The Ethos of Social Ventures – Does Ethos Water Really Work?

By Sirid Kellermann, Ph.D.
I attended the Global Social Venture Competition’s symposium on social entrepreneurship this past Saturday at UC-San Francisco. The day was inspirational on so many levels. There was a big crowd of over 250 MBA students, social venture entrepreneurs, funders, and others who exuded energy and excitement. Finalists from the previous day’s competition were in attendance, including the winners, the EcoFaeBrik team from Indonesia.
The day’s discussion panelists included many successful and engaging individuals, such as Dan Crisafulli (Director, Ecosystem Investments and Partnerships, Skoll Foundation), Sara Olsen (founder, SVT Group), and Priya Haji (co-founder, World of Good). The symposium’s organizers selected an exceptionally charismatic keynote speaker, Jonathan Greenblatt, a social entrepreneur and “an acknowledged thought leader on corporate social responsibility, ethical branding and social entrepreneurship” (according to his bio on the Symposium’s Web site).
Mr. Greenblatt whipped up the audience with a motivational talk that posited that the question of our time is “Now what?” (as in Mr. or Mrs. Consumer saying, “I recycle my plastics, I drive a hybrid car, and I take shorter showers. Now what?”). You could look around the room and see people nodding their heads, eyes shining, riveted. Mr Greenblatt then went on to describe his own experience as the co-founder of Ethos Water, and here’s where things went downhill for me.

The construct behind Ethos Water is that since you can’t change the bottle-water-drinking habits of Americans, you might as well sell them a brand of bottled water that donates five cents for every bottle sold in order to fund humanitarian water programs – up to $10 million by 2010. At the same time, Mr. Greenblatt acknowledged the horrendous statistic that only 12% of all plastic bottles are recycled in this country – the rest end up in landfills, or worse. By the end of his talk, Mark Lovett (my lunch companion and author of the blog and I agreed that there something oxymoronic and vaguely Macchiavellian about continuing to promote such an eco-unfriendly habit in the name of raising funds for clean drinking water.
To be clear, I have no fundamental problem with Mr. Greenblatt meeting plastic-bottle-toting consumers where they are today. However, it’s lazy to simply adopt the current vastly imperfect system and not try to find ways to start to change customer behavior. Especially if you’re Ethos Water and you’ve been acquired by Starbucks, why not leverage that visibility to change consumer behavior?
Which leads me to ask, yes, Mr. Greenblatt, “now what?”

If Mr. Greenblatt has an answer to his own question, he didn’t share it with us, which is a shame. I have a few suggestions for him: first, address the environmental impacts of our bottled water habit by using more eco-friendly packaging, like plant-based PLA bottles or even biodegradable boxes like Glacia Water uses. Second, educate consumers at the point of sale about the ecological impacts of bottled water. Don’t worry about sabotaging your revenues – you can transfer your successful brand to other, more sustainable products.
I’m concerned that social ventures such as Ethos Water and others – Product [Red] also comes to mind – promote increased material consumption, rather than guiding changes in consumer behavior to become more sustainable. Aren’t there more innovative, dematerialized market-driven solutions that can facilitate social development, while helping (or at the very least not further harming) the environment? Consider that Apple makes hundreds of millions of dollars off of selling songs. Why not similarly appeal to consumers’ (vast) emotional and sensory needs without the downside of plastic-clogged waterways and cast-off red T-shirts? In any case, we need to find solutions far larger than the $10 million that Ethos Water aspires to raise – a sum that even Mr. Greenblatt acknowledged was a tiny fraction of what’s needed to address the clean drinking water problem.
I fear that in taking a less than holistic approach, high-profile social ventures such as Ethos Water risk creating general skepticism and accusations of greenwashing among increasingly discerning consumers. (Decisions about partnerships and acquisitions, such as Ethos by Starbucks, need to also be carefully weighed as to whether they boost or hurt credibility.) And to all the budding social entrepreneurs that attended the symposium with me: please, think about the whole system before you launch your venture

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7 responses

  1. Fiji water is on the same misguided track…I saw them a trade show recently and they were also pitching their “eco-friendly” bottled water. Other unsustainable oxymorons that come to mind: organic tobacco and the new Escalade Hybrid!

  2. I applaud the mission of Ethos, but bottled water is like a bad joke that won’t go away. Kudos for calling it like it is here. Its nonsense to say we “can’t change Americans bottled water habits”. Americans only caught on to the habit a decade or so ago. A new marketing campaign by re-usable water bottle companies might help!

  3. Great “call out” Sirid. I, too, left with a bad taste in my mouth after this talk. I was especially confused by the statement he made about he and his family having never had bottled water in their house, “we use tap water.” Makes me wonder why he went the consumer packaged goods route with bottled water versus selling or promoting water filters or finding another way to donate a nickel per product sale?

  4. blathra, your comment about Fiji is apt. Anyone with a spare moment should open two tabs in their browser and look at the FIJI Green and Ethos Water websites side by side… eery.

  5. When listening to thought leaders on sustainability, ones who have truly done their homework, they all seem to conclude that inevitably less consumption will be needed in the future.
    Ethos is still operating with the “let’s unnecessarily consume more because it’s convenient while continuing to toxify the planet (12% of all plastic bottles are recycled in this country)” model despite their charitable actions.
    There’s a particular irony that his family doesn’t use his own product at home.

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