that commercializing a big idea is a team effort. Developing a beautifully packaged, environmentally sound alternative to single-use plastic water bottles wasn’t easy. Along the way, the diverse group of individuals responsible for bringing Brita Water to life had to embrace being flexible, but also stubborn. They overcame obstacles and circumvented roadblocks by harnessing the power of their shared intention.