At the Ultra-Green W Hotel, $6 for Fiji Water. What's Wrong With This Picture?

green police fiji waterThe W Hotel in San Francisco is without doubt one of the greenest hotels in America. It won a 2008 "Good Earthkeeping Award," and in April was awarded Silver LEED status, making it "the first LEED certification of an existing building belonging to a major hotel brand."

Here are a few hotel highlights:
  • 70% of the guest room lighting is green, either CFL or LED, with motion sensors.
  • All PCs are Energy Star compliant.
  • "Sensory Meetings" are offered, with all food and beverages "organic, biodynamic and local."
  • Also offered are "zero waste events," and carbon neutral events through a partnership with "Live Neutral" carbon offsets.
  • Management is considering installation of wind turbines on the hotel's roof -- which would be the first for a commercial building in the city.
Fiji water greenwashingThis is San Francisco, after all, and green commitment is taken for granted. The city is ground zero for electric car introductions, and just about every other environmental trend.

Still, I have to wonder about the $6 bottle of Fiji Water in my room during a recent stay.

Six dollars for 11 ounces of water? I'm not sure how green that is, especially for a hotel that holds meetings featuring local food and drink. The last time I looked, Fiji was halfway around the world. My two issues here are a) the cost for a tiny bottle; and b) the emphasis on bottled water when tap water in San Francisco is perfectly drinkable, and much greener.

(See what a recent report concluded about tap water vs. bottled water.)

You probably know the arguments against bottled water. As I reported back in August, Americans drink 500 million bottles of it every week, producing enough waste containers to circle the globe five times. The oil and energy going into making water bottles would annually fuel a million cars.

And that's ignoring the transportation costs, which are huge with Fiji Water. Obviously, this company is not going to sit still for attacks on its green credentials, and it has prepared an extensive defense that highlights its carbon offsets.

But Fiji Water has some interesting baggage, as Mother Jones reported late last year. According to Anna Lenzer's article:

"Nowhere in Fiji Water's glossy marketing materials will you find reference to the typhoid outbreaks that plague Fijians because of the island's faulty water supplies; the corporate entities that Fiji Water has -- despite the owners' talk of financial transparency -- set up in tax havens like the Cayman Islands and Luxembourg; or the fact that its signature bottle is made from Chinese plastic in a diesel-fueled plant [the company says biodiesel] and hauled thousands of miles to its eco-conscious consumers. And, of course, you won't find mention of the military junta for which Fiji Water is a major source of global recognition and legitimacy."

Wow, who knew? Certainly not blog queen Arianna Huffington, who has posed for pictures with Fiji co-owner Lynda Resnick. And certainly not Paris Hilton, who loves the stuff, or Mary J. Blige, who won't sing without it. I saw actor Jeff Bridges swilling Fiji as he performed the songs from Crazy Heart in Los Angeles, but maybe he also drinks other brands.
Fiji water greenwashing
Fiji Water has become something of a progressive icon, not to mention "America's leading premium water brand." The company says "Fiji Water is committed to reducing its environmental impact and preserving the planet for future generations. Through our membership in One Percent for the Planet and partnership with Conservation International, Fiji Water supports environmental efforts around the world and in our backyard; our Fiji Water Foundation is dedicated to providing access to clean water, health care, and education for the people of Fiji."

The company also said it had committed $5 million to save Fiji rain forests. It has contributed $500,000 for flood relief, and $450,000 for other projects. "We do so much for these sort of forgotten people," Resnick said. "They live in paradise, but they have a very, very hard life."

Well, that's heartwarming. Through the Carbon Disclosure Project, Fiji claims to be carbon neutral and offset 120% of its emissions, presumably including those resulting from making the bottles and long-distance transportation. It wants to build wind turbines.

But the Mother Jones article paints a disturbing picture, and it's uncertain how much longer Fiji Water can even be in Fiji. The military junta has created a tense situation, especially in the capital of Suva, and the Australian government advises travelers "to exercise caution in Fiji due to the unresolved political situation and deterioration in the rule of law following the December 2006 military coup."

In fact, as NPR has reported, Fiji Water has threatened to leave the country in response to a government tax increase and the deportation of a high-ranking executive, David Roth. In November, in a high-stakes game of chicken, it temporarily closed its Fiji facility and laid off 400 workers, but then reached some kind of accommodation with the government and reopened.

And that tiny bottle of water was $6. Let's do the math here. In San Francisco, where I was tempted by that Fiji bottle, tap water sells for .003 dollars a gallon. Normally, bottled water ranges from $1 to $4 a gallon, which makes it at least 300 times more expensive than the tap. But that's the cheap stuff; hotel room Fiji is much more expensive.

And the San Francisco Department of Public Health reports, "Relative to tap water, bottled water uses more resources and produces more waste ... If water is delivered, then costs associated with delivery ... also need to be considered." And boy, does Fiji Water need to be delivered.

I wasn't able to reach either Fiji or the W to talk about these issues. I thought the $6 water bottle was so singular when I saw it in the hotel room bathroom that I photographed it, and that's the shot you see in this story.
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