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December 17, 2007


I saw an ad for "green" Windex the other day. No, it was still blue in color, but SC Johnson was heralding it's eco-friendly attributes. Ugh.

David Leventhal

What ever happened to the ubiquitous water fountain? Did it go by the way of the trolley car? Did the big beverage companies and bottle water companies conspire to remove water fountains from public places leaving us with nothing to drink unless we pick up a bottle of water?

erin leitch

As a green building consultant, I think about this issue a lot in regards to new development. Even with significant (and in some cases not so significant) sustainable building strategies in place, at the end of the day it is still sprawl.
Does it require a fundamental shift in the products that are offered (new development -> rehab of existing development or brownfields, bottled water -> ???), or is it possible to green-up the form of products as they are today enough to make them "sustainable"? I think the obvious response is the former as the latter suggests enough greenwashing and eventually it will become green. But with that answer, it also (wrongly) appears as though sustainability means a loss of business, profitability. How can sustainability and the opportunity to sell your product be reconciled if the the crux of your business is just... not sustainable. Close up shop? That seems unacceptable, but at the same time the reality that needs to be faced to push sustainable innovation past the '30% smaller label' effort.

Matthias Zeeb

I am beginning to see something positive in these greenwashing activities. Not so much because I think that a 30% smaller label would be much of an achievement in terms of developing a sustainable lifestyle. No, the hopeful sign is in what Fiji Water's extraordinary efforts to paint itself green tell us about self-doubt and customer perception. Deep down the Fiji Water people now show they know their business model is incompatible with the efforts to build a future for humanity. And more, it shows that they know their customers know this as well. A business that much undermined is just a few steps away from having to close shop altogether.

David Fox

BYOB - Bring Your Own Bottle (or Cup, or Thermos)

There's even a commercial opportunity http://filterforgood.com/

And while we're at it, lets not forget the other BYOB - Bring Your Own Bag.

While seemingly trivial, these small steps, practiced regularly, help shift our consciousness towards living lightly (and in terms of beverages - lighter on the wallet too!).

Laurens Laudowicz

...on the money. Joel is again completely right about this type of greenwashing. At the same time couldn't it be that the new wave of green marketing also affects the global economy in a positive way? Of course everybody wants to be green now since it became so popular, but does that mean that all companies are greenwashing? No. There is a lot of real positive changes happening too. Most of the time it seems to really make sense when you can save some green by being green. No? Yes.....definitely. Cheers so that, with or without green cigarettes. Greendrinks Hawaii. Aloha

Mark W. McElroy

Hello again, Joel:

First let me say how much I appreciate your shifting the focus, albeit with not enough fanfare for my tastes, from products to processes (i.e., from material objects to human activities) as the kinds of things that can be sustainable or not. It’s not the bottled water that is the problem here; rather, it is the “production” or “disposal” of it that is. As long as we continue to shift the blame for what we do to artifacts, we humans will never be responsible for anything, will we?

But then just when I think you’ve rounded the corner, you undo yourself. If Fiji Water is indeed lowering carbon emissions on a net basis with every product they produce, what’s not to like about that? I have no idea whether the claim they make is true, but if it is, one really has to wonder why you would object to it. This, after all, is the acid test for sustainability. One’s activities either improve, worsen, or leave unchanged the quality of vital capital in the world. If Fiji Water’s net impact is to improve it, on what basis would you object to that? This is not just doing "less bad”, as you put it; it is doing "no bad at all”.

One other point, if I may. How about we lose the narrow, eco-centric view of sustainability? As my late friend and colleague, Dana Meadows, once said: “The difference between traditional environmentalists and ‘sustainability folks’ is the ability [of the sustainability folks] to keep the welfare of both humans and the environment in focus at the same time, and to insist on both.”

So while I have no objection to the idea of using water in ways that fall within the natural regeneration rates of aquifers, I do object to arguing for that principle without also taking global human/social needs into account, such as the need for fresh water in places where shortages may exist, and where it may be desirable, therefore, to ship water from one part of the world to another. And I object even more to the very raising of the water issue without taking human population, politics, and consumption problems into account, as if none of that applied.

So thanks for making it clear that human processes, not products, are exclusively the sorts of things that can be sustainable or not; and no thanks for not taking the next logical step of celebrating an innovative process (i.e., the production of allegedly carbon negative products) that might, in fact, have a net positive impact on mitigating global warming.



Joel Makower


I object to Fiji's "carbon negative" ploy for the same reason I object to people offsetting their SUV driving and thinking they're doing their part to combat climate change. Being needlessly wasteful, then trying to "undo" it somehow, may work in some realms, I suppose, but when it comes to climate change, which demands that we dramatically reduce carbon emissions first, then offset what's unavoidable, the idea of "carbon negative" water shipped thousands of miles seems, well, distasteful.

Rory Bakke

A few weeks ago a friend and I spontaneously decided to take a walk at Land's End (in San Francisco) that would take a couple of hours. So we needed some drinking water. The closest stop was a 7-11 on the way. We walked in and right to the back of the store to the refrigerated beverage case. They had about 20 different types of bottled water. My friend selected one in a matter of seconds. I stood there for what seemed like 15 minutes examining each one and declaring things like "that one comes from too far a distance to be sustainable" or that one is made of so called bio-based plastic that will contaminate the bottle recycling since there is no place to compost it where we are going, etc., etc. My friend began to complain that I should "just choose one!" So I finally actually bought an attachment for my large, lightweight stainless steel water container. This small decrease in decision-making in my future will simplify my life just enough to save me a few brain cells for something else. Thanks Joel.

