Just Tap It: Turning Off Our Bottled Water Dependency By Offering a Better Way
Kylie Harper is not a bull-horns, marches, and rallies kind of activist. Not that she has any qualms about organizing her team to hit the streets to take down major corporations, she just does it with a soft voice - and aims for a soft underbelly. When we met up in the cafe of the Housing Works Used Bookstore in Soho, her first words were a softly amazed "I've got to sign this place up."
In fact, Kylie is an unlikely activist altogether. She has a Master's Degree in psychology and runs her husband’s industrial psychologist practice out of their Tribeca loft, and are able to spend summer months in Biddeford Pool, a small town in rural southern Maine. But like Olivia Newton-John in that 70's high school movie, her New Zealand accent makes her seem a bit of an outsider in both locales—one from some distant, slightly more polished place. It was during one of her summers in Maine, however, that something shifted.
Like many of us, she had been peripherally aware of an ongoing battle between Maine locals and the big businesses that were tapping their water-rich land to sell natural resources in 1 liter bottles across the country. Despite residents' protests, town governments were selling rights to aquifers and water-supplies, and being offered large sums for unlimited access. It wasn't until she saw Nestle moving in on their own community in the summer of 2008 that Kylie got a sense of the futility of their defiance. Though residents successfully lobbied their local water district to introduce legislation against bulk water sales, they watched helplessly as the corporation moved to the town of Kennebunk in the same water district and secured a deal -- proceeding to suck dry the very same springs they had been fighting to protect.
Despite using every available legal channel accessible to these fierce and dedicated community activists, it seemed the corporations were always going to be one step ahead of them. It is here that something unique happened in Kylie -- something that separates so many leaders from the fist-wavers. She stepped back and looked at the extent of the problem and saw that it was bigger than just Maine, and even bigger than the multi-nationals that want to exploit the resources found there. The problem, as Kylie saw it, came from what had become a national dependence on bottled water. From mobile phones to telecommuting, she observed an addiction to convenience, and realized that it wasn't until this need for good, clean water on the go was filled with a less destructive solution would the bottling stop. Take away the demand, and the industry will go away on its own.
It's here that the seed for TapIt began to take root. Loosely defined as an initiative to convince businesses and restaurants to open up their taps to the masses, she began talking about the plan with her husband and their friends last fall. The only thing she was uncompromising on was the need for the idea to remain simple and easy, the rest was up for suggestion and evolution. Stirring the idea about, gathering interest and buzz, she let others' reactions tell her what TapIt was going to be, and it organically began to take shape. It's here that she says that activism stops and business starts. She frequently refers to the divide between what she calls the 21st Century business model, and everything that came before it. The old model assumed a well-conceived business model from the outset, before putting yourself or your company in front of any investors or potential customers. "That's not how things work anymore", Kylie says. It's time to develop general plans, and then get out the way -- letting your public interact with the project and take it where it's going to go. Not that it means less work for the initiator -- she sees starting this as-yet-to-be-profitable initiative to be a crash-course practical MBA, one much more attune to how businesses work in our contemporary, technology-driven, recession-impaired, sustainability-conscious economy.
When asked what made the project 'real' for her, whether it was the website or the first press or the first conversations, she emphatically responds that this moment didn't come until the first partner signed up. Partners are the local businesses willing to be listed with TapIt as a free resource for tap water on the go, and without them the program simply doesn't work. Of the nearly 250 partners throughout New York, including Manhattan and Brooklyn, many also sell bottled water, and she was worried that they wouldn't want to challenge that revenue. It turns out, however, that some are willing to see the possible increase in foot traffic and free advertising as a legitimate offset. More surprisingly, Kylie has seen most of the network sign up without hesitation or the balancing of some bottom line, it's about doing the right thing.
Though there is just a small team of paid staff involved with TapIt, and no volunteers, one of them tries to set foot into each partner stores and restaurant. Shy of significant vetting on their part, the footwork verifies that each one is a food service organization audited and approved by the NYC Health Department. One hundred percent self-funded, Kylie employs two part-time staff members, paid bloggers, and has financed the development of the website and the recently released iPhone application. Dedicated to seeing the project "work" before looking for the revenue source, she does have her eye on some ways to start getting the initiative towards breaking even, including the small $1.99 charge for the iPhone app (nicely priced at about the same as a bottle of water), the possibilities of ad revenue from the site's blog, and sales of a yet-to-be-designed TapIt Brand water bottle. In the meantime, Kylie focuses on getting the word out, tapping into existing networks, and a lot of legwork. Already, off-shoot networks are seeding in Oregon, Michigan, California, Florida, Massachusetts, and Washington State. Aware of the nearly overwhelming amount of "green" being targeted at consumers, the high percentage of which seems to be harshly-worded and negatively-spun messages about what we should or should not do, Kylie focuses on keeping TapIt's message positive and fun -- after all, water-consciousness seems ripe for a good, clean social message.
The morning after our conversation in Soho, Kylie sent me an email with no subject line, and simply the message "Just signed up Housing Works."
Visit TapIt Water's website for more information.