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Does Drinking FIJI Water Prop Up a Dictatorship?

| Friday August 14th, 2009 | 3 Comments

fiji-motherjonesPoor FIJI water. Ever since Pablo’s infamous “true cost” article almost three years ago, the company has scrambled to re-invent its image in the eyes of the environmentally conscious. Although many of their efforts have been PR plays, they’ve made some praiseworthy changes. Now, in classic style, Mother Jones Magazine has leveled the accusation that not only is drinking FIJI still an environmental absurdity, it’s also helping to prop up a nasty military dictatorship. Yikes.

It takes a little while to get your head around the whole thing so give Mother Jones’ main article a look. Then read FIJI’s response here. Then pop back to Mojo for a follow-up.

The week of August 17th, I’ll be participating with others in a discussion about this issue on Mother Jones’ website – Here’s the link to the discussion. Also, here are some thoughts…

I think FIJI water has a problem they don’t fully understand. It’s about their core mission. The FIJI water company was, as far as I can tell, not set up with any sort of social or environmental mission in mind. It was set up to create a fashionable brand that people would be drawn to because it’s pretty, exotic and expensive. The brand was meticulously and expertly crafted to satisfy the desire some people have to be associated with those adjectives, and to huge financial success.

As silly as that might sound, there’s nothing wrong with it by itself. People will happily buy pet rocks. You can make fun of it, but if it’s giving people delight, then is it really wrong? Should we fault a company for taking their money in exchange?

We all draw our own lines as to what is and what is not a silly product. However, if a company is actually causing harm, directly or indirectly in some manner, then there’s a clear cause for conversation. There’s no question that bottling water on a small island and shipping it around the world has a cost in terms of environmental externalities. Offsets are great, but no matter what you do, they don’t erase the original problem, they just do something nice somewhere else.

I feel that FIJI was caught off guard by the powerful reaction they received and continue to receive because the core of their mission is, despite some good efforts, still about the luxury and the fashion. They’ve spent huge amounts of money on trying to change that perception in the eyes of the green and socially conscious community, but that method only arouses more suspicion unless it’s seen as truly authentic – which might mean less glam, more real image risk. The community they’re targeting with the FijiGreen campaign is smart and suspicious of glossy marketing especially when it’s reactionary rather than proactive.

Perhaps FIJI would have less of a problem if they had been engaged in environmental and economic projects from the get-go and had made it a core pierce of their messaging and corporate mission. Starbucks’ Ethos Water is a product that’s only slightly less silly than FIJI but gets a lot less flack from green groups because its stated purpose from day one was to improve the water situation in the developing world. I still don’t drink Ethos personally, but I appreciate what they’re doing because it feels far more authentic – and based on many personal conversations I’ve had with knowledgeable people, it is.

As for the Fijian government, in FIJI water’s defense, one shouldn’t jump too quickly to guilt by association. FIJI was set up and running well before the coup of 2006 so I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. But with 3% of the nation’s GDP under their control you might think they could wield some influence over what really is a dicey situation. Perhaps they’re patiently waiting it out, perhaps the company feels like too much of an outsider to start meddling. I don’t know enough about Fijian politics to weigh heavily on the matter, but Mother Jones is correct to point out that the company’s silence is troubling.

FIJI water has a great opportunity to take a risk here and educate the world about the political situation in Fiji and perhaps do what they can to help build a functional democracy in their adopted home.

Let’s see what happens.

Please leave comments on whether you think I’m totally off base, too forgiving, or anything else. I will be sure to bring them up at the Mojo Forum!

Full disclosure: I worked for Mother Jones for 2 years as their media architect and remain a fan.


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