Wednesday Morning Reading: Mother Jones on Fiji bottled water

Some good old fashioned muckracking adventure journalism from the September/October 2009 Issue of Mother Jones: An excerpt from Anna Lenzer’s “Fiji Water: Spin the Bottle”

Illustration: Gina Triplett

“… The bus dropped me off at a deserted intersection, where a weather-beaten sign warning off would-be trespassers in English, Fijian, and Hindi rattled in the tropical wind. Once I reached the plant, the bucolic quiet gave way to the hum of machinery spitting out some 50,000 square bottles (made on the spot with plastic imported from China) per hour. The production process spreads across two factory floors, blowing, filling, capping, labeling, and shrink-wrapping 24 hours a day, five days a week. The company won’t disclose its total sales; Fiji Water’s vice president of corporate communications told me the estimate of 180 million bottles sold in 2006, given in a legal declaration by his boss, was wrong, but declined to provide a more solid number.

From here, the bottles are shipped to the four corners of the globe; the company—which, unlike most of its competitors, offers detailed carbon-footprint estimates on its website—insists that they travel on ships that would be making the trip anyway, and that the Fiji payload only causes them to use 2 percent more fuel. In 2007, Fiji Water announced that it planned to go carbon negative by offsetting 120 percent of emissions via conservation and energy projects starting in 2008. It has also promised to reduce its pre-offset carbon footprint by 25 percent next year and to use 50 percent renewable energy, in part by installing a windmill at the plant.

The offsetting effort has been the centerpiece of Fiji Water’s $5 million “Fiji Green” marketing blitz, which brazenly urges consumers to drink imported water to fight climate change. The Fiji Green website claims that because of the 120-percent carbon offset, buying a big bottle of Fiji Water creates the same carbon reduction as walking five blocks instead of driving. Former Senior VP of Sustainable Growth Thomas Mooney noted in a 2007 Huffington Post blog post that “we’d be happy if anyone chose to drink nothing but Fiji Water as a means to keep the sea levels down.” (Metaphorically speaking, anyway: As the online trade journal ClimateBiz has reported, Fiji is using a “forward crediting” model under which it takes credit now for carbon reductions that will actually happen over a few decades.)

Fiji Water has also vowed to use at least 20 percent less packaging by 2010—which shouldn’t be too difficult, given its bottle’s above-average heft. (See “Territorial Waters.”) The company says the square shape makes Fiji Water more efficient in transport, and, hey, it looks great: Back in 2000, a top official told a trade magazine that “What Fiji Water’s done is go out there with a package that clearly looks like it’s worth more money, and we’ve gotten people to pay more for us.”

Selling long-distance water to green consumers may be a contradiction in terms. But that hasn’t stopped Fiji from positioning its product not just as an indulgence, but as an outright necessity for an elite that can appreciate its purity. As former Fiji Water CEO Doug Carlson once put it, “If you like Velveeta cheese, processed water is okay for you.” (“All waters are not created equal” is another long-standing Fiji Water slogan.) The company has gone aggressively after its main competitor—tap water—by calling it “not a real or viable alternative” that can contain “4,000 contaminants,” unlike Fiji’s “living water.” “You can no longer trust public or private water supplies,” co-owner Lynda Resnick wrote in her book, Rubies in the Orchard. …”

Keep reading at Mother Jones.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in the rural wilderness of Joshua Tree, California, where I am a partner in JTHomesteader.com with Stephanie Smith.

3 thoughts on “Wednesday Morning Reading: Mother Jones on Fiji bottled water

  1. Below please find our response to this article as posted on our blog at: http://blog.fijigreen.com/2009/08/fiji-water-responds-to-mother-jones-article/

    We strongly disagree with the author’s premise that because we are in business in Fiji somehow that legitimizes a military dictatorship. We bought FIJI Water in November 2004, when Fiji was governed by a democratically elected government. We cannot and will not speak for the government, but we will not back down from our commitment to the people, development, and communities of Fiji.

    We consider Fiji our home and, as such, we have dramatically increased our investment and resources over the past five years to play a valuable role in the advancement of Fiji.

