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 offsetting effort has been the centerpiece of Fiji Water's $5 million "Fiji Green" marketing blitz, which brazenly urges consumers to drink imported water to fight climate change. The Fiji Green website claims that because of the 120-percent carbon offset, buying a big bottle of Fiji Water creates the same carbon reduction as walking five blocks instead of driving. Former Senior VP of Sustainable Growth Thomas Mooney noted in a 2007 Huffington Post blog post that "we'd be happy if anyone chose to drink nothing but Fiji Water as a means to keep the sea levels down." (Metaphorically speaking, anyway: As the online trade journal ClimateBiz has reported, Fiji is using a "forward crediting" model under which it takes credit now for carbon reductions that will actually happen over a few decades.)

Fiji Water has also vowed to use at least 20 percent less packaging by 2010—which shouldn't be too difficult, given its bottle's above-average heft. (See "Territorial Waters.") The company says the square shape makes Fiji Water more efficient in transport, and, hey, it looks great: Back in 2000, a top official told a trade magazine that "What Fiji Water's done is go out there with a package that clearly looks like it's worth more money, and we've gotten people to pay more for us."

Selling long-distance water to green consumers may be a contradiction in terms. But that hasn't stopped Fiji from positioning its product not just as an indulgence, but as an outright necessity for an elite that can appreciate its purity. As former Fiji Water CEO Doug Carlson once put it, "If you like Velveeta cheese, processed water is okay for you." ("All waters are not created equal" is another long-standing Fiji Water slogan.) The company has gone aggressively after its main competitor—tap water—by calling it "not a real or viable alternative" that can contain "4,000 contaminants," unlike Fiji's "living water." "You can no longer trust public or private water supplies," co-owner Lynda Resnick wrote in her book, Rubies in the Orchard.

A few years back, Fiji Water canned its waterfall logo and replaced it with a picture of palm fronds and hibiscus: "Surface water!" Resnick wrote in Rubies. "Why would you want to suggest that Fiji came from surface water? The waterfall absolutely had to go." One company newsletter featured the findings of a salt-crystal purveyor who claimed that Fiji Water rivals the "known and significant abilities of 'Holy Healing Waters' in Lourdes, France or Fatima, Portugal." Switching effortlessly from Catholic mysticism to sci-fi, he added that the water's "electromagnetic field frequency enables Fiji Water to stimulate our human self-regulation system."

In keeping with this rarefied vibe, Fiji Water's marketing has focused on product placement more than standard advertising; from appearances on The Sopranos, 24, The View, and Desperate Housewives to sponsorship of events like the Emmy Awards, the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, and Justin Timberlake's "Summer Love" tour, it's now "hard to find an event where our target market is present and Fiji isn't," according to Resnick. As far back as 2001, Movieline anointed it one of the "Top 10 Things Young Hollywood Can't Get Through the Day Without." At the Academy Awards, E! has handed out Fiji bottles to the stars; as it happens, the complex where the Oscars is held was owned until 2004 by Fiji Water founder David Gilmour's real estate empire, Trizec (which before its acquisition by Brookfield Properties in 2006 was one of the largest real estate companies in North America, with projects including everything from the Sears Tower to Enron HQ).

In a 2003 interview, Gilmour told the London Times that "the world's water is being trashed day by day." He would know: Before launching Fiji Water, he cofounded Barrick Gold, now the largest gold mining enterprise in the world, with operations in hot spots from Tanzania to Pakistan. Its mines, often in parched places like Nevada and Western Australia, use billions of gallons of water to produce gold via a toxic cyanide leaching process. Barrick's practices are so damaging that after an environmental review of the company, the Norwegian government announced last year that it would divest itself of some $200 million in Barrick stock.

