FIJI Water's bottled water, a simple product that satisfies the human need for survival and demand for luxury, may seem like an innocent product with its aesthetic appeal. Despite its contribution to Fiji's local economy, FIJI Water's exotic perception and elite status comes with various social and environmental costs. FIJI Water's long journey with a large carbon footprint raises the question of whether it's necessary for consumers to drink imported water from miles away despite its significant negative impact on the environment.
Bottled from a natural artesian aquifer in the Viti Levu, a remote part of Fiji's main island, and priced at $1.69 for its 500mL bottle, FIJI Water is a premium water marketed as the "Earth's Finest Water."
FIJI Water's supply chain requires large energy consumption, particularly in the fossil fuel emissions required for transportation and plastic bottle production - major environmental issues related to FIJI's bottled water. Research estimates that the energy used in producing and using plastic bottles is equivalent to filling the bottles one-quarter full with oil. Not only does it take so much energy to produce, but FIJI Water's single-use plastic bottles can also take up to 400 years to break down in nature and provoke plastic pollution, a pressing environmental issue the world faces. The carbon footprint of a plastic bottle mainly stems from the transportation of raw materials required for the plastic bottle, making plastic resins and plastic bottle production.
FIJI Water uses plastic bottles made from virgin fossil-based PET. Even though the company promised that "all of its plastic bottles would be made from 100% recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) by 2025", the company currently uses PET. It’s important to note that consumers often do not recycle plastics, which eliminates the possibility of recycling's positive impact. To calculate the true cost of FIJI Water's plastic bottles, we will use the Water Footprint Network's guideline, which indicates that the average carbon footprint of a 500 mL PET bottled water is 82.8 grams. Under the Biden administration, the social cost of carbon is priced about $51 per ton; each 500mL FIJI Water bottle should include an extra $0.004 in its true cost.
In addition to plastic use, long-distance transportation for production and distribution is a major environmental externality of FIJI Water. "It costs as much to ship Fiji Water across the oceans and truck it to warehouses in the United States than it does to extract the water and bottle it".. This is an inefficient outcome of globalization. Plastic bottles travel miles from China to Fiji and are filled with artesian water from the island. Then the bottled waters are transported from Fiji to 80 different countries. The main destinations of water exports from Fiji are: United States ($142M), Canada ($3.75M), United Kingdom ($3.59M), China ($2.47M), and Mexico ($2.44M) (Water in Fiji). Raw material sourcing from and exporting to countries miles away from Fiji results in high transportation costs.
FIJI Water's greenhouse gas emissions occur not only in transportation and plastic bottle production but also in FIJI Water's water plant in Viti Levu. The FIJI Water plant is a facility that runs non-stop; therefore, it requires an uninterrupted supply of electricity, which comes from the factory's generators running on diesel fuel. On their website, the company claims that they are committed to reducing their carbon footprint and that they have invested $2.5 million on energy efficiency initiatives. They claim to use microturbine energy generation but it is unclear if that replaced diesel fuel. While FIJI Water made many promises in terms of sustainability, there is no sustainability report or accountability about the company's activities. We can assume that most water plants still run on diesel fuel; the environmental externality of greenhouse gas emissions should be reflected in the true cost.
According to FIJI Water's claims, employees are paid above Fiji's informal minimum wage, FJD 2.68 per hour or $92.60 per week. However, Fiji unions argue that Fiji's minimum wage rate is set at an unrealistic low level and it should be FJD 4 per hour to be above the poverty line. To increase its impact, the company can push the wages even higher and meet the living income decided by Fiji unions, the community itself.
Many FIJI Water consumers already have access to tap water, while 12% of Fijians do not have access to clean drinking water at all. It is ironic to ship a "premium" product from a country without reliable water service. I cannot help but wonder: is it ethical for clean water to be a commodity owned by any individual or corporation instead of a global commons? While FIJI Water extracts $43.01 million in water sales per year from the Fiji Islands and consumers enjoy drinking the premium water, the local community is not entitled to access the water from the aquifer. Natural resources will deplete over time because of FIJI Water's business activities; FIJI Water's business exploits a primary natural resource - a significant issue related to the bottled water industry. FIJI Water's social and environmental externalities need to be addressed; access to safe drinking water and conservation of natural resources is a matter of equality and justice. Even though FIJI Water invested in Fiji and increased water accessibility in the past years, the company needs to ensure equality and justice by taking action to account for business' social and environmental costs.
While the ethics of bottled water remain controversial, FIJI Water's contribution to the local economy and society through investments, job creation and higher wages cannot be disregarded. Economic data shows that "in 2019, Fiji exported $168M in Water, making it the 5th largest exporter of Water globally". In the same year, FIJI Water was the 1st most exported product of Fiji. FIJI Water is the largest exporter and a major employer of Fiji Island.