Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

An Ephemeral Outrage

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, May 12, 2015 --  

Bottling water in drought-ridden California is no more outrageous than bottling water in other areas.

The revelation that Starbucks is bottling spring water from the drought-ravaged California and exporting it across the western United States1 has sparked consumer outrage and forced the company to halt the practice.  The particularly severe drought hitting California has all kinds of big corporate water users on the defensive. Almond farmers, cotton growers, golf clubs and other thirsty business are all in trouble. For Starbucks, the scandal is particularly troubling because the company, bottling under its Ethos brand, donates five cents of every purchase to help provide safe, clean drinking water for children worldwide.2 What better way to spark outrage than raise money for charity by taking water away from a drought ravaged area?

Outrage over Starbucks' Ethos water is certainly justified. But the reasons have nothing to do with the drought. The entire bottled water industry in the United States used about 11 billion gallons of water in 2010.3 That sounds like a lot, but it's nothing compared to the 2.8 trillion gallons that California cities use annually.4 Even if America's entire bottled water production came from California, it would only represent 0.4 percent of the water flowing to municipal water systems.5 That's literally a drop in the bucket.

The real outrage over Ethos water has to do with the wider practices of the industry. Bottled water sales in America started from almost nothing in the late 1970s, when Perrier began touting its product as a luxurious status symbol. The trend accelerated in recent decades as marketeers for big beverage companies realized there were huge profits to be made. Today, bottled water is America's best selling packaged beverage.

This preference for expensive bottled water over free tap water might be dismissed as a harmless vice if it were not for the costs to society. Each serving of bottled water requires manufacturing a plastic bottle from fossil fuels then shipping it over large distances. Many of these bottles end up discarded on roadsides, or accidentally fall off recycling trucks and flow into streams, rivers and ultimately into the oceans where they float for years. Even if bottles are recycled, energy costs associated with distribution are high. It takes the equivalent of one gallon of gasoline to make every 10 to 20 gallons of bottled water.6,7,8 Local bottlers use less energy. International operations use more, like Fiji brand, which ships water thousands of miles across the Pacific. Energy costs of Starbucks' Ethos, which distributes continent-wide from plants in California and Pennsylvania, are probably somewhere in the middle.

Ironically, energy is a tiny component of the cost of bottled water -- just 2 to 4 cents of a 12 ounce serving.9 But that's only because marketeers have convinced consumers to pay outrageous prices. That 12-ounce bottle of Starbucks Ethos water retails for $1.80. This means buying a gallon of Ethos water costs $19. Where does all this money go? It goes to profit the bottled water manufacturers -- and to pay for all the marketing needed to convince you to pay these high prices.

If you believe what the marketeers say, bottled water isn't about the specs of the product -- always two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. It's about something more ephemeral. A feeling of healthfulness, the status associated with the label, the convenience of grabbing it from the cold case ready to drink. This ephemeral value is the same kind of thing that Starbucks tries to achieve with its Ethos brand. Not only do you get convenience, but you can feel good about yourself knowing that a portion of the proceeds to to charity.

In reality, only five cents of the $1.80 you spend on Ethos water goes to charity. Most goes to profit a large multinational corporation. There's a fair chance your bottle will end up despoiling a ravine or floating into one of the vast oceanic garbage patches. And even if it doesn't, 5-10% of the equivalent volume of gasoline will have been burned to deliver the water to your hands, enriching middle eastern oil despots and elevating atmospheric carbon levels. With each sip, you are turning your back on safe and virtually free tap water -- the same tap water that has saved millions of lives from dysentery and other diseases. The very children that Ethos claims to help with its 5 cents of charity can only dream of having the same access to safe drinkable tap water that you have forsaken with this purchase.

Want to feel good about yourself? Why not fill a glass from the tap, and just give $1.80 to charity?

Yes, buying Ethos brand bottled water is an outrage. One day, the rains will return to California's Central Valley, quenching the parched land and raising its aquifers. Even when the drought is over, this true source of outrage will still remain.


1. Mother Jones, After a Mother Jones Investigation, Starbucks Says It Will Stop Bottling Water in California, May 8, 2015

2. Starbucks, Ethos Water Fund, as posted May 12, 2015

3. International Bottled Water Association, Bottled Water Sales and Consumption Projected to Increase in 2014 to be the Number one Packaged Drink by 2016, December 4, 2014 (10.9 billion gallons sold in 2014)

4. The Center for Irrigation Technology, Agriculture Water Use in California: A 2011 Update, November 2011 (8.5 million acre feet per year goes to CA cities)

5. Calculations by author. 8.5 million acre feet x 325851 gallons per acre foot = 2769 billion gallons. 10.9 billion gallons / 2769 billion gallons = 0.4 percent

6., How Much Energy Goes Into Making a Bottle of Water? March 17, 2009 (5-10 million joules per liter)

7. Iowa State Extension Service, Ag Decision Make File C6-87r, October 2008 (one gallon of gasoline is 121.7 million joules)

8. Calculations by author. 5-10 million joules / gallon of water x 2.2 liters per gallon = 11-22 million joules per gallon. 11-22 million joules per gallon of water / 121.7 million joules per gallon of gasoline = 0.09-0.18 gallons of gasoline per gallon of water

9. Calculations by author. Gasoline price of $2.50 per gallon of gas x 0.09-0.18 gallons of bottled water per gallon of gasoline = 23-46 cents per gallon of bottled water. 23-46 cents per gallon of bottled water / 128 fluid ounces per gallon x 12 fluid ounces per bottle of water = 2.15-4.3 cents / bottle of water