Gilmour was a powerful presence in Fiji long before he got into the water business. Back in 1969, he launched what would become—with help from a couple of Saudi princes—the region's biggest hotel chain, the Southern Pacific Hotel Corporation, which built a massive resort complex in Fiji. His investors and advisers have included everyone from notorious arms trader Adnan Khashoggi to George H.W. Bush; in 2004, Colin Powell presented him with the Secretary of State's Award for Corporate Excellence for his work in Fiji. Gilmour's Fijian holdings include the exclusive Wakaya resort, which boasts six staffers to each guest and has hosted Bill Gates, Nicole Kidman, and Keith Richards (who famously fell off a tree there); he also owns Zinio, an electronic publishing company that produces the digital version of Mother Jones magazine. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

In the early 1990s, Gilmour got wind of a study done by the Fijian government and aid organizations that indicated an enormous aquifer, estimated at more than 17 miles long, near the main island's north coast. He obtained a 99-year lease on land atop the aquifer, brought a former Fijian environment minister on board, and launched an international marketing blitz inviting consumers to sample water preserved since "before the Industrial Revolution." To this day, Fiji Water has nearly exclusive access to the aquifer; the notoriously corrupt and chronically broke government has not been able to come up with the money or infrastructure to tap the water for its people.

BY THE TIME Gilmour put Fiji Water up for sale in 2004, it was the fourth most popular imported bottled water in the United States. He found eager buyers in the Resnicks, who made their fortune with the flower delivery service Teleflora and the collectibles company Franklin Mint. The Beverly Hills-based couple are also agribusiness billionaires whose holdings include enough almond, pistachio, and pomegranate acreage to make them the biggest growers of those crops in the entire Western Hemisphere; a 2004 report by the Environmental Working Group calculated that in 2002 alone, their agricultural water subsidies totaled more than $1.5 million. They own a pesticide company, Suterra, and Lynda Resnick almost single-handedly created the pomegranate fad via their Pom Wonderful brand.

Fiji Water wasn't the Resnicks' first foray into the water industry: Years ago, they gained control of one of the largest underground water reservoirs in the nation, the Kern Water Bank on the edge of California's Central Valley. This vast holding system—built with public funds in 1999 to help buffer the effects of droughts—stores water from California's aqueducts and the Kern River; it's estimated to be worth more than $180 million on the open market and has allowed the Resnicks to double their acreage of fruits and nuts since 1994, according to the Los Angeles Times.  

With the profits from their enterprises, the Resnicks have been major players on the political scene, giving more than $300,000 each over the past decade. They have supported mostly marquee Democrats—Obama, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, Al Franken—though both also donated to the McCain campaign. They give millions to museums, environmental organizations, and other charities: Lynda is a trustee of the Aspen Institute, and Stewart is on the board of Conservation International. One of Britney Spears' recent meltdowns led to her stay at the Stewart and Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA. In June, the California Institute of Technology announced the creation of the Resnick Sustainability Institute after receiving a $20 million donation from the couple. Fiji Water also gives to a range of conservation groups, including the Waterkeeper Alliance, Oceana, the Nature Conservancy, and Heal the Bay.

The charitable works Fiji Water brags about most often, however, are its efforts in Fiji itself—from preserving rainforests to helping fund water and sanitation projects to underwriting kindergartens. This January, after catastrophic floods swept the main island of Viti Levu, the company also donated $500,000 to the military regime for flood relief, and gave another $450,000 to various projects last summer. True, some of Fiji Water's good works are more hope than reality: Though Lynda Resnick insists that "we only use biofuels," the Fiji plant runs on diesel generators, and a project to protect 50,000 acres of rainforest—plugged on the actual bottle label—has yet to obtain a lease. Still, Resnick told New York's WNYC last year, "We do so much for these sort of forgotten people. They live in paradise, but they have a very, very hard life."

Fiji Water may be well advised to spread a bit of its wealth around locally. During the 2000 coup, a small posse of villagers wielding spearguns and dynamite seized on the chaos to take over the bottling plant and threaten to burn it down. "The land is sacred and central to our continued existence and identity," a village spokesman told the Fiji Times, adding that "no Fijian should live off the breadcrumbs of past colonial injustices." Two years later, the company created the Vatukaloko Trust Fund, a charity targeting several villages surrounding its plant. It won't say how much it has given to the trust, but court proceedings indicate that it has agreed to donate .15 percent of its Fijian operation's net revenues; a company official testified that the total was about $100,000 in 2007. (For perspective, the trade journal Brandweek put Fiji Water's marketing budget at $10 million in 2008; it recently dropped $250,000 to become a founding partner of the new Salt Lake City soccer stadium.)

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