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Fiji Water Girl would be a great meme if bottled water were something to celebrate

We should probably let this meme die and drink more tap water.

Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for FIJI Water
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

For many social media users, the highlight of the 2019 Golden Globes was the woman dubbed “Fiji Girl” on Twitter, for drawing attention while handing out Fiji brand bottled water on the red carpet.

At Sunday’s Golden Globes, Fiji Water seems to have hired model Kelleth Cuthbert — identified later through Instagram sleuthing — to distribute its product on the red carpet. When asked by a friend if she knew the photos of her were going viral, she replied, “It’s calculated.” Indeed, the viral photos of her were taken by a professional working for Fiji Water. Wearing a glamorous blue dress, Cuthbert stood directly behind celebrities, bearing a tray of bottled water and often staring cannily into the camera. Fiji Water has not responded to a request from Vox for comment.

Though Cuthbert further told the LA Times that her pose was “strategic,” the magic of social media did much of the work for her, serving up instant virality for her photobombs — and her trays of water.

The UN General Assembly has declared access to free drinking water to be a universal human right.
Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for FIJI Water

This made for some interesting and slightly eerie photo moments.

Many social media users were quick to embrace Cuthbert, a.k.a. Fiji Girl, as a new style icon, implacable expression and all.

“Thank you Fiji Girl for just, like, giving people water,” BuzzFeed gushed.

But what’s really behind the Fiji Girl meme isn’t something we should be grateful for at all. In fact, her stone-faced presence on the red carpet really was ominous — but not because she looked creepy in many of her photos. It’s because she’s the current face of an industry that is wasteful and hurts the environment.

Fiji Water has tried to present a positive public face — but it may be a mask

Fiji Water is owned by the Wonderful company, which also makes and distributes Pom pomegranate juice and other food products. Founded in 1995, the brand gained its foothold over the economy in its namesake country and over the international global bottled water industry in part due to spending the first 13 years of its existence enjoying what was essentially a tax-exempt status among businesses in Fiji.

In the process, it built a facility for extracting water from an underground aquifer that, according to Fast Company, was entirely run on diesel-fueled generators, creating the crystalline imagery that defines its marketing amid a cloud of real-world pollution.

Despite this, the company enjoyed positive relationships with local Fiji citizens, and many praised the company for bringing higher wages and economic growth and investment to the country. It has anecdotally been known to distribute free water and provide financial support during past local emergencies, and to invest in local infrastructure, education, and other benefits to the island nation. Many of these anecdotes come from the scholarship of sociology professor Jessica Schad, who traveled to the country to interview Fijian residents about their relationship to the town while pursuing her masters degree.

“I conducted my research in FIJI just over 10 years ago on how the extraction and bottling of water by an American owned multinational corporation was shaping the lives of people living nearby the plant economically, culturally, and socially,” Schad told Vox in an email. “While some Fijians were benefiting from jobs at the plant, and some nearby communities were receiving support from the company, I found many of the financial effects to be quite superficial and not long-lasting, that it was creating a dependency relationship on the industry, and that the extraction of the water was changing local views on the commodification of water and natural resources.”

Fiji Water’s tax-exempt status started to change in 2006, when Fijian military leader Frank Bainimarama staged a coup and installed himself as leader of the country. The new government then turned its sights on increasing the amount of tax revenue from Fiji Water, which had become the nation’s top exporter. In 2008, Fiji Water laid off employees in response to a threat of a tax increase on its bottled water exports by Fiji’s military government under Bainimarama.

Two years later, when the government tried to raise the tax again in 2010, Fiji Water protested by briefly firing all its employees and shutting down. “As usual, Fiji Water has adopted tactics that demonstrate that Fiji Water does not care about Fiji or Fijians,” Bainimarama stated at the time. The company ultimately accepted the tax hike, but the tension between its interests and those of Fiji have remained.

The company again laid off employees in 2011, and one Fiji resident, writing to New Zealand researcher Catherine Jones in 2012, noted that “FIJI Water have lost a lot [of] their creditability, they have made the boreholes, they have threatened to close, I think they lost a lot of creditability and dignity.”

“FIJI Water draws upon the ‘exotic’ nature of Fiji to differentiate its product in a competitive global market,” a 2017 study of Fiji Water’s marketing by Australian researchers noted. “Yet the places its imagery is founded upon appear to have received proportionally low benefits.”

For instance, despite a much-touted plan, announced in 2008, to reduce its carbon footprint by reducing its carbon emissions and planting natural forests, years later the company had planted only half the promised amount of acreage, and had no ETA on when the rest would arrive. The company also celebrated its “carbon negative” plan despite noting at the time that its emission reduction goals would not be met until 2037; the company website devoted to tracking its pursuit of these goals, however, was shut down sometime after 2010.

