Feeling frugal? Direct your cut-backs at companies which don’t deserve support
Obviously working in marketing means that to some extent my fortunes are tied to those of the economy and the economy’s in turn are very much tied to the perpetuation of the endless growth of consumption which as we all know is unsustainable – in it s current form at least.
So even though the widely noted post-GFC increase in consumer frugality is probably not in my personal short-term interests, I applaud it nonetheless. I’m prepared to do with less in order to address the looming problems of the environment. To my despair however it seems an amazing number of people, perhaps the majority, don’t feel that way and are quite prepared to put their pockets ahead of the planet. That’s why they show unwillingness to pay more for sustainably produced goods, or vote for a carbon tax.
This consumer frugality is very damaging to a system that is geared to the level of inefficient consumption as ours is. However, perhaps it points the way to the future. It provides two cues: first, consumers need to apply their cut-backs to the most wasteful and damaging products, and second, industries which have thrived on wasteful and excessive consumption need to refocus their efforts in such a way that they actually earn their right to the continued support of their customers, shareholders, employees and legislators.
In the processes we employ in manufacture an distribution we waste and enormous amount of energy and raw materials. The classic example is Fiji water, America’s leading imported water. This is an operation which pumps mineral water out of the ground in Fiji and ships it bottled all over the world. Bottled water is notorious for its position in top five lists of “what not to do” for the planet…. Fiji pumps water out of one part of the planet, encases it bottles made from Chinese plastic in a diesel-fueled plant, then encases it again for shipping, and at great cost ships it to other parts of the planet where clean water was already plentiful. In this case, Fiji Water extracts more than 3.5 million litres a month from its deep aquifer on the island.
Fiji is fundamentally flawed. Clearly it’s environmentally an unsustainable business but there’s more.
Fiji Water is an economic force on the island, and the company has been criticized for tolerating Bainimarama’s military regime. When one reporter travelled to Fiji to investigate the company, she was harassed by the militia, threatened with imprisonment and rape.
Near Fiji’s bottling plant is a small town called Rakiraki. The Lonely Planet guide warned that Rakiraki water “has been deemed unfit for human consumption.” No problem, there you can buy Fiji Water – for almost as much as it costs in the US. Much of Fiji at times relies on rationed emergency water supplies; 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.
The country’s ongoing poverty and social problems make a mockery of Fiji Water’s claims about its support of the local economy. In 2008 in the face of weakening sales and the Fiji government’s threat to increase the company’s taxes (at that time they paid 1.5% of revenue in royalties) , they laid of 40% of their workforce. Last year, again in response to government tax increases, the company threatened to close its facility and move to New Zealand. When the government responded by opening up the water source to competitive foreign bids, the company hurriedly accepted the increase and resumed production.
Clearly, if ever there was a place for consumer frugality to be applied, it’s here. If there was ever a business that illustrates a fundamentally flawed raison d’etre, its this.
Even though the company touts a range of environmental initiatives on its website (from using ships more than trucks for distribution to replacing all the light- globes by energy-efficient alternatives), it takes a disturbingly short term view when it says its “reforestation work in the Yaqara Valley will help ensure the health and quality of the water source for many decades to come”.
Decades? Perhaps that reflects the horizons of Fiji’s owners (billionaire industrial agriculturists couple Stewart and Lynda Rae Resnick), but the people of planet earth hopefully are thinking a little more long term.
Might help if Obama took a lead on this instead of publicly consuming the damn product.
- Why is Fiji Water facing a big law suit? (greenanswers.com)
- The Strange Economics of Water, and Why It Shouldn’t Be Free: A Guest Post (freakonomics.com)