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The Dark Secret of FIJI Water

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From Arrowhead to Evian, bottled water is a daily resource that Americans consume and invest in. Increasingly, Americans are getting their fix from bottled water rather than from the tap; in 2019 alone, the U.S. population spent $34.6 billion in bottled water sales. In particular, FIJI Water has garnered a unique appeal among a broad variety of individuals — from former President Barack Obama to acclaimed talk show host Oprah Winfrey — and has found that its premium price tag is no deterrent to most. However, as consumers, is there more to FIJI Water than what is seen beyond its blue, square bottle with a singular pink hibiscus flower adorned on its plastic wrapping? In 2011, only 47% of Fijians had access to clean drinking water and in 2018, the Water Authority of Fiji reported that 12% of the Fiji population did not have access to clean drinking water. Bottled water is a luxury that individuals take for granted, it is time to consider the dark history and implications of “glorified” FIJI Water.

FIJI Water, or Natural Waters of Viti Ltd, was founded in 1996 by a Canadian businessman David Gilmour. In 2004, two controversial Southern California billionaires, Lynda and Stewart Resnick, acquired the FIJI Water company. Since then, the Resnicks have broadened their company — the Wonderful Company, which is the same company that produces POM Wonderful and Wonderful Pistachios — under which FIJI Water acts as a subdivision. Intensely popular, FIJI Water has a cult following of celebrities, business people and U.S. presidents on its coattails. 

In fact, FIJI Water has been in the background of many pop-culture moments — a “FIJI Water Girl” model carried a tray of FIJI Water bottles while photobombing numerous celebrity red carpet photos during the 2019 Golden Globe Awards and Lil Pump wore a FIJI Water bottle costume during a 2018 SNL performance with Kanye West. The appeal of FIJI Water lies in the way it is advertised to the public: “Bottled at the source, Untouched by Man, Until You Unscrew the Cap.” By drawing an emotional appeal from consumers, FIJI Water, or “Earth’s Finest Water,” is able to create an image that whoever purchases FIJI Water is part of an “elite” group. This elitist perspective creates an awareness of buying into the “hype,” or the popularity that is broadcasted by the masses. This marketing strategy works, with FIJI Water’s 2018 annual revenue hitting $43.01 million.

The country of Fiji is located in the South Pacific, consists of 300 clustered islands and has a tropical climate. Rainfall trickles down through a volcanic rock filter and is collected in an aquifer, with FIJI Water specifically obtaining its “untouched” water from an artesian aquifer located in Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island. At the time the Resnicks acquired FIJI Water, political turmoil rose, which eventually led to a Fijian coup d’état in 2006. By being silent and carrying on with business under the newly unelected government, the FIJI Water company raised suspicion of being complicit. This prompts questions about the ethics of FIJI Water: How much does FIJI Water positively contribute to the Fijians? Is the complicity to profit off a martial-ruled country ethical and humane? 

Once its unelected military regime came to power, the newly established government requested that FIJI Water raise its taxes to 15 Fijian cents per liter in 2008 as a way to contribute more to the Fijian economy; originally, the FIJI Water company was paying one-third of a Fijian cent per liter to the government for tapping into the aquifer. FIJI Water, which was tax-exempt prior to the request, responded by laying off workers. Two years later in 2010, the Fijian government attempted to raise taxes again; however, this time, the FIJI Water company closed its plant and fired its employees, which was primarily comprised of Fijian inhabitants, for a day. 

Although they came to an agreement to pay the proposed taxes, the FIJI Water’s company delayed actions demonstrate that they turn a blind eye to the Fijian people, both politically and financially, and pay heed to only self-beneficial profit and gains. By refusing to initially pay the tax for tapping into the Fiji aquifer, the FIJI Water company demonstrates that equity is disregarded in a rich man’s world. Despite the presence of FIJI Water, 12% of the inhabitants of Fiji do not have access to clean drinking water due to rusty pipes from an unreliable water system source.

