Nicole Doucet of Open Water: climate-friendly bottled water

Nicole Doucet of Open Water: climate-friendly bottled water

Understory Team
Understory Team

After stumbling into a documentary on plastic pollution, Nicole Doucet became acutely aware that plastic bottles were destroying our environment. Inspired to take action, Nicole entered the highly competitive bottled water market with a plastic-free solution: Open Water. Open Water is bottled water that comes in an aluminum bottle or can, which is much more sustainable and carbon friendly compared to other alternatives in the market.

In this episode, Nicole takes us on her journey to start and scale her company. She educates us on the recyclability of different materials and changing consumer preferences. This is a story of creating practical solutions that work within existing systems to drive change. We talk economics, closed loop processes, sourcing strategies, and more. While a single Open Water bottle drives small impact, the use of truly recyclable materials quickly adds up to immense impact.

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Episode Transcript:

JJ (host of The Understory Podcast): Welcome to another episode of Understory podcast. Understory is a global community of innovators and companies focused on making our world more sustainable.

Today on our podcast we're very excited to have Nicole Doucet with us. Nicole is the founder and the CEO of Open Water, and we'll learn more about what Nicole is building. Before we do that, Nicole welcome to the Understory Podcast and tell us more about you and your background. Then we dive into open water.

Nicole Doucet: Thank you so much for having me JJ. I'm excited to be here. My name is Nicole, and I'm the co-founder of Open Water. I was born in the US, but I grew up in Mexico City and then my family moved to Miami, Florida for my last year of high school. I finished high school in the U.S. I went to college here. When I was in college, I met Jess Page who is Open Water’s other co-founder. We stumbled into a documentary on plastic pollution which really brought our attention to the plastic pollution issue. It made us think about ways we could fight this.

JJ: Excellent. And so that idea evolved into Open Water?

Nicole: Correct. I think that we were both very much aware of the plastic issue from before. I grew up in Mexico City and going to the beach was part of my childhood and seeing those same beaches that I used to go as a kid slowly get invaded by plastic trash, plastic bottles, plastic caps. It was obviously something that I had seen myself, but the documentary really put the problem in perspective.

I was unaware of the scale. Seeing those numbers was really, really mind-blowing. And depressing. It's crazy. Do you know how much plastic goes into the oceans? On a yearly basis, by 2050 there might be more plastic than fish in the ocean by weight.

Jess and I walked out of the theater, and we thought that obviously bottled water is playing a role in this problem. Why does the product exist? You know why this bottled water exists? In the U.S. it's perfectly safe to drink water from the tap. There are tons of reusable bottles out there. There are refill stations everywhere. At the University of Miami, where we were going to school, there were plenty of refill stations around campus. And yet if you look at the bottled water industry, it keeps growing and growing and growing.

We started thinking about why? Why do people buy bottled water? We realized that all of us own somewhere between you know 6 and 12 reusable bottles that we keep in a kitchen cabinet somewhere. Except there's one that's likely our favorite one, and that's the one that we take around with us during the day.

But sometimes we forget it. And sometimes we don't feel like carrying it around. Sometimes we're traveling or were out at a concert, and even people who truly care about this issue sometimes find themselves buying bottled water.

We said, OK, you know the perfect solution from a sustainability standpoint already exists. That's tap water, reusable bottles, refill stations. But that perfect solution isn't getting adopted as much as it needs to be to curb plastic waste, and so we need to come up with something in the middle of pragmatic solution, something that offers people the same convenience of bottled water but reduces the impact of the packaging.

We launched Open Water, which is a bottled water company that uses aluminum bottles and cans instead of plastic.

JJ: And tell us more about the difference with Open Water. What do you use? Why do you use aluminum? What did you learn about the whole process, and what do you intend to achieve with Open Water from a product perspective?

Nicole: It’s an interesting problem once you start learning about different materials. When we looked at the problem, we said we need to provide solutions for this inconvenience for reduce the impact of the packaging. We looked at a lot of different materials. We looked at everything from plant-based plastics to glass to recycled plastic to cartons like the watering boxes that that they sell as well. Then we read about aluminum can.

Aluminum cans are the most recycled beverage packaging in the world. Nothing gets recycled as often as an aluminum can. The reason why this happened is that the package, the material itself, has a high value, and so what happens is that once you're done drinking it once, you're done. Using the liquid inside the container has value, and there's a secondary market for that product.

