Fiji Plays a Green Tune

In the world of premium bottled waters, Fiji might as well be U2. Both imports hit American shores with a splash, and put in years of hard work earning fans before ascending to their field’s top spot. Fiji entered in 1997, and surpassed Evian as America’s number-one luxury water in 2006. Now Fiji seems to define the category.

But there’s an unfortunate side effect to being on top: eventually, you fall. And with consumers, environmentalists and politicians bristling at the environmental ramifications of bottling and shipping water from far-away places, Fiji could be at risk to lose its audience. But instead of trotting out the same old songs, the master of the premium bottled water category has rearranged its set list to bolster its environmentally-friendly credentials and please a crowd that thinks of green as more than the color of money.

That crowd – those hip, young affluent trend-setters –initially came to Fiji because of the water’s exotic source, attractive packaging and conspicuous placement at celebrity-filled events. The water earned a badge value that made it an “attainable luxury,” according to Clarence Chia, Fiji’s brand manager. But that was before consumers started calculating their carbon footprints for fun.

Where consumers go, politicians are sure to follow – especially when they have an easy target like bottled water. Local governments have passed resolutions to no longer purchase the product, and even levied a tax on it. The state of Connecticut may end its bottled water contract with Nestle in favor of installing more water fountains in public buildings. At the national level, two Democratic representatives asked the Government Accountability Office to take a hard look at the growth of the bottled industry, which is booming while U,S, citizens enjoy what the representatives called “one of the safest supplies of tap water in the world.”
But, of course, none of that would have happened if the press didn’t start the drumbeat first. Newspapers, magazines and broadcast personalities have been questioning the rationality of paying a premium for water that’s been shipped half-way around the world when the same stuff – or something very similar to it – flows from every faucet in America at for pennies per gallon. National Public Radio’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook dedicated half an hour to the practicality of bottled water in July. Marie Claire ran a story in September that concluded that bottled water is bad for the environment, and Time published an article in August that agreed, adding that “Worst of all, the migration to bottled water fosters a perception that tap water isn’t safe or necessary. That’s dangerous at a time when aging public-water systems need investment, particularly as global warming increases the incidence of drought.”

Amid that atmosphere, you might expect the company that headlines the premium bottled water category to watch their sales sink and their audience shrink, but that’s not the case. Fiji’s volume has actually grown, according to Gerry Martin, vice president of marketing at Massachusetts-based Polar Beverages Inc. Martin said Fiji’s sales numbers crescendoed by 22 percent in 2007. He said the brand also increased its market penetration, and continues to win market share from its competitors.

“They just seem to be doing a lot of the right things,” Martin said.

Currently, Chia said, those “right things” center on improving the company’s already-positive environmental profile.

But Fiji isn’t breaking any new ground by touting environmental responsibility; it has become a popular theme in the beverage industry. Coca-Cola pledged in February to recycle 100 percent of the aluminum used in their packaging. While that pledge didn’t include a time line, the soft-drink giant backed it up with a trailer at the Daytona 500 that educated NASCAR fans about the benefits of recycling. Within Fiji’s own category, Icelandic Glacial garnered the 2007 Best of BevNET award for the bottled water category and a distribution deal from Anheuser-Busch partly on the strength of its carbon-neutral certification.With everyone playing the same song, Fiji decided to play it better.

“As of January fist 2008, we are officially carbon negative,” Chia said. In effect, for every five bottles of water Fiji sells, the company takes out of the atmosphere the carbon emissions required to manufacture, fill and ship six bottles.

But, Chia said, the company’s efforts extend beyond carbon offsets. The water company is preserving 51,000 acres of the Fijian rainforest, improving vital infrastructure for the islands residents and aims to use technological advancements to reduce the plastic in their bottles by 20 percent over the next three years. Fiji is even exploring the use of alternative energy and looking to support bottle deposit bills in the U.S. – something that strikes a sour chord for most beverage industry professionals, and is actively opposed by the American Beverage Association.

All of these efforts stack on top of what the company said it’s been doing all along. Chia said Fiji has always responsibly managed the aquifer they draw the water from, and Fiji’s squared bottles make their shipments more efficient by reducing the “dead space” in freight carriers.

“We haven’t been as vocal in the past about everything we do,” Chia said.That relatively-quiet period is over, Chia said. He said Fiji wants to champion the cause of environmental responsibility for all companies across all industries – and Thomas Mooney, Fiji’s senior vice president of sustainable growth, trumpeted the company’s efforts last November on the popular blog site, The Huffington Post. Mooney wrote that consumers “expect us to be environmentally sustainable, and that is what we intend to do.”

While Mooney’s article might have been the equivalent of screaming to an arena, the company’s every-day efforts to get its message out have been far more low- key. Each bottle of Fiji now carries a small green water-drop logo on its front panel, and a summary of the company’s efforts on the back panel that leads customers to fijigreen.com if they want more information.

Whether consumers are reading Fiji’s back panel and website, or if they were in Mooney’s audience when he trumpeted the company’s intention, they seem to like Fiji’s latest song. Fiji has remained on top, and Martin said the bottled water brand’s sales keep growing.

“We’re expecting a pretty robust year for Fiji in 2008,” he said.

Bono, eat your heart out.