A Bottled-Water Drama In Fiji

For 20 years, the Fiji Water company has been tapping an aquifer in Fiji for its bottled water and paying a tax of one-third of a cent per liter. Now the Fiji government wants 15 cents per liter. This week, Fiji Water said no and shut down operations, but only for a day. The company is a major employer on the island, and hundreds of Fijians would be without work if the factory shut down. NPR's Guy Raz talks to Charles Fishman, a journalist who has written about the bottled water business for Fast Company magazine.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

GUY RAZ, host:

Now, if you're anything like me, you sometimes wonder if that fancy bottle of water you just paid two bucks for came from a tap in New Jersey. Well, Fiji Water actually comes from an aquifer in Fiji. It's true. The water in that square bottle comes all the way from the South Pacific right to your local 7-Eleven.

But this week Fiji Water nearly lost its claim to fame. The military government in that country upped its tax on water extraction from one-third of a Fijian cent to 15 Fijian cents. Now, in response, the American owners of Fiji Water fired all of the employees in Fiji and closed the plant. But that was short lived. The plant is now up and running again and Fiji Water agreed to pay the tax.

For more on this strange bottled water drama, we're joined by Charles Fishman. He visited the Fiji Water plant in 2007 for an article he wrote for Fast Company. Charles Fishman, welcome to the program.

Mr. CHARLES FISHMAN (Writer): Happy to be here.

RAZ: First of all, how important is Fiji Water to Fiji?

Mr. FISHMAN: Fiji Water has turned out to be very, very important to Fiji. It's a small nation. The total GDP of Fiji is just $3.7 billion. Fiji Water is actually the number one export of any kind from the country in dollar value and it's only been around for a little more than a decade.

RAZ: So, if it's so important, you know, to the economy of the island, why would the company, you know, give in and pay that higher tax?

Mr. FISHMAN: Right. It was an interesting standoff. The owners actually refused to go along with the tax a couple years ago and the government backed down. This time the government immediately threatened to take back Fiji Water's wells and rights to provide the water and offer them to somebody else in the international community who would then sell some version of Fiji water.

Fiji Water owns the name. They even own the shape of the bottle in terms of patenting and trademarking. And very quickly Fiji Water came back to the table.

RAZ: Who owns Fiji Water, by the way?

Mr. FISHMAN: A very wealthy California couple, L.A. couple, Lynda and Stewart Resnick bought the company in 2004. They own Teleflora. They own POM Wonderful. They're among the largest...

RAZ: That's the pomegranate drink.

Mr. FISHMAN: The pomegranate company. And they're among the largest tree nut farmers in the country. So they're not small. And they actually have turbocharged the marketing of Fiji Water. It was a glamorous brand when they bought it. It's now a universal brand. It's a complicated product. It seems absurd in the stores here in America. It is, frankly, absurd. No one in this country needs water from Fiji.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FISHMAN: In fact...

RAZ: I always feel a little bit guilty when I buy it, I got to tell you.

Mr. FISHMAN: Well, and the most remarkable thing is, in Fiji itself, 53 percent of the people who live in Fiji don't have access to clean, safe water. So Americans can easily get clean water from Fiji more simply than Fijians can.

The product actually looks a little less silly when you go all the way back to Fiji and meet the people who produce it. They have great jobs and they're learning how to work in the global economy in a factory no different than the Poland Spring factory in Maine, or the Dasani factory in suburban Washington.

And so the product itself is a little silly, but what's interesting is that it benefits Fijians in a way that's not silly at all.

RAZ: That's Charles Fishman. He's a journalist and author of the forthcoming book "The Big Thirst." Charles Fishman, thank you.

Mr. FISHMAN: My pleasure, thanks.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.