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Q&A: How JUST Water is redefining the bottled water industry

Bottled water has a plastic problem. Here's how one company is trying to change that.

Bottled water has a bad reputation. Typically packaged in plastic bottles that take on average 450 years to break down, water brands often differentiate by sourcing from “pristine” springs in faraway places. Drink a bottle of Fiji Water and you’re drinking a product that has traveled thousands of miles to get to you.

Not so with JUST Water, a new water brand that launched this fall. Through smart sourcing and a commitment to reduce plastic packaging, JUST is pioneering a new business model for the bottled water industry.

Here, CEO Grace Jeon talks how JUST was founded, how to get consumers buying conscious products and why she advocates (gasp!) drinking water from your tap.

newhope360: Why enter the crowded bottled water market?

Grace Jeon: Our concept for JUST was really started a number of years ago by a like-minded group of people who had interest in coming up with a more sustainable option for everyday goods. It was a lofty vision, so we started with one product and one community.

[Bottled water] was a good category to start with because it’s rapidly growing. Our hope over time is that we will eventually expand into other product categories.

We’re going back to the ethos that if we want to create conscious consumption, an important element is to make it accessible. If we set a high price, it would still be a niche product. We shouldn’t have to compromise or sacrifice quality for sustainability. A product should be equal, if not better than what you’re currently buying, and you shouldn’t have to pay a premium for it. That's why JUST Water is priced at 99 cents.

newhope360: What is your partnership with Glens Falls, New York, where JUST Water comes from?

GJ: Had you talked to us several years back while we were conceptualizing JUST, a lot of folks thought we were crazy. But we thought, what if we actually had an impact in the community where we were operating? Starting with bottled water, we had to go where there was an abundance of good-tasting water. We didn’t want to impact the water table in any way. Our selection criteria continued to push us into the Northeast. One of our co-founders is from Glens Falls, New York, a small town that has experienced population and industry shift over the years. We thought we could play a role in revitalizing the town with industry.

Glens Falls gets about 3 billion gallons of water per year from rain and snowfall. 1.7 billion gallons of that goes back into the rivers. We are at most accessing 3 percent of this water. We established a cooperative agreement with the town where we buy water at six times the residential rate—what we call ethical or fair trade water. As our brand grows, the city has a chance to prosper through this new source of revenue.

newhope360: What other ways has JUST’s presence revitalized Glens Falls?

GJ: We’re focused on community development. We needed to find a bottling plant, but instead of building one from scratch we bought an abandoned church and restored it to be a world-class bottling operation. Ninety percent of our contractors were local, and 95 percent of the folks employed at the plant are local as well. We’re not employing thousands of people, but we have to start somewhere. Our hope is that we continue to prosper while practicing business in a responsible way.

newhope360: In a recent article, you said that you would never tell people to drink JUST instead of what’s coming out of their tap. You might be the only bottled water company to say that. Can you elaborate?

GJ: We never want to claim to be the best thing on the planet. We always try to better ourselves and provide better options to what’s out there already. In that respect the best thing would be to drink out of your tap if its good, clean water (or use a Brita filter).

But we’re realistic that people need a convenient, on-the-go packaged water option that’s better than plastic. Our package is made primarily of paper, a renewable material. We’re holding ourselves accountable to come up with even better packaging options. Right now our package contains 53 percent renewable content. In one year, we’re planning to push that up to 84 percent. From there, we hope to achieve 100 percent renewable packaging. Again, this goes back to conscious consumption, and making people aware of their purchasing options.

newhope360: In a category where every bottled water brand is trying to differentiate, what’s JUST’s storytelling strategy?

GJ: What works in our favor is that in a sea of different brands on the shelf, it’s undeniable that JUST’s package pops. Most consumers are used to seeing bottled water in a clear package; ours is blue, and it drives consumers to pick up the product. We have a lot of text on the bottled that talks about sustainable packaging and Glens Falls, which motivates shoppers to visit our website where they can receive more information.

We have a controlled product rollout, so you will start to see a lot more of our storytelling strategy digitally and on social media.

Learn more about JUST Water, and tell us your thoughts in the comments section below.

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