Fiji Water Chimes In on Bottled Versus Tap

The green bottler tells us why bottled water has such a bad rap—and how they're trying to change it.

By + More

I've been writing about water for the past few days, mainly because there are so many deeply felt opinions on it. But when I mentioned Fiji Green in the first part of this impromptu three-part series, I wondered how the company would respond to a study that concluded the environmental impact of bottled water can be 1,000 times that of tap water. Thomas Mooney, senior vice president for sustainable growth at Fiji Green, gave me a call today, and we talked about his company's efforts to make its green practices known, and about the bottled water industry's bad reputation. Excerpts:

So, what do you think about the study?

I understand why a Swiss utility would commission the study. People think that tap water and bottled water are the competitive set. That is not, in fact, how it plays out. People choose to buy a packaged beverage, and then they choose whatever they want. What is so frustrating about this debate is when you look at it through that lens, bottled water represents the healthiest choice, and by far the lowest environmental impact....  The Swiss study made me think, "Riding a bicycle is better than a Prius, so a Prius is bad." A Prius replaces an SUV, just as bottled water replaces soda. People are drinking more bottled water, but there has been a decrease in carbonated soft drink consumption. If your tap water tastes great and you like it, drink it. Bottled water is the better choice if you're reaching into a cooler. Some allege that the bottled water industry has convinced people that healthy, clean tap water is unhealthy for them.

Far from doing that, we'll be the first to tell you to drink as much of your tap water as you like. That's fine with us. There certainly are consumers who drink bottled water at home because they think their tap water is not safe. The one thing I would question is that being the genesis of why bottled water has gotten as big as it is. We have precious few healthy eating habits in this country, and this is one of them. We spent a generation telling people to drink less soda, and they listened. When I see my sons drinking bottled water, I remember drinking Coke at their age. Studies have claimed that people can't tell the difference between bottled water and tap in a blind taste test.

Any day I'd be happy to taste a blind test with you. It's not hard to tell our product from others. If I had a dollar for every time a winemaker has challenged me, I could retire. What do you think about several bottlers trying to liken the experience of drinking water to fine wine?

I think that, like wine, water takes a lot of its taste and mouthfeel characteristics from its source. In water, the pH of the water, the types of minerals, and the quantity of the minerals produce different mouthfeels. The difference between average water and great water is not as great as the difference between Two Buck Chuck and Chateau Lafite. You don't have vast differences in pricing. Fiji Water, which is supposedly expensive, is a buck and a quarter versus something that costs less than a dollar. Every time I see someone on TV who is a sommelier who can't tell the difference between tap and bottled, I don't think they'll be a sommelier very long. On one hand, if people are going to buy a bottled water, it's great that they would buy one that's considered green, but do you worry that the people who care about being green will just drink tap, while people who aren't green will only look to cost and probably buy Dasani?

If you care about cost, you wouldn't buy Dasani. Dasani, Aquafina, and Smartwater are the biggest brands made from municipal water, and they're more expensive than natural spring water. I think that, again, the choice to drink bottled water has more to do with your situation during the day; if you stop to get gas, and you're thirsty, I guess you could get your refillable water bottle filled up in the bathroom, but I doubt it. It depends on the situation you're in. Any water that's bottled in PET [polyethylene terephthalate plastic bottles] instead of glass would be the green option to other packaged beverages. What do you say to those who have claimed your industry is selling snow to Eskimos?

That they should try it. If you try our product and compare it to other products, you would sense that it has a reason to be. We [think] that it's OK to bring wine from Chile and Australia, and that there's something special about it to bring it across the world. People who think there's no difference [between tap and bottled] have probably just not tried Fiji Water. To put it a different, more pragmatic way, if the stuff that came out of an artesian aquifer in Fiji tasted the same as Los Angeles tap water, we could save a ton of money. We wouldn't go to the expense if there weren't a great reason for that water to come from there. There's another good reason that we've done a lousy of job of helping people to understand—[Fiji] is an archipelago of islands. People who say that, for the sake of the planet, Fiji should not be able to develop economically, that's an interesting argument. This country needs to be able to do something to get ahead. Fiji is kind of screwed—they don't have a ton of options for economic development, but bottled water is one of them. With bottled water, we generate 20 percent of the country's exports. We're an integral part of the economy and development of the entire country.

When someone buys a bottle of Fiji, they're buying prosperity for the country. We reinvest a tremendous amount of what we make selling our product. We've protected about 50,000 acres of rain forest. With Pacific Water for Life, we aim to provide clean, safe drinking water to every community in Fiji. One hundred communities will have safe water, so now someone 10 or 20 miles down from the plants can drink the same water we bottle. If we did, as you suggested, cease to exist, a big chunk of the economy would be gone, the schools that we built would go away, and the water access projects would go away. I don't think that's what anyone really wants.

One last question: Which candidate's environmental plans do you favor?

I lean more toward the McCain plan, but I'm happy that we've gotten to a place where no matter who wins, climate change will get attention. I don't think there's much of a practical difference. One of the big differences is the use of nuclear energy, and I don't want a plant near my house just like you don't, but I have a little more faith in our ability to manage the waste problems with nuclear. You have to change the way we use energy. What we've seen with gasoline is that prices go up by double and consumption goes down 2 percent.... The future will give us different tools, but [nuclear energy] is something that we know how to do and we can do now.