Then there’s the issue of what many see as a two-faced relationship between Fiji Water and its local communities. The company has consistently invested in the communities it operates within, but the investments also serve to make its corporate goals more feasible. As Schad has noted, “Providing funding for the local kindergartens is of particular interest to FIJI Water since it enables parents that work at the factory to leave the home and attend work.”

Fiji Water is part of an industry built on extreme wastefulness and manufactured demand — one leaving a potentially devastating global ecological trail

If the product behind this discussion was unimpeachable, the debate around bottled water might be different. But even though Fiji Water has made attempts to counterbalance its own ecological impact, its mere existence and operation are part of an industry with serious ramifications for the environment and the economy.

The demand for bottled water has caused us, as a culture, to shift toward showing disdain for tap water and fearing locally produced drinking water, while drastically reducing the number of public water fountains and freely accessible water to the public. From a public health perspective, this demand is largely manufactured and unnecessary. (Notable exception: Flint, Michigan.)

And what lies at the heart of this cultural shift is sheer waste. For example, it takes around 6.74 kilograms, or 1.75 gallons of water, to produce, export, and distribute one bottle of Fiji Water. It also takes 2,000 times the amount of energy to produce bottled water as tap water, and each bottle costs up to 2,000 times more than tap water.

Then there’s the oil consumption: “Overall, the average energy cost to make the plastic, fill the bottle, transport it to market and then deal with the waste would be like filling up a quarter of every bottle with oil,” journalist Anna Lenzer wrote for Mother Jones in 2009. The long-term impact of globally exporting drinking water is pretty much a giant mess of un-recycled plastic bottles clogging landfills, depletion of energy and oil resources, and a lack of publicly accessible safe drinking water.

All this for what? Tap water doesn’t actually taste bad, and, in most parts of the US, isn’t actually bad for you. In fact, in 2017, Fiji Water scored lower than tap water in a blind taste test. This might have something to do with the fact that due to significant underregulation, bottled water often contains more chemicals than tap water. In 2006, in fact, Fiji Water was found to contain higher levels of arsenic — yes, the poison — than local tap water.

Meanwhile, 12 percent of Fiji residents have no access to safe, clean drinking water — something the UN defined in 2010 as a basic human right. This is part of the widespread threat to global sustainability that resource privatization poses, in which people living in wealthy nations across the world have quicker, cheaper, and freer access to the resources of developing nations than do the people living in those nations.

And when those of us living in richer countries accept the sanitized image of the bottled water industry as it’s been marketed to us, it gets easier to become thoughtless, and harder to stop and think about what the flip side is of having attractively packaged water at our disposal.

Fiji Girl was a built-in advertisement — but a disturbing one

To market itself, Fiji has always relied more on strategic product placement than overt advertising. Writing for Fast Company in 2007, Charles Fishman noted, “The marketing of bottled water is subtle compared with the marketing of, say, soft drinks or beer. The point of Fiji Water in the minibar at the Peninsula, or at the center of the table in a white-tablecloth restaurant, is that guests will try it, love it, and buy it at a store the next time they see it.”

The advent of Fiji Water Girl at the Golden Globes shows how this approach has grown more sophisticated. By prominently positioning its glossy representative on the red carpet at what’s considered the “quirkiest” and most down to earth of Hollywood’s many award shows, Fiji Water was positioning itself as fashionable and elite, but still relatable. Fiji Girl just wants you to hydrate, guys.

“As evidenced by the representative at the Golden Globes,” Schad told Vox, “FIJI Water is a heavily marketed product, which is often targeted at luxury or high-end consumers. In addition, marketing for FIJI water frequently plays on the remoteness of where it is extracted from, being ‘untouched by man’, for example, and few consider the environmental ramifications of transporting this product thousands of miles for human consumption when perfectly good drinking water is already readily available.”

This product, which has traditionally marketed itself by touting its remote, exotic locale, presented itself as being just like you or me — while the meme around Fiji Water Girl did the work of further acclimatizing us to a culture where tap water is suspect and the ecological repercussions of bottling and selling free water don’t bear too much reflection.

If you need any better proof that we’re all now living in a dystopia, merrily celebrating the instruments of our own planetary demise, Fiji Girl is your meme of the moment.

Correction: This article originally misreported the amount of water needed to produce and export one bottle of Fiji Water. It is 6.74 kilograms, or 1.75 gallons of water, not 720 gallons.

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