What happens with plastic very often (and I'm sure you've heard a lot of these stories about how recycling is broken for plastic because an empty plastic bottle often has less value). It is often more expensive to use recycled plastic than it is to use virgin plastic. So, all the incentive to recycle is gone.

With aluminum, the fact that it has a very high scrap value means that it's a highly valued material. Companies like Open Water, we want to use as much recycled content as we can because it's cheaper than using virgin aluminum. That secondary market is will always be there, and that's what makes recycling work.

JJ: Got it. I think it's interesting. You talk about kind of the economics of recycling and the value chain of that recycling and then kind of building that product from ground up. Versus just saying, recycled water bottle is good enough. You look deeper at what drives people to recycle more and what drives that industry to want to recycle properly.

Nicole: You've brought up something that's very interesting. I think that the solutions that we bring to the table, they need to take into account the current system. There's a lot of solutions that sound great, but there are only great if it works. One of those examples is plant-based plastics.

Biodegradable plastics are a great idea in in theory. But the problem with “biodegradable plastics” is that it needs to be separated from standard plastics. If it's not separated from standard plastics, then it cannot go into an industrial composter as it needs to go in order to actually get biodegraded. You're creating a product that if it goes into the same recycling stream as standard plastic, it has the potential to contaminate and inhibit the recycling of that standard plastic.

We consider the way that the system currently works and try to find solutions that can fit within that system. Otherwise, even if the idea is great, if it doesn't fit within the current system, it'll be very hard for it to have a positive effect.

JJ: Tell us more about adoption. Where are you seeing people buying Open Water? How do you see shift or lack of shift from businesses that also stock water for employees, whether in office or at their homes? What are you seeing from an adoption perspective?

Nicole: There's been a drastic change over the past three years. We launched in 2014, so we were the first company ever to put a flat water in a re-closable aluminum container. When we launched, a lot of people thought we were crazy and said why are people going to buy a water in an aluminum bottle? It doesn't make any sense. They didn't understand the plastic problem, and they didn't understand why aluminum was a potential source.

Now, this has changed a lot. We used to have to educate people a lot. People weren’t aware of how bad plastic was or how recycling for plastic is broken in the US. The conversation around plastic both from a consumer and a business perspective has changed. It has become mainstream.

I think that people are more and more aware about the consequences of their purchases, and they understand that plastic is here forever. That has really changed for us as a business. We used to have to find businesses that really cared about sustainability. It was truly part of who they were and what their values.

Initially back in 2014 and 15, we partnered with a lot of zoos and aquariums because conservation was big part of who they are. That has slowly shifted, and it's become not just these businesses where sustainability is and has always been very important. Now other businesses were, you know, they are also trying to make a difference and they realize that going towards something that's more sustainable is a process.  Switching away from plastic bottled water is an easy change that has a very big impact.

And it's something that is very visible. I think that's something that's attractive for businesses, because as they start looking into sustainability projects, bottled water is something that guests are going to notice. For example, we work with a lot of hotels, restaurants, and offices. Bottled water is very consumer facing so when the business makes a commitment to make a switch to something that's better, switching bottled water is something that will get that effort noticed.

JJ: That's interesting to hear that shift. I think when organizations are starting to make that shift, it will further propel the consumer adoption because it makes it much more visible. And it also builds additional credibility.

The other question that often comes up for sustainability products is that they're more expensive. It is more expensive for things like Open Water. Open Water is not the only brand that is really trying to make tremendous impact and must make a profit in order to make the business run. How do you see this as an industry? What can the industry do better or what are the things that need to change lower that cost of production without necessarily sacrificing the sustainability aspect and then making this more accessible to consumers.

Nicole: That's a great question, because I think that this is an issue with sustainability in general. We as a company we deeply believe in the fact that sustainability should be accessible. It shouldn't be a luxury, right? Everyone should be able to make better choices.

Aluminum containers are more expensive than plastic ones, but we've done things a little bit differently to make sure that our product continues to be accessible. Number one, we've never tied ourselves to a source. Water goes through a purification process, and we add electrolytes to it. That means that we can recreate the same water or anywhere in the world.

The traditional premium bottled water company is selling you is the source. They're trying to convince you that water from some Pacific Island is somehow better than what you can get from the tap. That is not only a lie, but it's also extremely bad for the environment. Purchasing a premium water brand means you're purchasing water that has traveled thousands and thousands of miles to get to you.

