Spin the Bottle
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Fiji Water: Spin the Bottle

Obama sips it. Paris Hilton loves it. Mary J. Blige won't sing without it. How did a plastic water bottle, imported from a military dictatorship thousands of miles away, become the epitome of cool?

THE INTERNET CAFÉ in the Fijian capital, Suva, was usually open all night long. Dimly lit, with rows of sleek, modern terminals, the place was packed at all hours with teenage boys playing boisterous rounds of video games. But one day soon after I arrived, the staff told me they now had to shut down by 5 p.m. Police orders, they shrugged: The country's military junta had declared martial law a few days before, and things were a bit tense.

I sat down and sent out a few emails—filling friends in on my visit to the Fiji Water bottling plant, forwarding a story about foreign journalists being kicked off the island. Then my connection died. "It will just be a few minutes," one of the clerks said.

Moments later, a pair of police officers walked in. They headed for a woman at another terminal; I turned to my screen to compose a note about how cops were even showing up in the Internet cafés. Then I saw them coming toward me. "We're going to take you in for questioning about the emails you've been writing," they said.

What followed, in a windowless room at the main police station, felt like a bad cop movie. "Who are you really?" the bespectacled inspector wearing a khaki uniform and a smug grin asked me over and over, as if my passport, press credentials, and stacks of notes about Fiji Water weren't sufficient clues to my identity. (My iPod, he surmised tensely, was "good for transmitting information.") I asked him to call my editors, even a UN official who could vouch for me. "Shut up!" he snapped. He rifled through my bags, read my notebooks and emails. "I'd hate to see a young lady like you go into a jail full of men," he averred, smiling grimly. "You know what happened to women during the 2000 coup, don't you?"

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Eventually, it dawned on me that his concern wasn't just with my potentially seditious emails; he was worried that my reporting would taint the Fiji Water brand. "Who do you work for, another water company? It would be good to come here and try to take away Fiji Water's business, wouldn't it?" Then he switched tacks and offered to protect me—from other Fijian officials, who he said would soon be after me—by letting me go so I could leave the country. I walked out into the muggy morning, hid in a stairwell, and called a Fijian friend. Within minutes, a US Embassy van was speeding toward me on the seawall.

Until that day, I hadn't fully appreciated the paranoia of Fiji's military regime. The junta had been declared unconstitutional the previous week by the country's second highest court; in response it had abolished the judiciary, banned unauthorized public gatherings, delayed elections until 2014, and clamped down on the media. (Only the "journalism of hope" is now permitted.) The prime minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, promised to root out corruption and bring democracy to a country that has seen four coups in the past 25 years; the government said it will start working on a new constitution in 2012.

The slogan on Fiji Water's website—"And remember this—we saved you a trip to Fiji"—suddenly felt like a dark joke. Every day, more soldiers showed up on the streets. When I called the courthouse, not a single official would give me his name. Even tour guides were running scared—one told me that one of his colleagues had been picked up and beaten for talking politics with tourists. When I later asked Fiji Water spokesman Rob Six what the company thought of all this, he said the policy was not to comment on the government "unless something really affects us."

Barack Obama

The Audacity of Branding
Seizing on the bottles' ubiquity, Tourism Fiji has taken to circulating a photo of President Obama at an event featuring Fiji Water.

If you drink bottled water, you've probably drunk Fiji. Or wanted to. Even though it's shipped from the opposite end of the globe, even though it retails for nearly three times as much as your basic supermarket water, Fiji is now America's leading imported water, beating out Evian. It has spent millions pushing not only the seemingly life-changing properties of the product itself, but also the company's green cred and its charity work. Put all that together in an iconic bottle emblazoned with a cheerful hibiscus, and everybody, from the Obamas to Paris and Nicole to Diddy and Kimora, is seen sipping Fiji.

That's by design. Ever since a Canadian mining and real estate mogul named David Gilmour launched Fiji Water in 1995, the company has positioned itself squarely at the nexus of pop-culture glamour and progressive politics. Fiji Water's chief marketing whiz and co-owner (with her husband, Stewart) is Lynda Resnick, a well-known liberal donor who casually name-drops her friends Arianna Huffington and Laurie David. ("Of course I know everyone in the world," Resnick told the UK's Observer in 2005, "every mogul, every movie star.") Manhattan's trendy Carlyle hotel pours only Fiji Water in its dog bowls, and this year's SXSW music festival featured a Fiji Water Detox Spa. "Each piece of lobster sashimi," celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa declared in 2007, "should be dipped into Fiji Water seven to ten times."

