Climate Neutral Certified, Open Water Eyes Retail Space for Aluminum Canned Water
In 2009, Nicole Doucet, MBA ’16, and Jess Page watched a documentary on ocean pollution that inspired them to co-found Open Water (previously Green Sheep Water), the first bottled water company to use aluminum instead of plastic.
According to National Geographic, 91% of plastic doesn’t get recycled, and it takes more than 400 years for the material to degrade. Aluminum, on the other hand, is infinitely recyclable and is the most recycled beverage package in the United States, according to the Aluminum Association. By using aluminum, Open Water aims to decrease plastic pollution of water. In line with its mission, the company works with non-profits and donates a portion of its earnings to cleaning up the ocean.
Open Water products launched in September of 2014, the same month Doucet started at Booth. “My first quarter was kind of crazy,” she said, “because I was running a startup and then going to school full-time.” The 2015 Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge (NVC) was the key. With a product ready to be sold, the NVC could help them pitch their company to possible retailers, and Doucet could dedicate some school time to the company.
Their NVC mentors pushed them to find the right place for Open Water. “We were in a discovery period,” Doucet said. “The NVC pushes you towards that, trying to find the market fit.” During that time, Open Water started selling with Mariano’s, a Midwestern grocery store chain. Soon, however, Page and Doucet discovered that until consumers were better educated on aluminum, the company would have trouble in traditional grocery spaces going against mainstream brands. So, Doucet and Page pivoted, looking at alternative accounts, primarily settling in the food service industry. Now, five years later, Open Water works with gyms, cultural spaces, attractions, hotels, restaurants, and can be seen at events organized by entertainment company, Live Nation. The company also has seven warehouses across the country and ships to all 50 states.
In 2018, the company rebranded to Open Water. The original Green Sheep Water, the co-founders realized, didn’t convey the necessary information about the product and its goals. It was and is important to them that they be clear and open with their branding. “One of the things we are always aiming to do,” Page said, “is to be transparent, and be fact-based and data-driven.” Their authenticity, they believe, sets them apart from other consumer packaged goods companies.
“Brands are spending tens to hundreds of millions of dollars convincing consumers that something is better just because they say it is,” Page added. This isn’t true of Open Water, which notes at the bottom of its website that reusable water bottles are the best option.
Doucet and Page think the conversation around plastics and recycling has changed since 2014. “People now are way more conscious than they were four or five years ago,” said Doucet. “Way more people are looking for viable alternatives, so I think the retail space becomes much more attractive for us to go into.” The co-founders now see a place for Open Water products in traditional grocery stores. Currently, they’re working on expanding the company’s retail footprint, and have recently launched with the Southern California region of Whole Foods.
This past April, Open Water became the first bottled water company to be Climate Neutral certified. Climate Neutral is a non-profit that helps brands eliminate carbon emissions through a standardized program. To get certified, a company must measure its carbon emissions, create a plan that will be annually revisited to reduce the impact, and then offset what’s left over with Climate Neutral-approved programs. “[Climate Neutral is] really cool because it ensures that brands are doing this offsetting properly and that the offsets are actually doing what they’re supposed to do,” explained Page. “It also creates an opportunity and an obligation to make incremental improvements year after year.”
According to Bloomberg, both Coca-Cola and Pepsi have rolled out their own versions of aluminum bottled water. So far, Open Water hasn’t noticed a change in its consumer base. “I think Coke and Pepsi are a little bit confused about what they want to do,” Doucet said. “How can you sell something that’s more sustainable while, at the same time, [you’re] selling millions of units of the thing you’re supposed to fight against?”
Though this could be threatening news, Page and Doucet take it as a victory. “As entrepreneurs,” Doucet said, “one of the most rewarding things you can experience is launching a product and seeing the giants follow in your footsteps. Knowing you’ve made a change in the industry and you’ve forced these huge players to change their ways, I can think of very few things that have made us prouder of what we’ve done.”