One of the first things Pathwater CEO Shadi Bakour wants you to understand: Bottled water is unnatural.
"Before 30 to 40 years ago, it didn’t exist," he says. "You went to the tap, filled up your glass, and moved on with your day. Today, we’ve been brainwashed to buy these huge packs from the store and trash the bottle once we're done."
In many ways, he's right. With perhaps the exception of our current seltzer-crazed moment, the world of bottled water remains frozen in amber, roughly unchanged. Companies might fiddle with form factor or add electrolytes, but the market is still water in a plastic bottle priced at around a dollar.
That's why Bakour and his team started Pathwater — which sells reverse-osmosis filtered water bottled in a reusable aluminum container — as a reasonable alternative. The plan is to differentiate his brand with a product designed to both make money and build an environmental social movement focused on sustainability.
Skeptical? Bakour makes a compelling case for his bottled water, one that says people don't actually want or need to throw away a disposable bottle regularly. For one, preliminary data suggest each Pathwater is re-used at least four or five times before it hits the bin. And even if customers decide to ditch the bottle after a single use, recycling a Pathwater container requires five times less energy than plastic. Aluminum, he explains, is the "magic metal," capable of being melted down and reused almost infinitely.
"It’s very simple: We're the water company that doesn’t want to sell any more water," Bakour says. "It might not make sense to some, but what we’re doing is we’re putting planet before profit."
With this, Pathwater has found an envious marriage of brand and mission (Bakour says the company is contemplating a transition to a B corporation focused on social responsibility). High profile investments from celebrities including NFL star Vernon Davis, actress Tamera Mowry, and basketball player Festus Ezeli show that others think Pathwater is on to something, too.
Bakour has a vision to forge an "authentic brand," one that practices what it preaches. Founded in 2014, they made a big play at the Natural Products Expo West Convention last year, when Pathwater served as the event's first official water sponsor. They doled out bottles to participants by the dozen and even had Guy Fieri on site shilling for the water (the Mayor of Flavortown is also a Pathwater investor). Bakour says people still tell him they're using the free samples they snagged last year. (The company will be back again at the 2020 Expo West event taking place March 3–7 in Anaheim, CA.)
Community and social engagements are therefore part and parcel of how Pathwater constructs its brand, forming an initiative known as "the Path." It begins with building a culture around reuse and moves forward with a "community-based revolution" that spreads awareness of the impact of single-use plastics, provides access to clean drinking water in schools, and organizes cleanup efforts. It's an ambitious evolution from the brand's original concept — Pathwater was first known as "Refill It" — into an integrated, actionable brand story.
"I think a brand is a very dynamic concept," Bakour says. "You have to be able to accept feedback and be fluid with the market and what people desire. At the same time, there are certain staples to the brand we’ve developed and iterated over the years."
So far, Pathwater is available in thousands of locations, primarily 7-Eleven and Safeway stores, with more vendors on the way. If all goes according to plan, the brand will continue to grow as not just a product, but a movement.
"When you’re holding a Pathwater," Bakour says, "it’s a badge of honor you carry with you that you stand for something greater, you want to be part of a group of people who want a cleaner earth for future generations."