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Starbucks’s embarrassment: Ethos water comes from drought-ridden California

Placer County, where Ethos water comes from, is within the brown zone of this California map, which indicates “exceptional drought.” (Courtesy U.S. Drought Monitor)
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Sometimes Starbucks customers aren’t in the mood for a Frappuccino or a tall half-caf no-foam soy latte. Sometimes, they just want water.

Sure, there’s the kind that comes from the tap. But there, right near the cash register of many outlets, is a refreshment a bit more inviting. Sold in a blue-and-black bottle with a crisp font, Ethos water offers a drinking experience that transcends mere thirst-quenching. This is H2O a body can feel good about. Motto: “Helping children get clean water.”

The water costs almost $2 per bottle, but five cents of each sale goes to the Ethos Water Fund to “support water, sanitation and hygiene education programs in water-stressed countries.” Sounds great.

Alas, a Mother Jones report now says that Ethos water comes from a drought-ridden county in California — and, by giving a nickel out of $2 to fund water programs in other countries, Starbucks customers are making the dry Golden State a little bit drier.

“You might think that in the midst of a drought emergency, diverting public fresh water supplies to bottle and selling them would be frowned upon,” a resident at a city council meeting in Merced, Calif., said, as the magazine reported.

A Starbucks spokesman told Mother Jones Ethos comes from “a private spring source that is not used for municipal water for any communities.” (Ethos water sold on the East Coast, meanwhile, comes from Pennsylvania.) But a geologist the magazine interviewed said “communities can be affected by the use of surrounding springs ‘if you capture and pull it out before it ever makes it’ to downstream users,” as the magazine explained.

Merced is home to a bottling plant Starbucks uses for Ethos. Though Starbucks said Ethos water comes from Baxter, Calif., an unincorporated town a few hours’ drive north of Merced, both areas are in “exceptional drought” territory as defined by U.S. Drought Monitor, a project affiliated with the Department of Agriculture. The upshot: Even as Gov. Jerry Brown (D) calls for unprecedented water restrictions in a time of historic drought, the coffee giant is bottling what water is available and selling it for profit.

Except for that nickel, of course. This seems to be — not to put a fine point on it — against the ethos of Ethos.

[Jerry Brown battles Calif. water crisis created by his father, Gov. Pat Brown]

“One day I put my initial ideas for Ethos on a napkin: Develop a fashionable bottled-water brand that generates funds to finance water programs in developing countries, and make the social message on the bottle more compelling than the source of the water,” Ethos founder Peter Thum once said. “If people were willing to pay a premium for water named after its source, wouldn’t they want to pay for a brand devoted to funding humanitarian water programs?”

Founded in 2002, the company was acquired by Starbucks in 2005. Ethos’s cause was quickly folded into Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz’s political causes, including advocacy for same-sex marriage and ill-fated conversations about race.

“Our vision to empower millions of people to make a difference is now a reality as the result of the launch of Ethos(TM) Water in Starbucks stores and our goal of contributing $10 million over the next five years,” said Thum and co-founder Jonathan Greenblatt, by then Starbucks vice presidents, in a 2005 press release. “It is exciting when you consider how Starbucks can scale this vision and expand Ethos reach to build a community of engaged consumers across the country to help more children around the world get clean water.”

“I would be very concerned because it could be affecting the residents’ water directly,” Jean Okuye, vice president of Valley Land Alliance — an activist group with a mission “to protect our uniquely productive California Central Valley farmland” — told the Merced Sun Star. “And when you turn on that tap and we don’t have any water, people will maybe wake up and think about who is taking all the water.”

Merced officials, more or less, shrugged.

“They are just a water customer like any other business,” Michael Wegley, director of water resources for the city’s public works department, said of Ethos, according to the Merced Sun Star. “I wouldn’t say the city is concerned. To me, they are just like any other food processing company or industry.”

Indeed, Ethos/Starbucks is not the only water-bottling operation in the state. Nestle, for example, has come under fire for bottling tens of millions of gallons of Sacramento water.

“Part of our management of water is being as efficient as possible in plant operations,” a Nestle spokesman told the Sacramento Bee, pointing out that bottling is no different than any other business operation that demands public water. In fact, bottling water for sale uses less water than, say, growing food or making furniture.

“We pretty much bottle every bit of water that we touch,” she said.

But as California — and Placer County, home to Baxter — mulls water restrictions, the optics are not so great. Even before California’s drought, Ethos was often in the crosshairs of activists decrying greenwashing.

As PR Watch wrote in 2008: “Critics of Ethos water say it is a profit-making enterprise disguised as humanitarian relief, that Ethos is exploiting the plight of Africans to sell more bottled water in the United States, and donating directly to a reputable charity dedicated to water projects in Africa is a better way to address the issue.”

For an update on Starbucks and Ethos in California, read “Starbucks moves Ethos water from California after droughtshaming.”