Starbucks' Ethos Moves Water Bottle Efforts out of California Due to Drought

May 4th 2015

Laura Donovan

UPDATE 5/11/15: Starbucks announced late last week that it would cease Ethos water bottle production in California due "to the serious drought conditions and necessary water conservation efforts" there. All bottle manufacturing will be relocated to the company's Pennsylvania plant, which is currently used as the East Coast supplier. Here is what led to the decision:

Starbucks' bottled Ethos water offers a socially conscious alternative to the company's free cups of water. For every water bottle sold, Starbucks donates to the Ethos Water Fund, which funds water charity projects in developing countries. Though Ethos does a lot of good for developing countries, it has a big problem on the home front in America. Ethos' West Coast bottling plant is in Merced, California, which is considered "exceptional drought" territory by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

This is unsettling news for Merced, which faces significant water cuts and has plenty of rattled residents who are already unhappy with Safeway's bottling plant taking groundwater from city wells.

According to Mother Jones, Starbucks gets the water from "a private spring source that is not used for municipal water for any communities," unlike other companies that bottle water in California. Regardless, communities can still be impacted by this water use, "if you capture and pull it out before it ever makes it" downstream, explains Mary Scruggs, a supervising engineering geologist with California's Department of Water Resources.

Though bottled water uses very little of California's water supply overall, some people are not pleased that Starbucks is earning a profit while the state dries up. "You might think that in the midst of a drought emergency, diverting public fresh water supplies to bottle and selling them would be frowned upon," a resident from the Merced area was quoted as saying at a recent city council meeting.

Starbucks isn't the sole corporation coming under fire for water usage either. Last month, members of a group called Crunch Nestlé protested Nestlé Waters North America for purchasing millions of gallons of municipal water to bottle and charging consumers an exorbitant amount of money for it.

“We’re in a drought, and we find it extremely egregious for a company to be bottling water and being charged a pittance for it and selling it back to the public at 1,000 percent profit,” Crunch Nestlé organizer Bob Saunders told the Sacramento Bee in an interview.

In April, Governor Jerry Brown (D-Calif.) called for major water restrictions in wake of the state's severe drought. 

"Today we are standing on dry grass where there should be five feet of snow," Brown said at the annual California snow survey in the Sierra Nevada mountains. "This historic drought demands unprecedented action. Therefore, I'm issuing an executive order mandating substantial water reductions across our state. As Californians, we must pull together and save water in every way possible." 

The California drought has been in the making for many years. In 2014, it prompted Brown to declare a state of emergency. "The magnitude of the severe drought conditions presents threats beyond the control of the services, personnel, equipment and facilities of any single local government and require the combined forces of a mutual aid region or regions to combat," Brown said.

Looking for a more sustainable solution? Just ask for tap water and fill up your reusable water bottle.