CG Column: FIJI lawsuit highlights realities of corporate greenwashing

Photo by CG photographer Brenna Hettler

By Molly Nocheck, CG Commentary

I’ll admit it. I was once a FIJI Water Company customer. The lure of the cool-shaped bottle and the “soft taste” drew me in. I also liked the fact that purchasing FIJI was supposedly good for the environment. Spending the few extra dollars on FIJI didn’t feel wasteful — it made me feel environmentally conscious.

The company’s website promotes an idealized standard of living and FIJI actively markets its product as an eco-friendly and justifiable luxury. They’ve even gone so far as sponsoring Fashion Week.

Personally, I think FIJI does a great job at marketing. They do such a good job that I have noticed many of my penny-pinching friends at Ohio University splurging for this “special” water.

According to OU Dining Services, FIJI water sales made the university $4,611.43 last fall quarter. OU Dining Services sells FIJI Water at two of the three on-campus markets. It’s available at  Nelson and Boyd Halls. FIJI is sold as individual .5-liter bottles as well as .5-liter six packs.

However, FIJI has been under a lot of criticism lately as the company faces a greenwashing lawsuit. “Greenwashing” is when a company claims to be environmentally friendly in order to sell a product or service. FIJI sells a lot of its water by claiming that the company is carbon negative. They claim they are saving the rain forest and being sustainable.

But those claims don’t hold water.

A Jan. 4 report said the water company is the target of a class action complaint. In the U.S. District Court of Santa Ana, Calif., the law firm Newport Trial Group filed suit on behalf of a California woman. The complaint, which challenges FIJI’s carbon-negative advertising campaign, was filed Dec. 20. The complainant wrote:

“Defendants claim that they remove more carbon pollution from our atmosphere than they release into it. In reality, however, FIJI water is not ‘Carbon Negative.’ Instead, defendants justify this claim by employing a discredited carbon accounting method known as ‘forward crediting.’”

FIJI does not remove more carbon pollution than it creates. It simply claims credit for carbon removal that may or may not take place in the future. It goes something like this: FIJI can buy credits associated with carbon-saving programs, such as reforestation efforts. The company is then “carbon negative” because the projects it bought into clean more air than the company pollutes. But lawsuit complainants claim the company is buying into projects that haven’t even begun.

With forward crediting, there’s no guarantee of FIJI being carbon negative. But complainants say that hasn’t stopped the company’s eco-friendly marketing campaign.

FIJI’s alleged “forward crediting” raises ethical questions. Just as I cannot claim an “A” for an essay I have yet to write, FIJI should not claim to be carbon negative when that probably will not happen for many years.

The company has built an advertising campaign off the idea that FIJI is environmentally friendly. Unless the company can prove those claims and be accountable, it’s guilty of greenwashing.

The packaging may seem trendy and hip, the water might be tasty and the achievements the company claims it has made are definitely admirable (if the claims are true). At its core, however, FIJI is simply a vanity brand of water.

-Editor-in-Chief Erich Hiner contributed background research for this report