Mark W. McElroy

Dear Joel:

Not all water consumption is "needlessly wasteful", as you put it. Don't look now, but there's a water crisis in the world. How else are we supposed to get water to people who need it, if not by shipping it? And if we can offset carbon emissions in the process, seems like a win/win to me.



Sean Gibson

We need to shift people's relationships with water back to the tap. One way to do this is for companies to take the lead on their own turfs, and for each of us to lead by example when at other companies (as a consultant, I visit a lot of companies and still get gasps when I ask for tap water).

While it may seem draconian to the non-converted, corporate policies against bottled water - big (Arrowhead) or small (Pellegrino, Calistoga) - at companies can take a bite out of this issue. It helps to explain why so there's not a revolt.

Mirroring other comments here, having reusable containers (e.g., glass, plastic like Nalgene) available at work can help (go ahead and brand them to emphasize your commitment). And then, if your company provides drinks to staff, shifting budget from bottled water to water filtration at the tap (we've done that in our New York and London office and plan to in SF). And remember that soda is basically canned water and syrup -- anyone up for a soda fountain at work?

Bottled water continues to be a growth sector in the beerage market. I'm looking forward to the day that the curve points down, and water filtration products start to hockey stick.


Hi Joel,
What are your thoughts on utilities (electric & gas) going "green" (i.e. PG&E). Do you think their customers see them as credible or sincere? Are they the best messengers of energy efficiency?

Joel Makower

Anna: I think some utilities (like PG&E) are dead-on serious. It has partly to do with leadership, and also to do with the state in which they operate. California utilities (PG&E, SoCal Edison, SMUD, LADWP) are much more enlightened than in other states.

So, the ultimate answer to your question is: "it depends."


Good points about bottled water, bad example about greenwashing. The cigarette you described would be environmentally friendly, it would just also remain unhealthy for you and everyone around you. By your cigarette logic, organic cheesecake (green but unhealthy) would also be greenwashing, right?

David Darlington

The question to people has to be"why do you buy bottled water?" To people living in arrid areas the answer would be that it is the only available drinking water. To the rest of us it is just pure extravagance, fashion and worst of all habit. Pouring money down the drain.

Simon D.

I'm equally critical of the bottled water industry and equally skeptical of the Fiji water "carbon-negative" announcement.

There is one loophole to think about. Bottled water is an unfortunate necessity on many small Pacific islands where treatment is not necessary. For example, people often drink Fiji Water in Kiribati, an island nation along the equator north of Fiji, out of fear of dirty water tanks and the e-coli count in the freshwater lens. The bottled water is a backup.

The problem in places like land-scarce atoll nation like Kiribati is disposal. The plastic bottles end on the beach. A truly sustainable company would think cradle-to-grave, or cradle-to-cradle, and take bottles back.

Mark W. McElroy


I know this may be an unpopular view, but it is not a company's job to do its customers' job. After all, is it not Fiji who is throwing bottles on the beach, is it? What's wrong with expecting customers, God forbid, to behave responsibly, rather than just assuming they won't, and shifting the blame to manufacturers? It is a very strange ethical theory, indeed, that places the blame on everyone but those who acually commit the offensive acts.

Better yet would be a regulatory system that prohibits or controls the production and disposal of eco-unfriendly products and packaging. This would be the more intellgient approach to take, I think, since even properly disposed of plastic bottles are landfill-unfriendly. Moreover, how can you expect a single company to attempt to solve this problem by itself, when every other company can legally do otherwise at a lower cost? If you're serious about this issue, you should be arguing for industry regulation, not corporate altruism.




On a different note, I found this article http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showthread.php?p=3225220 listing the greenest cities in the US. This shows that municipalities care about climate change. I guess the general population cares about the environment and global warming. My score on their calculator was 400 but at least I am trying. Here is the link to the website that published the list of cites and where the carbon calculator can be found: www.earthlab.com. The test took me like 5 minutes tops, and then maybe another 2 minutes to find the pledges I wanted. Pretty cool application.


I saw this bottle the other day, I can only see it as a way for people to say "Oh, so it's okay to use bottled water!"

It's somewhat like that little thing called Jevons Paradox - the more efficient we get at making something, the more it gets consumed.

Mark Whiteseell

While I am not a bottled-water consumer, I do wonder why that industry is being singled out for being an oil-wasting, green-washing monster when the other bottled-beverage manufacturers are not. The soda industry, to name only one of many, is far bigger and is guilty of the same bottling and transportation issues that the bottled-water industry is being attacked for. Perhaps the only difference is that one is trying to appear "green" while the other just doesn't care. Let's be fair and if we blame one, we should blame all.

And I don't appreciate your bait-and-switch tactic for getting me to read your bottled-water discussion. What drew me to this discussion in the first place was the concept of a "green cigarette" which affects us all even if we are not smokers. I think a "fair" discussion of that concept could prove profitable to the ecology.

Will O'Neill

Based on many comments it seems like reusable bottles like Nalgene are the preferred alternative to plastic bottles. In fact, Brita has begun to advertise by sbringing attention to the fact that bottled water lasts "forever in a landfill." However, Nalgene recently issued a recall on some of its bottles as lab studies showed that a chemical in the bottles could wear off and cause cancer. I thought this was pretty ironic given the title of this thread.

Additionally, I think people have started drinking more water in recent years and bottled water companies have been the greatest beneficiaries. If you consider the market saturation of 'sports beverages' like Gatorade, it's not hard to argue that our culture is doing everything they can to combat dehydration. I cannot even recall how many times I have heard that people should be consuming up to a gallon of water per day but I seriously question what the 'healthy' amount of daily water is.


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Brad Hamilton

There is a lot of "green washing" going around. It's amazing people are worried about water in a bottle when they don't even know the water they are bathing in.

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