I previously blogged about Charles Fishman’s insightful and thoroughly sticky piece on the bottled water industry. His main point: Our embrace of bottled water “is not a benign indulgence.”
Then I got this note from Mojo Mom, who I’m a big fan of:
Today I heard NY Times reporter Julia Moskin interviewed [about bottled water] on NPR’s The Splendid Table and I learned two interesting things:
She had written a long article about bottled water last year, “Must Be Something In the Water” (2/15/06) and covered much of the same ground as Charles Fishman in Fast Company.
But her article was much less sticky: she buried the lede about the environmental concerns in the middle of the article, and didn’t use compelling concrete or emotional details. She covered broad set of ideas, about why we like bottled water, what it tastes like, etc. Fishman made a much stickier, emotional narrative (going to Fiji and finding out that native people didn’t have access to water, when we Americans are buying their water and shipping it 8000 miles across the world when we have clean water coming out of our tap. Ouch.)
The largest bottled-water factory in North America is located on the outskirts of Hollis, Maine. In the back of the plant stretches the staging area for finished product: 24 million bottles of Poland Spring water. As far as the eye can see, there are double-stacked pallets packed with half-pint bottles, half-liters, liters, “Aquapods” for school lunches, and 2.5-gallon jugs for the refrigerator.Really, it is a lake of Poland Spring water, conveniently celled off in plastic, extending across 6 acres, 8 feet high. A week ago, the lake was still underground; within five days, it will all be gone, to supermarkets and convenience stores across the Northeast, replaced by another lake’s worth of bottles.
(Note, by the way, that the statistics are utterly unsticky — it’s only the image of vastness (a plastic lake) that sticks.)
Both writers discuss the environmental costs of trucking water around (in particular from Fiji). Here’s Moskin:
“This month the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental association based in Washington, published a research paper outlining the global issues raised by bottled water. ”Water is very heavy, and moving large quantities of it, for example, 8,000 miles from Fiji to New York, takes considerable resources,” said Janet Larsen, the institute’s director of research. ”Nearly a quarter of all bottled water around the world crosses national borders to get to its market. Bottled water is not a global environmental crisis in itself, but it is an issue of global equity and of human rights; we believe clean water is a basic human right.””
The label on a bottle of Fiji Water says “from the islands of Fiji.” Journey to the source of that water, and you realize just how extraordinary that promise is. From New York, for instance, it is an 18-hour plane ride west and south (via Los Angeles) almost to Australia, and then a four-hour drive along Fiji’s two-lane King’s Highway.
Every bottle of Fiji Water goes on its own version of this trip, in reverse, although by truck and ship. In fact, since the plastic for the bottles is shipped to Fiji first, the bottles’ journey is even longer. Half the wholesale cost of Fiji Water is transportation–which is to say, it costs as much to ship Fiji Water across the oceans and truck it to warehouses in the United States than it does to extract the water and bottle it.
That is not the only environmental cost embedded in each bottle of Fiji Water. The Fiji Water plant is a state-of-the-art facility that runs 24 hours a day. That means it requires an uninterrupted supply of electricity–something the local utility structure cannot support. So the factory supplies its own electricity, with three big generators running on diesel fuel. The water may come from “one of the last pristine ecosystems on earth,” as some of the labels say, but out back of the bottling plant is a less pristine ecosystem veiled with a diesel haze.
Each water bottler has its own version of this oxymoron: that something as pure and clean as water leaves a contrail.
Note a few things about Fishman’s work. First, instead of talking about the distance (8,000 miles) from Fiji to the U.S., he puts it in more human terms (a very long plane ride). Instead of talking about the big costs (in raw-dollar terms) of shipping, he makes a useful comparison — it costs as much to ship this water as it does to bottle it from its pristine source. And he also understands that this is an emotional issue. Can you drink Fiji for its purity when you know that the bottling plant “is veiled with a diesel haze”?
More on emotion. Fishman has a keen eye for gut-twisting irony:
And in Fiji, a state-of-the-art factory spins out more than a million bottles a day of the hippest bottled water on the U.S. market today, while more than half the people in Fiji do not have safe, reliable drinking water. Which means it is easier for the typical American in Beverly Hills or Baltimore to get a drink of safe, pure, refreshing Fiji water than it is for most people in Fiji.
This works because it’s tapping into your sense of identity. How can we drink fancy water from an exotic locale, shipped with grotesque expense to our doors, when the people who live in that locale are drinking dirty water? That doesn’t feel like us — that’s not the kind of people we are. Fishman has put the social justice into bottled water.
One final comparison. Both writers discuss the trivial costs of tap water compared to bottled water. Here’s how Moskin does it:
Neau, a nonprofit organization based in Amsterdam, has one goal (raising money for drinking-water projects in third world countries) and one product: an empty blue plastic bottle, for about $2, with a glossy logo and a flier inside explaining that profits are donated to the foundation’s water projects. The buyer is expected to fill the bottle with tap water. ”Two thousand liters of tap water cost less than one liter of Spa,” a popular Dutch mineral water, Mr. Liauw said. Ethos Water, an American company that sponsors similar drinking-water projects, was bought by Starbucks in 2005; 5 cents for each bottle sold is donated to water charities.
Here’s how Fishman handles the same point:
In San Francisco, the municipal water comes from inside Yosemite National Park. It’s so good the EPA doesn’t require San Francisco to filter it. If you bought and drank a bottle of Evian, you could refill that bottle once a day for 10 years, 5 months, and 21 days with San Francisco tap water before that water would cost $1.35. Put another way, if the water we use at home cost what even cheap bottled water costs, our monthly water bills would run $9,000.
Wow. Again, what he’s doing is putting statistics in human scale. The person quoted in Moskin’s piece goes with “2000 to 1” as her talking point. Fishman grounds the ratio in human experience. (Plus, the mental image of someone spending 10 years refilling a bottled water to “catch up” is fittingly absurd).
And here’s one for the road. In the book, we talk about the way vivid details build credibility. Here are two vivid details unearthed by Fishman:
– In the town of San Pellegrino Terme, Italy, for example, is a spigot that runs all the time, providing San Pellegrino water free to the local citizens–except the free Pellegrino has no bubbles. Pellegrino trucks in the bubbles for the bottling plant.
– At the height of Perrier’s popularity, Bruce Nevins [the man who brought Perrier to America] was asked on a live network radio show one morning to pick Perrier from a lineup of seven carbonated waters served in paper cups. It took him five tries.
The point of this post is not to have a “Moskin vs. Fishman” smackdown or something. And it is not fair to compare the persuasiveness of the two pieces, because Moskin is not writing a persuasive piece — she’s a reporter. (Nor did she have anywhere near the time or budget that Fishman did to pursue his story.) But what I care about is what we can learn from studying two sets of communications that spotlight the same issue.
Why does Fishman’s stick? Moskin samples various points related to bottled water; he hammers on his core point. (Simplicity) She presents useful statistics from experts; he makes those statistics real by grounding them in human terms. (Concreteness, Credibility) She presents a buffet of expert testimony; he finds the emblematic stories (Story). Both of them do a good job of shocking us into paying attention (Unexpectedness).
Only Fishman made me change my behavior.
(As a parting note, I have an unhealthy fascination with these side-by-side comparisons. If you come across pairings like this, please send ’em along.)