Update, 12/1/10: Well, that was fast: Fiji Water reverses stance on pulling out of Fiji, reports LA Times. “Representatives of the Los Angeles bottled water company, which says it gets its product solely from an artesian aqueduct in Fiji, met with officials of the military-led government Tuesday and decided to comply with the tax hike.”

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Fiji Water is going to stop operating in Fiji — at least according to the company’s latest statement. Apparently, the Fiji government is planning to raise taxes from one-third of a Fijian cent a liter to 15 Fijian cents (about 8 U.S. cents) a liter — a tax increase the L.A.-based company Fiji Water finds unacceptable.

According to LA Times, Fiji Water says it has “paid millions of dollars in duties and income taxes to the Fijian government” while the Fijian government says Fiji Water has “paid less that $600,000 in taxes to the country.” Now, Fiji Water says it’ll be “laying off nearly 400 Fijian employees and canceling construction projects in the country,” and the Fiji government says “the country would look for another bottler.”

Whether Fiji Water actually intends to leave Fiji — or is just trying to get a tax break — is up for debate. According to Tara Lohan at AlterNet, “A few years ago the company temporarily shut down its operations in protest to tax hikes as well.” The latest kerfuffle does, however, bring attention to the many controversies surrounding Fiji Water — including the company’s well-documented greenwashing tactics.

After all, despite being a plastic bottle company that burns fossil fuels to unnecessarily transport water thousands of miles, Fiji Water enjoys a fairly clean image thanks to its largely successful greenwashing campaign — a campaign that has even gotten Fiji into L.A.’s green nightclubs. Last year, Mother Jones dedicated a cover story to Fiji Water’s many ironies:

Nowhere in Fiji Water’s glossy marketing materials will you find reference to the typhoid outbreaks that plague Fijians because of the island’s faulty water supplies; the corporate entities that Fiji Water has — despite the owners’ talk of financial transparency — set up in tax havens like the Cayman Islands and Luxembourg; or the fact that its signature bottle is made from Chinese plastic in a diesel-fueled plant and hauled thousands of miles to its eco-conscious consumers. And, of course, you won’t find mention of the military junta for which Fiji Water is a major source of global recognition and legitimacy.
And back in 2007, a FastCompany feature detailed just how ungreen Fiji Water’s operations are.
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.

I haven’t taken a sip of Fiji Water in years — and I know most MNN readers have ditched bottled water altogether. But as Tara points out at AlterNet, “As long as consumers continue to buy bottled water and give in to marketing gimmicks from boutique brands bottled in faraway places, there will always be companies hoping to cash in on our folly and there will likely be local populations getting the short end of the stick.” Have you ditched the disposable bottled water habit?

Related on MNN: More stories about bottled water

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