Bob's Links and Rants

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Saturday, August 06, 2005

Bottled water nonsense

An article in Fortune tells how Starbucks has bought up a small California company, Ethos, and will now sell Ethos-brand bottled water in its 2.7 billion coffee shops (okay, I exaggerate a little). The hook--Ethos donates five cents out of every $1.80 bottle of water to fund drinking water projects in poor countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Starbucks apparently figures that this will appeal to their customers (whom I picture as pulling up in BMW SUV's with Kerry-Edwards bumper stickers, though I never go to Starbucks so I don't really know), soothing their consciences a little. Fortune, of course, is fawning all over Ethos and Starbucks for this brilliant marketing ploy.

But wait just a minute! For starters, according to Fortune, Ethos gets its water from springs in California and Pennsylvania. California is a state desperately short on water, relying on huge aqueducts to bring in water from the Sierras and the Colorado River. Along with other western states, California basically drains the Colorado River dry, leaving only a salty trickle, if anything at all, to cross the border into Mexico. And Mexico is one of those Latin American countries needing fresh water! Starbucks and Ethos could probably do more to solve water problems by just connecting their spring to the general California water supply and leaving the equivalent amount of water in the Colorado to flow on to Mexico like it used to.

Secondly, putting the water in petroleum-based plastic bottles and shipping them to Starbucks all over the country (world?) is an enormously energy-intensive and wasteful process.

Finally, having wealthy people buy bottled water removes important stakeholders from (much less expensive) municipal water systems. Why should they care anymore about bacteria in their tap water if they're only using it to water the lawn and wash the car? The problem is, lots of people, even in this country, can't afford $1.80 bottles of water, even if 5 cents of it goes to help even poorer people elsewhere. The well-off in this country don't care about inner-city public schools, because their kids don't go to them. They won't care about municipal water systems either if they aren't using them.

In general, I don't trust any of these "we'll donate 1% to charity" schemes. Working Assets gets lots of liberals to sign up for their long-distance and cellular services, claiming that at no extra charge you'll be contributing to lots of cool charities. But I researched their cellular a while back, and it turns out that they're basic plan was EXACTLY the same as my Sprint plan, coverage area and all, except it cost well over one percent more. Working Assets is just repackaging Sprint. It's just greenwashing. Get the Sprint plan and donate your savings directly.