    It is true that Fiji is a poor country, but we believe that the private sector has a critical role to play to address the under-served areas of Fiji’s development, with special attention to economic opportunities, health, education, water and sanitation.

    First, we employ nearly 350 Fijians in a rural part of Fiji with very little economic opportunity. We are one of the highest paying employers in the country with an annual payroll of nearly $5 million; we provide health care and other fringe benefits; and we have created advancement opportunities for women. There are also a number of smaller, entrepreneurial enterprises that have been created in the local region to supply our facility.

    As an active member of the Fiji community, FIJI Water is committed to enabling positive change by means of social investment, capacity building, and sustainable development. It is important to us that we give back to the communities in which we work and live. We know that Fiji has tremendous potential because we see it realized at our factory every day.

    Part of our investment in Fiji comes from royalty and trust payments paid each year that is a percentage of our total volume. As we grow our business, we are able to contribute more in royalty payments. In 2008 alone, we paid $1.3 million USD in royalties representing 1.5% of gross revenues of our Fijian company. These payments have allowed us to bring clean drinking water to the surrounding villages, infrastructure projects like electrification, kindergartens, secondary schools, renovations of community halls and much-needed health care clinics.

    In addition, in late 2007 we created the FIJI Water Foundation to serve as a vehicle for social investment around the islands of Fiji. The Foundation has played a critical role in flood relief in Fiji, renovation of schools, and bringing much needed health care to rural villages. We have also partnered with the Rotary Club and Pacific Water for Life to bring clean water to 100 communities in Fiji this year. To date, FIJI Water Foundation has invested $600,000 USD, directly impacting more than 50,000 beneficiaries in 11 of Fiji’s 14 provinces. You can learn more about the specific projects we have funded at http://www.fijiwaterfoundation.org.

    With respect to the environmental issues raised in the article, our commitments are quite clear and laid out in http://www.FIJIGreen.com. We are the only bottled water company in the industry to publicly report its entire life cycle carbon emissions. We are independently audited and report to the Carbon Disclosure Project. And we are offsetting these emissions by 120%.

    Land access issues are very delicate to negotiate in Fiji, but the Sovi Basin project remains on track and the 50,000 acres of the last remaining lowland rainforest in the South Pacific is protected now and through perpetuity from logging. The project will pay the local villagers not to sell their timber rights to logging companies. Deforestation of our tropical rainforests is one of the largest sources of carbon emissions. Protecting the Sovi Basin is the equivalent of removing 2 million cars from the highway.

    Our carbon offset project in Fiji includes replanting the rainforests that have been decimated to plant sugarcane fields. Part of this effort includes planting native tree species, such as mango trees, to provide local villagers with a source of income. We are proud to create projects that protect the environment as well as provide for a source of sustainable income for the local Fijians.

    It’s unfortunate that the reporter did not have the opportunity to speak to any one of the thousands of local people whose lives have been impacted in a very positive way because of FIJI Water. Had we known she was in Fiji, we would have been happy to escort her to any one of the 75 villages who have been a beneficiary of a clean water project sponsored by FIJI Water this year alone. She could have visited one of the villages surrounding our plant to visit a kindergarten that was recently built or to meet a local Fijian who received a life-saving corrective heart surgery by a physician we brought to the island.

    The real irony here is that the reporter suggests that buying FIJI Water somehow legitimizes a military dictatorship, when in fact the jobs, revenues, and community projects supported by FIJI Water are strong contributors to growth in the well-being of the Fijian people.

  2. I can’t see you doing any good that is or would contribute towards the welfare of this country. You know the saying “if you have nothing nice to say about someone or something; shut the hell up”.

    If you have a solution, please we are all ears. After all, we don’t all agree with Fiji Water here in Fiji but we certainly do appreciate the projects that they have been implemented for better living standards within the rural and urban communities apart from setting up a factory in a rural area which you have had the opportunity to visit providing working conditions that local industries or manufacturers can meet.

  3. Tinaidiaka – Your second para sounds suspiciously like a line we might get from a paid flak for Fiji Water. And…I know another saying, which goes “If you don’t have anything nice to say, sit next to me.”

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