“The only reusable bottles that look great & do good!” S’well seems to check all the boxes mentioned in their slogan. They’ve not only served as an eco-friendly alternative to plastic water bottles, but have also morphed into stylistic and trendy accessories. Diminishing waste and eliminating the use of plastic water bottles are core tenets of S’well’s mission. Their food-grade stainless bottles are long-lasting and appeal to wide ranges of consumers given hundreds of variations in size, design, color, and texture. S’well’s various campaigns, certifications, and partnerships demonstrate and exemplify their commitment to sustainability. While S’well seems to embody an authentically sustainable initiative, there are few avenues through which to verify their material sourcing, energy consumption and environmental impact of production, and general labor conditions; despite touting a few certifications, there is little way for consumers to verify for themselves due to a lack of transparency.
S’well bottles are vacuum sealed and triple-insulated with 18/18 food-grade stainless steal and a layer of copper that are responsible for its signature thermoregulation capabilities. The company also prides itself for producing BPA/BPS-free items. While the bottles themselves are made of green materials, there is no information confirming the materials for the bottle caps or “gaskets.” While the exterior seems to be the same stainless steal comprising the rest of the bottle, the stopper portion of the gasket seems to be a rubbery or plastic-y material (based on observing my own S’well). Beyond general claims that S’well “products” are made of seemingly green product, there is no explicit information regarding the ingredients for bottle gaskets.
Stainless Steel and its Production — Stainless steel is 100% recyclable and durable, giving S’well bottles a long lifespan. While S’well bottles are entirely reusable and recyclable, even if stainless steel is not recycled and finds its way to a landfill, they pose little detriment to soil or groundwater since they are not coated in a toxic layering and do not produce toxic- run-off. In contrast, however, the potentially rubber or plastic gaskets do pose challenges as plastic does not decompose (and is rarely recycled properly) and rubber can take decades to breakdown. That being said, since S’well products are made to last, purchasing one S’well bottle can still help displace the quantity of single-use bottles consumers would have otherwise purchased. In this sense, continuous use of purchased S’well bottles can help mitigate the potential detrimental effects of plastic and rubber reaching landfills.
Depending on the raw materials utilized, stainless steel production can vary greatly in terms of environmental impact. The use of recycled scrap metal as the primary raw material can help to mitigate the detrimental effects — both environmental and social — of mining key components of stainless steal like chromium. The processing of chromium and other metals relies on fossil fuels for their intensive heating procedures and results in emissions of GHGs. However, strides in energy efficiency have made its production less energy-intensive. In the absence of information regarding how and where S’well sources their materials, it is difficult to gauge the environmental impact of their production operations.
Packaging - In a conscious effort to lessen their ecological footprint, S’well has revised their packaging and downsized to a simple belly band — typically a cardboard sleeve that is wrapped around products — made of paper “that has been harvested in a responsible manner.” However, their belly bands are secured with glue and there is no information regarding the green factor of the adhesive.
Promoting Systemic Change — Beyond hopes for the elimination of single-use plastic, S’well embodies their core pillar of sustainability through various corporate projects, campaigns, and partnerships. In 2018, S’well partnered with the New York Mayor’s Office of Sustainability in their “Bring It” campaign. S’well supplied 320,000 of their water bottles to each public and charter high school student in the city with the objective of displacing 54 million single-use plastic water bottles over the course of the one-year campaign. S’well embarked on this project to help further Mayor de Blasio’s goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2030. In support of UNICEF’s projects in Madagascar to provide access to clean drinking water, S’well has committed $1.6 million since 2017. S’wells “Million Bottle Project” aims to displace 100 million single-use plastic bottles by 2020
A Lack of Transparency — Despite combing the internet, there is an evident lack of information regarding crucial points in S’well’s production lines. Therefore, it is difficult to draw conclusions regarding where they source their materials from (e.g. do they use scrap metals as opposed to mining chromium for their stainless steel) or the labor conditions and circumstances of their production facilities in China.
While S’well did earn the B Corporation Certification as of March 2020, which recognizes for-profit companies for their social initiatives, environmental performance, transparency, and accountability, there is little information available to the everyday researcher to verify such claims. In fairness, B Lab has certified 3000 businesses in 70 countries as B Corps, and their B Impact Management program and software is utilized by over 70,000 companies worldwide. However, it is difficult to pinpoint the specific metrics that B Lab uses and what information they review to award their accolades.