A Bottled-Water Drama In Fiji
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.
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