I paid attention to the Fiji bottle for the first time when my wife bought one at the Atlanta airport while we waited for a connecting flight. I was struck by the bottle. The graphics and name evoked a serene feeling. I thought it was a very nice job of marketing. Someone made filtered water from somewhere nearby seem serene and exotic. It wasn't until I took a close look at the bottle that I discovered Fiji water was in fact from Fiji.
This water had travelled from halfway around the world to be in Atlanta. (I won't point out the obvious--it tasted a lot like North Carolina water...)
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Holding the bottle of Fiji water reminded me of a book by Peter Gleick called "Bottled & Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water".
In its modern form, bottled water is a new phenomenon, growing from a niche mineral-water product with a few wealthy customers to a global commodity found almost everywhere. The recent expansion of bottled water sales has been extraordinary. In the late 1970s, around 350 million gallons of bottled water were sold in the United States — almost entirely sparkling mineral water and large bottles to supply office water coolers — or little more than a gallon and a half per person per year. As the figure below shows, between 1976 and 2008, sales of bottled water in the United States doubled, doubled again, doubled again, and then doubled again. In 2008, nearly 9 billion gallons (over 34 billion liters) of bottled water were packaged and sold in the United States and five times this amount was sold around the world, feeding a global business of water providers, bottlers, truckers, and retailers at a cost to consumers of over a hundred billion dollars.
Americans now drink more bottled water than milk or beer — in fact, the average American is now drinking around 30 gallons, or 115 liters, of bottled water each year, most of it from single-serving plastic containers.
Others have also wondered about the carbon footprint of Fiji water. In a Fast Company article in 2007, Charles Fishman writes:
The label on a bottle of Fiji Water says "from the islands of Fiji." Journey to the source of that water, and you realize just how extraordinary that promise is. From New York, for instance, it is an 18-hour plane ride west and south (via Los Angeles) almost to Australia, and then a four-hour drive along Fiji's two-lane King's Highway.
Every bottle of Fiji Water goes on its own version of this trip, in reverse, although by truck and ship. In fact, since the plastic for the bottles is shipped to Fiji first, the bottles' journey is even longer. Half the wholesale cost of Fiji Water is transportation--which is to say, it costs as much to ship Fiji Water across the oceans and truck it to warehouses in the United States than it does to extract the water and bottle it.As Fishman notes, one could make an argument for importing products from distant places if it helps sustain a way of life and helps employ many people. To what extent does Fiji water support the culture and economy of Fiji?
That is not the only environmental cost embedded in each bottle of Fiji Water. The Fiji Water plant is a state-of-the-art facility that runs 24 hours a day. That means it requires an uninterrupted supply of electricity--something the local utility structure cannot support. So the factory supplies its own electricity, with three big generators running on diesel fuel. The water may come from "one of the last pristine ecosystems on earth," as some of the labels say, but out back of the bottling plant is a less pristine ecosystem veiled with a diesel haze.
The plant employs 200 islanders--set to increase to 250 this year--most with just a sixth- or eighth-grade education. Even the entry-level jobs pay twice the informal minimum wage. But these are more than simply jobs--they are jobs in a modern factory, in a place where there aren't jobs of any sort beyond the villages. And the jobs are just part of an ecosystem emerging around the plant--water-based trickle-down economics, as it were.
Are 10,000 Fijians benefiting? Not directly. Perhaps 2,000. But Fiji Water is providing something else to a tiny nation of 850,000 people, which has been buffeted by two coups in seven years, and the collapse of its gold-mining and textiles industries: inspiration, a vision of what the country might have to offer the rest of the world. Developed countries are keen for myriad variations on just what Fiji Water is--a pure, unadulterated, organic, and natural product. Fiji has whole vistas of untouched, organic-ready farmland. Indeed, the hottest topic this spring (beyond politics) was how to jump-start an organic-sugar industry.
The Fishman article is full of many interesting details:
Of course, the irony of shipping a precious product from a country without reliable water service is hard to avoid.[Elsewhere Fishman writes "Fiji Water produces more than a million bottles a day, while more than half the people in Fiji do not have reliable drinking water."] This spring, typhoid from contaminated drinking water swept one of Fiji's islands, sickening dozens of villagers and killing at least one. Fiji Water often quietly supplies emergency drinking water in such cases. The reality is, if Fiji Water weren't tapping its aquifer, the underground water would slide into the Pacific Ocean, somewhere just off the coast. But the corresponding reality is, someone else--the Fijian government, an NGO--could be tapping that supply and sending it through a pipe to villagers who need it. Fiji Water has, in fact, done just that, to some degree--20 water projects in the five nearby villages. Indeed, Roll has reinvested every dollar of profit since 2004 back into the business and the island.
- Worldwide, 1 billion people have no reliable source of drinking water; 3,000 children a day die from diseases caught from tainted water.;
- We pitch into landfills 38 billion water bottles a year -- in excess of $1 billion worth of plastic.
- 24% of the bottled water we buy is tap water repackaged by Coke and Pepsi.