Our sourcing philosophy is different. We want to produce as close to where we sell as possible. That makes sense from a sustainability perspective, but it also makes sense from a cost perspective. That is going to allow us is to continue to drive our price down because we are reducing our shipping costs as much as possible. It is something that has been part of our vision from the start.

We originally launched aluminum bottles with the twist off aluminum cap. That was the first product that we launched. A few years later, we launched a standard can with water inside. It's just like a soda can, a flip top can, but it has water inside. The cost of the packaging is much lower, and that allows us to reach a different type of consumer and business.  If you want to switch away from plastic, we can offer you the most cost-effective option.

JJ: I think this idea that you bring up that sourcing closer to reduce travel of inputs, which obviously has its own greenhouse gas emission, it was also championed by another company that we recently talked to. They had a very different category, but similar learning that supply chain itself can also produce unintended consequences from a sustainability perspective. And so looking at that formula holistically, is really important.

Nicole: For sure. I think that that's probably, you know what has the biggest impact out of out of anything.

JJ: If you're a consumer or a business that buys Open Water, what happens when they are done drinking? Do they just throw the cans away? Do they recycle in particular way? What do you want to see from your consumers after they finish drinking that bottle of water?

Nicole: The best situation is where someone purchases our product and then refills that bottle a number of weeks. We have a lot of our customers who write to say they bought our water at a restaurant and had it with them for the past two weeks. They have been refilling.  From a sustainable sustainability perspective, that is the best situation.

We launched the product because we realize that most people do not do that. Most people do not refill. We wanted to create the most sustainable option, no matter how many how many times the end consumer refills.  There are other bottles in the market that also use aluminum, so we have focused on making sure that the bottle that we use uses the least amount of material and creates the least emissions.

The sustainability of our product versus someone else’s is product is not dependent on how many times it gets used; it is the most sustainable one from the first time you use it. If you choose to refill it before you recycle it, that's fantastic and we always encourage that. If you're like most people who buy bottled water, you're going to drink our water and then you're going to recycle it. You can rest assured that we did everything we could to reduce the impact of the packaging as much as we can.

JJ: That makes sense. I would be remiss if I don't mention that Open Water is women-owned, minority-owned, and LGBT-owned. Tell us about that experience because you're early pioneers in the space from a product perspective. In 2014 talking about women-led, women-founded startups were still kind of at a very, very, very early. If you don't mind, you could tell us about that journey and how can people support this business.

Nicole: Diversity is part of who we are as a company. It’s still very sad to think that you know less than 2% of investments go to women-owned or women-led startups. We still have a very, very long way to go. In that regard and for us, we're in an industry that additionally has been very male dominated. Although things are starting to change, I think that you are seeing more and more.

There are more female founders in the CPG space, in the food and beverage space. It's fantastic to see that, and we're always happy to support other entrepreneurs as they start road towards launching a product.

It's not easy. Having mentors is something that we wish we had early on, and so both Jess and I try to support people who are thinking about launching products.

And yes, it's something that that makes us different than others if you want to support us, obviously.

For our products, if you see them, we always encourage people to drink from the tap first. Don’t buy our products and you can drink from the tap. If you're using a reusable bottle, keep doing what you're doing, but you know if for some reason you buy bottled water because you like the portability, or you forgot your reusable bottle, know that, please, please think about us.

We are offering something that has a small impact when it's just one bottle, but when it's millions and millions and millions of them, everything you know multiplies very quickly.

JJ: Nicole, thank you so much for that. Last question. Where do people find Open Water and buy them? Give us the website, tell us how to buy your product. Tell us which stores or which brands are stocking Open Water.

Nicole: Our website is You can purchase a product there, so if you're used to buying still or sparkling, we also offer sparkling water on online. That’s a great place.

We have focused mostly on-premise accounts, so that's, hotels, attractions, offices, etc. Our footprint on the retail side is limited, but we’re growing very quickly as we distribute across the country. We're growing on the retail side as well, and so you can find us in Whole Foods if you're in Southern California, in Denver, and a lot of stores in the Chicago area, which is where we're based out of. We're launching at PCC markets in Seattle this month.

We are starting to expand on the retail side very quickly. If your store doesn't currently carry Open Water, talk to the cashier, go to customer service, and request us. I think that we as consumers often forget how much power we have. We have the power to create the world that we want to live in by choosing the products that align with that vision.

JJ: Cool, thank you so much for joining us today. Super excited to see the progress and would love to have you back and talk more when Open Water is everywhere.

Nicole: Thank you for having me.

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