Not only is the ethics of FIJI Water questionable, but the issue regarding its carbon footprint and plastic waste is also concerning. The distance between Fiji and California — and the U.S. in general —  is 5558.9 miles, which is a substantial distance to be solely transporting bottled water. Furthermore, journalist Aja Romano stated that “it takes around 6.74 kilograms, or 1.75 gallons of water, to produce, export and distribute one bottle of FIJI Water” — this is 2,000 times the amount of energy spent compared to drinking water from the tap.

Due to this controversy of its carbon emissions footprint, FIJI Water launched the Carbon Negative campaign in 2007, which strives to offset 120% of its greenhouse gas emissions by planting trees, reducing plastic waste, using biodiesel when transporting and installing a windmill that would provide energy to its plant in Fiji. However, the Carbon Negative campaign was misleading since only half of the promised forests were planted in 2009; 250 acres of trees were planted, which stores around 400 metric tons of carbon. 

According to journalist Jen Quraishi, the 250 acres of trees was not a significant amount to offset the 85,396 tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases created by the company in 2007. For FIJI Water to keep its promise to offset 120% of the 2008-2010 carbon emissions, Quraishi states that the company would have to plant or conserve approximately 200,000 acres of rainforest. Last year, the company planted another 1,000 trees at a local Navala village. Though valiant, it is simply a small stepping stone for their initial promise. Additionally, there is a lack of transparency since the FIJI Water company took down and erased its green initiative website, FIJIGreen.com, that detailed its mission on tracking its carbon emissions reduction sometime in 2010; an indication that further reinforces that its Carbon Negative campaign promise didn’t go as planned. 

In 2020, FIJI Water shifted its focus to reducing plastic waste by changing its bottles to 20% recycled PET (rPET); by 2025, the company strives to have a 100% rPET bottle. Moreover, FIJI Water claims to still be committed to reducing its carbon footprint; however, the details are vague. Namely, the company stated that it invested more than $2.2 million USD on a wide range of energy efficiency initiatives without detailing the said energy efficiency initiatives. 

Furthermore, are FIJI Water’s claims of being “Earth’s Finest Water” warranted? FIJI Water’s credibility declined when Cleveland, Ohio chemically analyzed the validity of FIJI Water’s slogan in 2006. As stated by Cleveland water quality manager Maggie Rodgers, “6.31 micrograms of arsenic per liter in the Fiji bottle” was found. A safe level of arsenic that humans can consume is 10 micrograms per liter. While within the legal limit, the presence of arsenic in water that is advertised as “Earth’s Finest Water” is a bit concerning. 

In Fiji’s 2020 Economic Data and Reports, mineral water was the No. 1 export; mineral water added an amount of $102.3 million USD, which is equivalent to the Fijian amount of $208.9 million. Therefore, does the monetary benefit outweigh the unethical benefits? There are no specific details about what percent, or amount, of this money, goes back to the Fijian people. FIJI Water claims to provide jobs and economic benefits to the local communities of FIJI is true; FIJI Water provides hundreds of jobs to the citizens. Nonetheless, we can take FIJI Water’s refusal to pay slightly increased taxes as a sign of their bad faith towards the Fijian people.

There is also dissent in Fijian communities since the process to join the company is difficult and competitive. In a 2009 graduate school thesis titled, “‘It is a strange thing for us to see water being sold:’ Local Perceptions of the Fijian Bottled Water Industry,” Jessica Dawn Ulrich found that Fijian inhabitants expressed how difficult it was to secure a job in the FIJI Water company, which established a dissonance within the community and prompted jealousy. Meanwhile, professor Jessica Schad stated that the Fijian people who work at the FIJI Water company were in a temporary dependent relationship with the industry — “financial effects [were] quite superficial and not long-lasting.”

FIJI Water is an emotionally appealing brand and has gained a foothold in the American mind as a premium, health-conscious product. However, the brand’s indifference to the actual country for which it was named should give consumers some pause. 12% of Fijians do not have clean drinking water despite FIJI Water comfortably extracting $43.01 million in water sales per year from the country. Thus, as consumers, we should be mindful of what we invest our money in. Rather than buying into popularity, research items before making the purchase. So next time when the allure of the FIJI Water bottle calls you, remember to think twice before unscrewing the cap.

Ryan Mikeala Nguyen is a 2020-2021 Co-Copy Editor. She can be reached at copy@newuniversity.org.