Ethos water, sold at Starbucks for around $2, is supposed to raise consciousness about the need for water conservation around the world. A nickel from each sale goes to the Ethos Water Fund to “support water, sanitation and hygiene education programs in water-stressed countries.”
“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?”
Starbucks acquired Ethos in 2005. Since then, the company said it “has invested over $12 million in water, sanitation and hygiene education in coffee growing countries in Africa, Indonesia and Latin America.” But the logic of selling a scare resource for profit eluded some, even if a small portion of the proceeds go to programs that help the poor access water.
“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, according to Mother Jones, which first reported on Ethos in the state.
Starbucks said it is now fighting for the forces of good.
“We are committed to our mission to be a globally responsible company and to support the people of the state of California as they face this unprecedented drought,” John Kelly, Starbucks senior vice president of global responsibility and public policy, said in a statement. “The decision to move our Ethos water sourcing from California and reduce our in-store water usage by more than 25 percent are steps we are taking in partnership with state and local governments to accelerate water conservation.”
However, the company is not alone in bottling water in the Golden State. In March, USA Today reported that 108 plants, including those run by Nestle, are in the same business.
“We need to ensure that we have enough water to sustain the forest’s health,” retired Forest Service employee Gary Earney told the paper. “I think we should look at whether or not it’s a more beneficial use of this water to be bottled and sold in small bottles, or to be allowed to go down and drain off the forest and recharge the groundwater.”
Starbucks was praised for its decision to move production of Ethos out of California.
“I think Starbucks values its image as a responsible corporation with respect to the environment,” Adam Scow, the California director of the advocacy group Food and Water Watch, told USA Today. “It’s a good move for their image.”
Others, however, said water bottlers were just one of many businesses — indeed, all businesses — that use water. Why single them out and not, say, farmers — whose industry is largely unaffected by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandatory water restrictions?
“They are just a water customer like any other business,” Michael Wegley, director of water resources for the city’s public-works department, said last month, 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.”