You Can't Can Fool All the People . . .

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Some time ago I picked Fiji Water as the Number 1 example of greenwashing from a list of the most egregious examples of 2008 prepared by the Greenwashing Brigade. Now more than half a year later, it shows up again in an exposé in Mother Jones, by Anna Lenzer.

Lenzer spends much of the article commenting on the dreadful state of the Fijian community and the dictatorial behavior of the current ruling junta. She contrasts this to the marketing line of Fiji Water Company LLC. If, as the article claims, this brand is so popular among the glitterati, including President Obama (shame, shame), many of whom trumpet their concerns for the social conditions in poorer parts of the world, it is an example of the difference between attitudes and actions so often found relative to environmental and social consumption. But that’s not what got me interested in writing more about FIJI Water (FIJI is capitalized in their trademark). It’s the claim that is it the top seller of imported bottled water in the United States.

Why, given concerns about global climate change and sustainability in general, would anyone not living on the tiny island of Fiji buy this product. Is it. perhaps, because the company advertises it as “Untouched by man?” That might be said of the contents, but the bottle itself is the result of human chemistry ingenuity and manufacturing prowess, and had to be handled numerous times on its long voyage from Fiji to its markets. Even the water itself had to fall from the sky at some point in time. Who’s to say it never encountered a human being.

Tom Lauria, Vice President of communications for the International Bottled Water Association, a trade company representing bottled water companies in America and abroad, responded by invitation to the publication of the article in Mother Jones. Lauria said:

The US bottled water market is truly consumer driven. This is, in large part, because people are making healthier beverage choices. The strength of this consumer self-generated demand is illustrated by the relatively modest amount spent on bottled water advertising. The 2007 bottled water advertising expenses totaled only $54.5 million. For comparison purposes, $637 million was spent on advertising carbonated soft drinks (over 10 times as much), and advertising expenses for beer totaled $1 billion (approximately 20 times that for bottled water).

I don’t believe that this market is “truly consumer driven,” in spite of the data on advertising budgets. For years, bottled waters were a specialty item, available in high end bars and restaurants. Their popularity grew along with brie and other symbolic goods, but not without advertising. Yes, there are instances where bottled water is better for your health than ordinary tap water, but generally not in the United States. It’s ironic that in places where bottled water is the only safe water to drink, the people would generally not be able to afford it.

Such products, given alternatives that are plentifully available, are simply among the most visible and egregious symbols of unsustainability. No amount of clever advertising can change that. FiJI Water by making a social, as well as an environmental, case for its business involves the full gamut of sustainability concerns. When the firm’s social behavior and relationships to the ruling junta was questioned, a company spokesperson replied. “They [Fijians] don’t have a ton of options for economic development,” Mooney told U.S. News & World Report, “but bottled water is one of them. When someone buys a bottle of Fiji, they’re buying prosperity for the country.” Without Fiji Water, he said, “Fiji is kind of screwed.”

It’s like saying buy a Coke, help the poor of Atlanta. And I have to add, with Fiji Water, the rest of us are screwed, as the world continues along its unsustainable path.

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