Lynda Resnick

Drinking Buds
Fiji Water owner Lynda Resnick, pictured with Arianna Huffington, has aimed her brand squarely at the nexus of glamour and green.

And even as bottled water has come under attack as the embodiment of waste, Fiji seems immune. Fiji Water took out a full-page ad in Vanity Fair's 2007 green issue, nestled among stories about the death of the world's water. Two bottles sat on a table between Al Gore and Mos Def during a 2006 MySpace "Artist on Artist" discussion on climate change. Fiji was what panelists sipped at the "Life After Capitalism" conference held in New York City during the 2004 RNC protests; Fiji reps were even credentialed at last year's Democratic convention, where they handed out tens of thousands of bottles.

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 and hauled thousands of miles to its ecoconscious 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. (Gilmour has described the square bottles as "little ambassadors" for the poverty-stricken nation.)

"We are Fiji," declare Fiji Water posters across the island, and the slogan is almost eerily accurate: The reality of Fiji, the country, has been eclipsed by the glistening brand of Fiji, the water.

ON THE MAP, Fiji looks as if someone dropped a fistful of confetti on the ocean. The country is made up of more than 300 islands (100 inhabited) that have provided the setting for everything from The Blue Lagoon to Survivor to Cast Away. Suva is a bustling multicultural hub with a mix of shopping centers, colonial buildings, and curry houses; some 40 percent of the population is of Indian ancestry, descendants of indentured sugarcane workers brought in by the British in the mid-19th century. (The Indian-descended and native communities have been wrangling for power ever since.) The primary industries are tourism and sugar. Fiji Water says its operations make up about 20 percent of exports and 3 percent of GDP, which stands at $3,900 per capita.

Getting to the Fiji Water factory requires a bone-jarring four-hour trek into the volcanic foothills of the Yaqara Valley. My bus' speakers blasted an earsplitting soundtrack of Fijian reggae, Bob Marley, Tupac, and Big Daddy Kane as we swerved up unpaved mountain roads linked by rickety wooden bridges. Cow pastures ringed by palm trees gave way to villages of corrugated-metal shacks and wooden homes painted in Technicolor hues. Chickens scurried past stands selling cell phone minutes. Sugarcane stalks burning in the fields sent a sweet smoke curling into the air.

Our last rest stop, half an hour from the bottling plant, was Rakiraki, a small town with a square of dusty shops and a marketplace advertising "Coffin Box for Sale—Cheapest in Town." My Lonely Planet guide warned that Rakiraki water "has been deemed unfit for human consumption," and groceries were stocked with Fiji Water going for 90 cents a pint—almost as much as it costs in the US.

Rakiraki has experienced the full range of Fiji's water problems—crumbling pipes, a lack of adequate wells, dysfunctional or flooded water treatment plants, and droughts that are expected to get worse with climate change. Half the country has at times relied on emergency water supplies, with rations as low as four gallons a week per family; dirty water has led to outbreaks of typhoid and parasitic infections. Patients have reportedly had to cart their own water to hospitals, and schoolchildren complain about their pipes spewing shells, leaves, and frogs. Some Fijians have taken to smashing open fire hydrants and bribing water truck drivers for a regular supply.

Suva, Fiji - Photo by Anna LuzerSuva, Fiji - Photo by Anna Lenzer

The bus dropped me off at a deserted intersection, where a weather-beaten sign warning off would-be trespassers in English, Fijian, and Hindi rattled in the tropical wind. Once I reached the plant, the bucolic quiet gave way to the hum of machinery spitting out some 50,000 square bottles (made on the spot with plastic imported from China) per hour. The production process spreads across two factory floors, blowing, filling, capping, labeling, and shrink-wrapping 24 hours a day, five days a week. The company won't disclose its total sales; Fiji Water's vice president of corporate communications told me the estimate of 180 million bottles sold in 2006, given in a legal declaration by his boss, was wrong, but declined to provide a more solid number.

From here, the bottles are shipped to the four corners of the globe; the company—which, unlike most of its competitors, offers detailed carbon-footprint estimates on its website—insists that they travel on ships that would be making the trip anyway, and that the Fiji payload only causes them to use 2 percent more fuel. In 2007, Fiji Water announced that it planned to go carbon negative by offsetting 120 percent of emissions via conservation and energy projects starting in 2008. It has also promised to reduce its pre-offset carbon footprint by 25 percent next year and to use 50 percent renewable energy, in part by installing a windmill at the plant.

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