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Starbucks Is Bottling Water in One of the Worst Drought Regions in California

Is it weird for a bottled water company to donate money to itself in order to help water conservation?

Jemal Countess/Getty Images

There is a some irony in the very existence of Ethos Water, a bottled water company owned by Starbucks that purports to have a social conscience: "It seems hard to imagine," their website states, "but more than 1 billion people on our planet can't get clean water to drink." The statement continues:

Ethos® Water was created to help raise awareness about this terrible crisis and provide children with access to clean water. Every time you buy a bottle of Ethos® Water, you contribute $.05US ($.10CN in Canada) to the Ethos® Water Fund, part of the Starbucks Foundation. So far more than $12.3 million has been granted to help support water, sanitation and hygiene education programs in water-stressed countries – benefiting more than 500,000 people around the world. In 2014 grants were made to six NGOs in the following coffee-growing countries: Tanzania ($750K), Indonesia ($750K), Colombia ($1.1M), Guatemala ($480K) and Nicaragua ($300K).

Ethos, then, donates a fraction of its profits from bottling water back to itself, essentially, and dedicates that money to ensuring those who need water obtain access to it.

The ethical question raised by this arrangement, according to this investigation by Mother Jones magazine, is: what if a bottled water company, which purports to help those who need water, is bottling and selling local groundwater from one of the most parched regions in the nation?

According to the investigation, the bottling plant that Starbucks employs for its Ethos customers in the western half of the United States is in Merced, California, "which is currently ranked in the 'exceptional drought' category by the US Drought Monitor. Its residents face steep water cuts in their homes, and surface water for the region's many farms is drying up."

California's drought has reached red-alert levels during this past year, causing a number of sweeping regulations to be passed that restrict personal and business water use. Starbucks' Ethos plant, which is located in Merced, takes its water from nearby Baxter, which also falls under the "exceptional drought" category. Ethos does not have to pay for the groundwater it takes.

Starbucks is careful to point out that it is not breaking any laws, noting that the water it takes comes from "a private spring source that is not used for municipal water for any communities." That does not preclude, however, the possibility that Starbucks leaches water from the ground, cutting off others' access to it.

The seemingly irresponsible nature of making millions from bottled water in the midst of the nation's worst drought area does not change the fact, however, that agriculture is the primary culprit behind California's heavy water use. By some estimates, it requires nearly 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pound of ground beef.

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