Saturday, February 13, 2010

Water from Fiji

I keep a running mental list of things my dad, who died in 1998, would never believe. I am quite certain that the success of FIJI Water would be one of them.

For months I have been curious about the bottled water for sale in my favorite lunch place. Yes, right next to the locally-conceived Honest Tea is FIJI Water, displayed in a refrigerator case that proclaims, “Yes, it really comes from Fiji.”

I went to Google Maps to calculate the distance from Fiji to New Haven, CT. The answer? Approximately 8000 miles!

I began to look a bit further, only to discover that FIJI Water has quite a story.

First, a little background on Fiji from the website of the US Department of State. The Fiji Islands (over 300 in number) lie in the South Pacific, approximately 3100 miles southwest of Hawaii and 1900 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia. The population, currently around 832,000, of whom 327,000 are active in the labor force, is declining.

Formerly a British colony, Fiji became independent in 1970, and for 17 years was a parliamentary democracy. Since 1987 there has been a series of coups; the constitution was abrogated in 2009. The United States is among the countries that have imposed targeted sanctions on the illegal government.

For many years sugar and textile exports drove the economy, but neither industry is competing well in globalized markets. The most important manufacturing activities are the processing of sugar and fish. In recent years, growth in Fiji has been largely driven by a strong tourism industry. Since 2000 the export of still mineral water, mainly to the United States, has expanded rapidly.

This is a good place to begin the story of FIJI Water.

FIJI Water was founded in 1997 by Canadian businessman David Gilmour, owner of Fijian island Wakaya, on which he developed a luxury resort. Journalist Anna Lenzer recently reported in Mother Jones that in the early 1990s “Gilmour got wind of a study done by the Fijian government and aid organizations that indicated an enormous aquifer, estimated at more than 17 miles long, near the main island's north coast. He obtained a 99-year lease on land atop the aquifer…” In the same article Lenzer also stated that he company was initially granted tax-exempt status, to expire in 2008; it remains in effect today.

Rubies in the Orchard: How to Uncover the Hidden Gems in Your BusinessIn 2005, American billionaires Lynda and Stewart Resnick became the new owners of FIJI Water. Lynda has set up a site to promote her book Rubies in the Orchard, on which the following information can be found. The Resnicks’ previous business successes include Teleflora, purchased in 1979 and now the world’s largest floral service, and the Franklin Mint, which they owned from 1985-2000. The Resnicks are also the “largest farmers of tree crops in the United States, with the nation’s largest orchards and processing plants for citrus, almonds and pistachios.” Lynda is largely responsible for marketing the benefits of pomegranates to the American consumer and then reaping success through her line of products, POM Wonderful. It should be no surprise that the PomQueen (as Lynda dubs herself) could do such an outstanding job selling water from Fiji to customers on the other side of the world.

The FIJI Water site weaves three tales:

“Yes, FIJI Water really is from islands of Fiji… FIJI Water is the result of rainfall that fell long before the Industrial Revolution… FIJI Water's state-of-the-art bottling facility …literally sits right on top of an aquifer…So, until you unscrew the cap, FIJI Water never meets the compromised air of the 21st century…There's no question about it: Fiji is far away. But when it comes to drinking water, ‘remote’ happens to be very, very good. Look at it this way. FIJI Water is drawn from an artesian aquifer, located at the very edge of a primitive rainforest, hundreds of miles away from the nearest continent. That very distance is part of what makes us so much more pure and so much healthier than other bottled waters.”

Lynda Resnick has done her best to weave a convincing tale that water pumped from an aquifer on the edge of a remote rainforest is something that the health-conscious American consumer can not live without. And she has convinced many. FIJI Water is now the number one imported still water in the United States. The current Shopzilla price for a one pint bottle of FIJI Water is around $1.75. It would not take too long to see a payback on filtering and “bottling” your own.

FIJI Water employs “nearly 350 Fijians.” FIJI Water supports various philanthropic activities in Fiji, including donating royalties in 2008 of $1.3 million (representing 1.5% of gross revenues) for charity work in neighboring villages, creating the FIJI Water Foundation in 2007 (an investment of $600,000), and partnering with the Rotary Club and Pacific Water for Life “to bring clean water to 100 communities in Fiji this year.”

Note the irony. FIJI Water is bottling and exporting water from a country where much of the population lacks clean, running water. Is FIJI Water really saving Fiji as one reading the website might believe? Keep in mind that Fiji’s labor force is 327,000 and FIJI Water employs 350; FIJI Water’s advertising budget for 2008 was $10 million (as reported by Lenzer); and in 2000, villagers wielding spearguns and dynamite staged a take-over of the bottling plant, declaring that the land is sacred (also reported in Mother Jones.)

On its FIJI Green site FIJI Water touts, among other initiatives, its partnership with Conservation International to become “carbon negative,” the energy savings measures for transportation of the water, and its various conservation projects in Fiji.

Laudable as these projects may be, just think about this for a second. There would be no need for carbon offsets if the company were not shipping water across the planet. For those who simply cannot drink tap water, we in New England have access to bottled water from aquifers relatively close by (Poland Springs and Belmont Springs, for example). If you live in New Haven, does buying water from Fiji make any sense?

In another ironic twist, FIJI Water was most recently in the news for its donation of 136,000 liters of bottle water to Haitian earthquake victims (7845 miles, not quite as far as it is to New Haven, but pretty far.)

I found myself shaking my head and wondering what other possibilities there might be for economic progress in Fiji when I received an email about Bees without Borders, started by the owner of Andrew’s Taste-Bud Bursting Local Wildflower Honey, a product I purchase at my local farmers’ market. Its mission is to "educate and train impoverished individuals and communities in beekeeping skills and the value of beekeeping for poverty alleviation." The founders have just returned from a trip to Fiji. A small step, but another option, and just maybe a better way to help the people of Fiji.

Here is my plan. Continue drinking tap water. Buy Andrew’s honey. Support his foundation. Help the people of Fiji. Help the planet.

Background information and statistics on Fiji from the US Department of State website unless otherwise noted.

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