The Dangers Behind “Corporate Social Responsibility” – Ethos Water

This is something Muhammad Yunus warned about in his latest book: the Corporate Social Responsibility is often just a disguise for profit-making activity, which he opposes. Yunus is in favor of full social entrepreneurship: no profits involved. Take the case of Ethos, the bottled water, which the New Internationalist calls bullshit in a bottle (I agree). What is Ethos?

"In what is quite possibly the last word in cynical advertising, Starbucks and PepsiCo have teamed up with Matt Damon (the Hollywood star who drives a Toyoto Prius to save money, not to be part of an ‘environmental trend’, so he says) to distribute a brand of ‘charitable’ bottled water called Ethos."

What’s wrong with that? First, it is environmentally bad: we need to reduce the amount of bottled water we use in our countries. We have perfectly good tap water (it is even sometimes bottled and sold to us as bottled water). And if it has a little taste, get a Brita filter, ok? Our societies invested a lot of money so we could turn on the tap and get clean water, which went a long way to improve our health and living conditions.

And of course, plastic bottles are, well, plastic… petroleum products. We should reduce our use of those, as much as possible. We should Think Outside the Bottle.


And of course, we should also be careful with our consumption of water. Here is a map of water use, from the great Worldmapper website.

Water Use

But that is not all, look at domestic water use:

Domestic Water use

And industrial water use:

Industrial water use

Ok, so, you get the idea that we should be a hell of a lot more careful regarding our water use. And when I say "we", I mean North America and Europe, mostly, then China. If you look at the map right above, it is obvious where industrial use is the largest.

But back to Ethos. The third problem with Ethos is the cause it claims to support. The humanitarian claim is this:

"According to the Ethos Water website, five cents from each bottle purchased is donated to a Starbucks foundation to ‘alleviate the world water crisis’."

Ethos sells, on an average, for $1.80 per bottle. That means that the donation represents 3% of price of the bottle, something critics have been very quick to detect and campaign against, see for instance The Truth About Ethos.


Bottom line:

  • Drink tap water
  • If you need a water bottle, buy a reusable / recyclabe one and fill it up with tap water
  • Don’t buy Ethos, support organizations that support sustainable access to water in Africa.
  • Read Vandana Shiva’s Water Wars and Michael T. Klare’s Resource Wars

5 thoughts on “The Dangers Behind “Corporate Social Responsibility” – Ethos Water

  1. SocProf,

    Unfortunately, whilst I am not opposed to Corporate Social Responsibility, nowadays, I suspect that a good deal of what companies brand as CSR is effectively greenwashing.

    With respect, based on the description which you have provided above, I am not convinced that Ethos is so bad. At least they are telling consumers out front how much they are keeping and how much is being allocated to alleviating the world water crisis.

    Personally, I would have a problem if they were misrepresenting their contribution, but according to your description above, at least they are being out front.

    Also, I can certainly understand your objection to bottled water on environmental grounds, particularly in countries where clean tap water is available. However, bottled water has its place in countries without clean tap water.

    Personally, I live in Korea, where tap water, whilst not causing serious harm, has been known to cause diarrhea. For me, bottled water is the only way I have access to clean, sanitary drinking water.

    However, I do agree with your point that bottled water should be avoided in developed countries where at all possible.



  2. Andrew (misspellings are part ofthe blogosphere),
    you are right regarding the quality of water in developing countries (heck, when I was in Zambia, I brushed my teeth with bottled water), but I would argue that the goal should be to provide safe tap water on the long term. Not rely permanently on bottled water.

    And while Ethos is clearly not lying about what they are doing, it is a matter of emphasis: their main goal is generating $$, alleviating the water crisis is a “nice” afterthought and more of a commercial appeal to socially conscious customers. In that sense, it can be seen as smart marketing (+ celebrity appeal with Matt Damon).

    But the contribution being so small, one might wonder if Ethos really having an impact of if it is (sorry, I couldn’t resist) a drop in the ocean (lame, lame, lame, I know 🙁 ).

  3. Fair enough, SocProf.

    The end goal should be clean tap water for everyone. Looking over the very long term, if we could generate a reliable supply of clean tap water for everyone, then we could put a cap on the need for bottled water.

    Meanwhile, I see your point that in countries with clean tap water, bottled water should be used only when necessary (i.e. hiking or cycling). Even then, with a little effort, it is possible to fill up a bottle of tap water, wash and reuse the bottle.



  4. Pingback: The Global Sociology Blog - The Dangers Behind “Corporate Social Responsibility” – Ethos Water | Planetary Citizens |

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *