The Backstory: Anna Lenzer

FIJI Water markets itself as hip and green, but Anna Lenzer discovered the popular bottled water depends on environmental plunder and the largesse of a military dictatorship. How she got the story — and got arrested in the process.

Anna Lenzer has been obsessed with the politics of water since her days as an undergraduate at University of British Columbia. But a casual comment from a friend who traveled to Fiji on vacation triggered what would become a years-long investigation into Fiji Water, the leading imported bottled water in the United States. In the opening paragraphs of her Investigative Fund article, published in Mother Jones, Lenzer describes her experience getting arrested by the military dictatorship in Fiji when she went there to report the story. In this August 2009 interview conducted by Nation Institute intern Alexandra Schwartz, Lenzer reflects on FIJI Water’s lack of transparency, its do-gooder image, and why she probably won’t be returning to Fiji anytime soon. — Alexandra Schwartz

Click here to listen to the interview.

Alexandra Schwartz: I’m curious to hear a bit about the origins of the story and how you became interested in writing about Fiji Water. When did you begin to work on it and when did you know that Fiji would be your focus?

Anna Lenzer: I’m from Canada and water is a big issue up there because we have a large percentage of the world’s fresh water and I’d actually written my senior thesis on water in university. I was getting a science degree and I thought I would like to switch into environmental journalism and water was really the most natural peg that I had come across for cutting across those issues.

And then cut to when I moved to New York City in 2001. I was doing an internship at The Village Voice with Wayne Barrett and we started looking into connections between the City Comptroller’s office and water privatization in South Africa. A friend of mine simultaneously went on a honeymoon or on a trip to the South Pacific, and he said, “I was in Fiji and this water is becoming incredibly popular here. But I was just there and it’s a very poor country.”

I immediately went on the Fiji Water website, looking at who was behind this company. It was an immediately fascinating paradox, like a glamour water, where this country is in absolute abject poverty, living under these dictatorships, and I look under the “About” page, and it was founded by this gentleman named David Gilmour who was the co-founder of Barrick Gold, which is now the largest gold mining company in the world. I was simultaneously very interested in that company. They’re kind of notorious online for their gold mining operations around the world — Papua New Guinea, Tanzania.

A lot of questions had come up and it was a fascinating topic because the water problems that Barrick has, has not really been connected to Fiji Water, which is selling this “living” water, this untouched water. Meanwhile, on the other end of the environmental spectrum, people were going after Barrick for some of the worst accusations of water poisoning in the world. So that was when I became really interested in it.

From that point, I started researching it and it basically expanded into, what turned into this story, but enough to write a book. Which is interesting because one company turned into this microcosm of the whole industry. It was interesting that my friend pointed it out because it wasn’t — which it is now — the No. 1 water in America. But it’s in Ralph’s or Walmart now, so you can get it all around the country, in middle America. So it’s famous now, and part of the story covers how the celebrities made it famous.

I was working throughout those years. I had various jobs. I started to develop this web routine where I would read, literally 10 to 12 Fiji news sites, like the Fiji Times, the news sites. I would read those every day. It would be every other day or very frequently that there were stories about the company. That was basically from 2001 until last year [2008] when I really started focusing on this particular story, working with The Nation Institute.

You asked before how I got connected with the Investigative Fund. What sparked it actually was last summer was when the most serious dispute broke out between the government, the tax agency and the company. The tax agency tried to levy this tax on the industry. It was an attack on all the companies, not just Fiji Water. It was the key 10 companies that were the core of the Fijian bottling industry. Obviously, Fiji Water was like 99 percent of those exports. The government was threatening attacks and basically the FIJI Water factory shut down. It was like, the top story on all the Fiji sites, like Fiji Times. It was the most famous thing in the country. This one day, it was like, the factory is closed, I mean, it was very dramatic. The military commander is getting involved. Right then, I took everything I had and wrote a proposal. I submitted it to The Nation [Institute] Investigative Fund and Joe Conason and Esther Kaplan were incredibly responsive and supportive. We sort of watched the thing unfold over a few months and they were placing it simultaneously.

Schwartz: So when did you actually make the trip to Fiji? What was that experience like?

Lenzer: I made the trip to Fiji — that was April 11. The timing just sort of happened when they went to Mother Jones and Monika Bauerlein, who’s fantastic, was the person they contacted and she was interested in the story. One day, we got the email saying, we want you to do it and go as fast as you can, pretty much. I thought that that was the soonest I could go, given the packing and the ticket. Literally three hours before, I had my bags packed, before my taxi was coming, I thought, oh, let’s go on the Fiji News and see what’s going on in Fiji, and that was right when they had declared martial law and it was within 24 hours. It was the day before that the courts declared the regime illegal, martial law kicking everyone out. So just looking at the headlines and my bags, so, ok, I guess this is now I’m going. That was April 11, Easter Monday there, and everything was shut down.

The city was completely empty except there were soldiers all around the government building and everywhere. I was just the innocent tourist coming in, and saying, “Oh, hi, is this the government building?” And they just looked at me and smiled. I didn’t really realize yet, because over the years of reading the news, there was a coup in 2006. Things would happen where they would clamp down or at different points they would ban public gatherings. Not that I didn’t take it seriously but I was like, the worst they will do is deport. You know, they’d been deporting Australian and New Zealand journalists, so my thought was, how long is this martial law going to last? Because they had declared it before and I think I don’t remember it lasting more than a month, not very long. They would do this period and it would be over.

For example, after the 2006 coup, they did the same thing. So I was just thinking, this will end, is this going to go back to normal, June or July? But still, even now, there’s still martial law and the commander’s basically saying, we may extend it the rest of the year. This is the furthest we’ve seen them go. The Commonwealth is threatening to eject them, or suspend them, I should say, from the Commonwealth on September 1. And still they’re completely defiant. They’re saying, “Fine, suspend us if you want.” The story is going to come out right around that time. The timing of the story is, by chance, pegged to these events.

It seems that Fiji Water is at the center of a lot of contradictions in Fiji society and in the political climate of Fiji. On the one hand, there are all these humanitarian disasters in Fiji and yet in your piece, you talk about the Resnicks who now own the company and who give a lot of money to humanitarian groups. The same thing, I think, is true of the environmental problem, where the water is clearly an environmental issue, plastic bottles being shipped all over the world, and yet the Resnicks again give money to environmental groups. And, of course, there’s the persistent irony of different environmental advocates drinking the water. I think my favorite one was Al Gore drinking FIJI Water at an environmental conference. Do you think these contradictions are widely perceived about the brand or do you think your piece might actually help in making these a little bit more apparent to people who wouldn’t have thought twice about consuming the water before?

Lenzer: I do think many of the contradictions are apparent, especially in this explosion in concern about bottled water. There have been a lot of campaigns and groups. And Fiji is — it’s obviously shipped from extremely far away, and people have talked about carbonized impact. The company, I get into the piece, did — they say, we were doing this all along, it just happened to coincide with this environmental movement. But regardless of whatever the origins, they had this FIJI Green campaign. A trade magazine pegged it as a $10 million budget for this FIJI Green campaign for 2008. Actually I did ask the company spokesperson what the dollar [amount] was and he referred me to that, so I feel like that’s a solid number.

That’s been one of the biggest changes, I would say, since the Resnicks took over, and that’s another interesting thing that I saw, watching the company under David Gilmour, Barrick Gold’s ownership, he started the company in 1995, and the Resnicks bought it in 2004. It’s sort of hap”pened with a consciousness-changing about the environment and bottled water but the Resnicks, they have created a new and complete brand about FIJI being an environmental product. I mean, they have a green drop on the front of the bottle. And part of it is interesting too. It started off as a luxury, niche product, in Bergdorf Goodman. It was in all the top hotels, restaurants. Which is another sort of interesting thing is how David Gilmour initially was very brilliant, in how to place it in these strategic locations, to shift to where it is now — the most popular imported water in America, which sells more here than Evian.

I think for people who are really watching the bottled water industry, it’s not like they have any illusions about it, but the campaign has been extremely successful at the idea of carbon offsets, the whole idea of buying this product is actually helping the environment. You’re holding a very heavy piece of plastic and god knows where it’s going to go or where it’s going to disintegrate, but at the same time the company has done this math with buying these offsets. And part of it is we tried to get answers from them about actual numbers.

They basically say, yes, as of 2008, our first year of doing the offsets, we’re going to buy enough to offset 120 percent of our emissions. The question of offsets is questionable to begin with. The climate crisis is imminent; people are talking about shifts in the next five to 10 years, very short window, so we do report that. In the climate biz, they point out that it’s called a forward-crediting project, where the offsets actually take place over several decades, so that raises the question of, really, if you’re buying this bottle of water and you really think, I mean, I quote from the company executive in the story, it was buried in the comments to his own blog post in The Huffington Post, about the whole Green campaign, which is another amazing thing the company has been able to do, which is post in places like Huffington Post, basically a press release, as if it’s a news story. His comment was, “We’d be happy if people drank nothing but FIJI Water as a means of keeping the sea levels down.” They’re brilliant marketers and you’ve got to give them that. And that’s what we try to get into the piece.

Lynda Resnick, she’s the co-owner, with her husband Stewart, she’s a marketing guru, that’s what she does. We quote her book, which is called Rubies in the Orchard. It’s probably a bestseller, but it’s an extremely popular marketing book about how she created her brands, Teleflores is one that the Resnicks are very famous for developing. It’s a flower delivery company. You see their ads at the SuperBowl, you see their ads everywhere. They’re a beautiful presentation.

Another interesting thing we didn’t really have space to get into in the piece is really, along with Barrick, what are these other companies of the owners, what is their impact on water? The Resnicks, their fortune, flowers is a whole industry. They’re farmers, they’re some of the biggest farmers of pistachios, different products, nuts and so forth, in the Western hemisphere, and they have vast amounts of land in California’s Central Valley with a whole array of water questions there.

So that’s a very interesting thing. Fiji Water on its own, you’ve got its slogans like “Untouched by man,” “Living water,” the whole genius of the product, and you can’t deny it, is that this is the selling point, or the pitch, this is water that has no trace of chemical, it’s in Fiji. That’s their rebuttal to the concern over how much carbon is emitted by the shipping: that exact distance is what makes us so incredibly pure, and what makes this product worth shipping. And they use analogies like, this is like shipping wine from France. And they compare it to these other luxury goods.

Basically, yes, the Resnicks have created a gigantic environmental campaign. I do think it has been very successful. You see their ads everywhere and they’ve got a big one with a planet and it says, “A convenient truth.” They’re just brazen in how they will parallel or shadow genuine environmental campaigns. I do think the Fiji Green campaign has been, I mean, they’ve grown. There has been this simultaneous attack on the company for its emissions, different things about it, but at the same time it was growing. It became the most popular water in America, even while this debate was raging. So just looking at those numbers I would have to say that’s working. The idea of Fiji. They have a blog, Fiji Green. People post these things: “I basically feel like I saved the planet today because I drank Fiji Water.” So I do think that has been successful.

Are you working on any other pieces right now?

Lenzer: I’m hoping to write some follow-up stories, with things that didn’t make it into the actual print version of the Mother Jones story. One of the challenges was, with the martial law, the whole court system was shut down in Fiji. A big part of my trip was trying to get documents. There had been various lawsuits in Fiji over the government blockade; the company sued the government; there were some lawsuits over the pricing of the water and the tax issues and so forth; things that would have clearly had financial statements and just sort of an actual breakdown of the numbers that accountants would have had to provide.

A fair amount of questions the company answered, a lot of them to do with the charity, obviously the non-controversial questions. When it came to try to get how many bottles they sell a year, which you would think would be a pretty basic number, at least for a company that is presenting itself — which it does — going back to Lynda Resnick in her book, and we quote, “Part of the strategy for success is being a transparent company.” This is a new era, there’s Internet, you know, people talk. We’re a transparent company, we’re charitable, we have nothing to hide. So it was interesting to read that and sort of make that contrast with trying to get how many bottles do you sell a year, for example. One thing I really want to know was, how much money do you spend on charity a year? You would think a key question would be, let’s look at your total revenues, and let’s look at how much you’re spending on charity, and is it proportional?

