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What's Colorless and Tasteless And Smells Like . . . Money?

An additional irony in buying water shipped thousands of miles from places such as Fiji is that large numbers of people who live in those places would give anything to have water of the quality that comes out of American taps.

Fiji Water Co. ships its distinctive square bottles from the South Pacific island nation to Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif.; Philadelphia; Miami; and Savannah, Ga., and then by road to the rest of the United States. In 2007, it shipped the equivalent of 12 million cases of 12-liter bottles -- 200 million bottles in all, or about 1 percent of the U.S. market. The company's Web site prominently says that its water is "untouched by man."

Thomas Mooney, senior vice president for sustainable growth at Fiji, said that as of Jan. 1 this year, every bottle of Fiji water is carbon-negative -- meaning that the company offsets the greenhouse gases it creates in production and shipping by helping to grow forests and participating in other green initiatives. He said the company is also working to improve drinking water in Fijian villages by helping to drill and maintain wells.

"The fact our business exists is why 100 villages this year in Fiji will have clean water," Mooney said. "The underlying assumption is people do not drink Fiji water when they used to drink tap water. People drink Fiji when they used to drink Coke -- so this is a move away from other packaged beverages to a healthier one."

Mooney said Fiji water is different from other brands because it has a different "mouthfeel" -- a term being popularized by the bottled-water industry as it encourages water connoisseurship along the lines of wine connoisseurship.

"Fiji has a smooth, silky mouthfeel," Mooney said as he encouraged a reporter to try a bottle. "Most other water from Europe has calcium, which is good for your bones but bad for the palate. Water in Fiji is volcanic, so it has less calcium."

Under pressure from environmental groups, however, many institutions and governments are starting to balk at such pitches.

Last week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution urging the jurisdictions of the mayors in its membership to limit bottled water to emergency situations, such as outbreaks of contamination, accidents or disasters, and to rely on tap water for everyday use.

Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chávez, who helped spearhead the initiative, said in an interview that it was triggered by a combination of cost and environmental concerns.

"It has a 1,000 to 10,000 percent markup over tap water," Chávez said of bottled water. "Most taxpayers would be outraged if we paid $1,000 for a pen when it is available for a dollar."

But Chávez said he also wants to combat the notion at the heart of the bottled-water industry's marketing efforts: "The subtext of the bottled-water industry is the suggestion that tap water is unsafe or unhealthy, or that bottled water is better or healthier. America's mayors have no problems with the industry marketing the convenience of bottled water. In a free-enterprise system, consumers may want to spend more on a product that they can get from the tap, but we resist any suggestion that bottled water is healthier than water that comes out of the tap."

The bottled-water industry strenuously fought the resolution, Chávez said, backed by mayors of cities where the industry is an important part of the economy.

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