Saturday, February 25, 2006

Big Gulp

The New York Times Magazine tells us how to make a buck off the "oh, so trendy."

Ethos Water comes in a tasteful bottle with a bold claim on the front: "Helping children get clean water." This refers to the fact that 5 cents of every $1.80 (or so) bottle purchased is put toward water projects in underdeveloped regions. The target is the consumer with a conscience. "One of the best questions we get from consumers is, How do I do more?" says Jonathan Greenblatt, a founder. "That's exactly what we want to hear." Last year, Ethos was bought by Starbucks, which touted the purchase as an important addition to its corporate social-responsibility efforts. To Greenblatt, this speaks volumes about what consumers want from companies these days: "It's about being part of the global community and making a difference and enabling those consumers who want to, quote-unquote, do more."

..............The first retailer to sell Ethos (which comes from natural springs) in August 2003 was Fred Segal in Santa Monica, a store more associated with $200 jeans than with activism; the founders were aiming for trend-setting customers. They later picked up some Whole Foods stores and others; Starbucks bought Ethos for $8 million in 2005, making it available in thousands of locations.

The water-for-water link draws a mixed reaction from some observers. The Green Guide, which positions itself as the Consumer Reports of ecologically sound consumption, generally frowns on bottled water of any kind. Mindy Pennybacker, the editor of the Green Guide, says that this is partly because tap water tends to be better regulated and at least as healthful as most bottled varieties and also because the bottles themselves have a "huge environmental impact." (Recycling advocates contend that 90 percent of water bottles end up in landfills.) The Earth Policy Institute recently argued that producing the bottles to meet American demand consumes 1.5 million barrels of oil a year. You might at least wonder whether it wouldn't make more sense to donate $1.80 to one of the aid organizations Ethos backs and ask your barrista for tap water. Isn't this all a bit like an S.U.V. whose profits finance third-world alternative-energy projects?

Needless to say, Thum and Greenblatt see things differently. They have no position on recycling laws, since their focus is helping children around the world get clean water. Raising money, Thum says, is only part of that mission; the brand "allows people to understand the world water crisis and feel as if they are connected to the solution." Sure, Starbucks had profits of half a billion dollars last year and could donate $10 million tomorrow, but writing a check, he says, is less effective in the long run than "trying to build a movement to address this problem." To that end, he and Greenblatt are speaking to business-school groups about their mission and have planned Ethos promotions in connection with World Water Day on March 22 to raise awareness of a massive global problem and how buying Ethos can help. Ethos, as Greenblatt puts it, "makes activism accessible."

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