Something we also mention in the story is that the company has a tax-free status. And they’ve had that since 1995. They still go out of their way to say to me, well, it was an uncertain industry, nobody knew if it would work, this was common at the time. Whatever. That was 1995. David Gilmour we quote saying, “My goal is to be the largest taxpayer in Fiji.” So the whole question of what money is actually going back to the country, on the surface, it looks great. The Resnicks contribute $20 million to the California Institute of Technology, the Resnick Sustainability Institute. In Fiji, FIJI Water sponsors, you know, they’ll build a bore hole. Actually what they do is they’ll work with a larger charity group and then they also have their own Fiji Water Foundation. But they do these village projects and they spend millions of dollars, the Resnicks. Obviously it’s the same pool of money, it’s a closely held company, through Fiji Water. It’s not like this is a public company.

So they do these contributions all around the country but if you’re not paying any taxes, I don’t know what the number of the taxes they should be paying, I know it’s about 30 percent but because they won’t reveal their total revenues, you can’t do the math, can’t figure out what it should be. I’m trying to do the totals, I’m reading all these Fiji news sites, trying to be fair to them and say, look at all these things you did, what’s relevant to mention, I don’t want to omit if you’re doing some big project, it’s not fair to ignore it. But then I’m asking the company, well, this is great, so can you just tell me the total that you spend. You would think you’re very proud of this. And they wouldn’t tell me. It’s absurd. I could not pay my taxes and spend the money that I would put to taxes to building wells for orphans. And that looks great, but it’s a whole other question of where that money is going and it’s a gigantic P.R. machine. I have to give them that.

The numbers that they will not provide, combined with their charitable work, I think needs to be looked at much more closely. Looking, in Fiji, where that money is going. We also mention in the story that their (and this is something I found through a court document) parent company is owned by some subsidiary in Luxembourg. So just looking at where the money is, is just a very interesting contrast with the Resnicks and how they have become, I don’t want to say left-wing celebrities, but they’re huge donors to environmental groups and political campaigns, especially Democrats across the country.

Schwartz: And do you think you’ll be returning to Fiji anytime soon?

Lenzer: I think it’s safe to say I’m on the black list for Fiji for a while. It would be a big expense to go and try it out. They took my passport, they took all my information down, and it was interesting with the officer because as he interrogated me, I had a Fijian cell phone with me, and he said, “Give me the number.” So I’m thinking, ok, he’s going to track my number. So he takes down the number and I immediately went and bought a new SIM card, it was like $5, and it was ridiculous. So I have my new number and shortly before I went to leave the country I checked the old phone and there was a number on there that had called me several times. I had made reporting calls, obviously, on that old phone to people and left messages. So I called the number back and said, “Hi, this is Anna and someone called me from this number and I just wanted to see who it was and return the call.” He immediately said, “Oh hi Anna, it’s the inspector.” In the back of my mind I wondered if he was going to call me, I was wondering, is he really suggesting they’re going to look for me?

The level of uncertainty that he left me with made the rest of my trip really uncomfortable. I ended up staying in a different hotel, they checked me right out. I was staying under a Fijian name. So I didn’t even know if they were trying to locate me. When I returned the phone call, it was clear that he was, and I was actually about to leave the country and I was worried that he would flag the immigration if he realized I was there. He said, “Oh, I’ve been trying to call you but the phone was off and I thought maybe you left the country.” And he said it in this completely indecipherable way, and I said, “No. Everything’s great. The phone was just broken.” And he said, “Ok.” So there was no reason for him to have been calling me? I don’t know what that was about. So I don’t think I’m going to be going back to Fiji.

The embassy also filed a diplomatic note about the incident, so I know that obviously they heard about it, that the Americans were unhappy. They make these lists, I actually should be clear, it wasn’t a joke. They do make lists of journalists and when I was going into the country it made me really question what was going to happen because there had been a New Zealand journalist or Australian, someone who had gone to the border, and the customs guard had told her that she was on a list. And it was this total Kafka-esque article which was, could she find out she was on a list, apply and figure out she was on a list, but there was no way to figure out if you’re on the list unless you go there, so they have this completely incoherent policy where there’s no way to find out. Anyway, maybe I’ll go back someday. But right now they’re saying they’re not going to hold elections till 2014.

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