corporate responsibility

Business Schools Produced the 'Bros' Who Blew up the Economy in 2008 - Has Anything Changed Since Then?

Corporate misanthropes are nothing new, but Martin Shkreli is a special case.

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Evidence Is Mounting That a Koch Brothers-Owned Paper Plant Is Poisoning People in Arkansas (Video)

The economic pulse of Crossett, a small town of some 5,500 people in west Arkansas, has long been measured through the paper and pulp processing plant owned by the Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific. A subsidiary of Koch Industries, Georgia-Pacific is one of the world's largest manufacturers of pulp and paper products, including paper towels (like Brawny) and toilet paper (like Angel Soft).

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4 Ways Amazon’s Ruthless Practices Are Crushing Local Economies

Even by the anything-goes ethical code of the corporate jungle, Amazon.com’s alpha male, Jeff Bezos, is considered a ruthless predator by businesses that deal with him. As overlord of Amazon, by far the largest online marketer in the world (with more sales than the next nine US online retailers combined), Bezos has the monopoly power to stalk, weaken, and even kill off retail competitors—going after such giants as Barnes & Noble and Walmart and draining the lifeblood from hundreds of smaller Main Street shops. He also goes for the throats of both large and small businesses that supply the millions of products his online behemoth sells. They’re lured into Amazon by its unparalleled database of some 200 million customers, but once in, they face unrelenting pressure to lower what they charge Amazon for their products, compelled by the company to give it much better deals than other retailers can extract.

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Apple Pie? American - Apple Computer? Not So Much

Did you know that Apple Computer has become a foreign entity? Did you know that it’s more Irish than anything else, at least as far as taxes are concerned? Or that it pays very little in income tax, even though its products wouldn’t exist if it not for U.S. taxes?

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The Untapped Power of Shareholder Democracy

The never-ending presidential campaign is enough to overload anyone's senses. The themes and messages are mind-numbingly discombobulated -- race, class, flag lapel pins, NAFTA, bowling photo-ops, Iraq and, of course, endless promises of "real change." It is like the head-pounding noise of bad heavy metal music, but the subliminal message isn't a satanic code -- it's one telling us that presidential campaigns are always the most important arenas of democracy.

But this week you may hear another sound. This one will come from ExxonMobil's annual meeting in Dallas. The thrum may be quieter than the political din, but it is about something that can be more critical than even presidential elections -- something called shareholder democracy.

The concept is simple: By law, anyone owning at least $2,000 of company stock may file a shareholder resolution demanding a change in that company's behavior. Investors then get to vote their shares of stock on the resolution.

At ExxonMobil's meeting on May 28, a group of shareholders is planning to offer resolutions asking the company to invest more in renewable and alternative energy. Though the move has garnered scant media attention, it could be far more significant than the presidential pandemonium. According to Friends of the Earth, ExxonMobil and its predecessors' products are responsible for emitting roughly 5 percent of all human-generated carbon pollution since 1882. Forcing a company like this to even minimally change could have planet-wide effects.

But, then, with the company generating $40 billion in annual profits, ExxonMobil's shareholders are making bank. So why would any of them vote to change the business? Because if they don't, those profits could evaporate.

ExxonMobil is one of the globe's least diversified energy companies. The vast majority of its resources go toward developing air-polluting fossil fuels, and it invests almost nothing in renewable or alternative energy. That currently means big money, but if oil supplies diminish, governments regulate carbon or fossil fuel prices fluctuate, it could mean even bigger losses. And so those shareholders demanding change are appealing to fellow investors' belief in capitalism, not altruism.

For example, citing their desire to "safeguard long-term shareholder value," a group of shareholders with $5 billion in ExxonMobil stock excoriated company management in 2006 for "not sufficiently preparing for tomorrow's energy" and running "the risk of lagging significantly behind" competitors. Many of these investors are expected to back this year's alternative energy resolution, especially considering the boost from none other than the Rockefellers -- the family that originally founded what would become ExxonMobil.

The name Rockefeller has long been associated with pollution-belching smelters and landscape-scarring mines -- but also with steady profits. It is that business sense -- not tree-hugger idealism -- that led a group of Rockefellers this month to embrace the environmental initiative. "If the next 20 years of the energy business were going to be just about oil and gas, we wouldn't be holding this press conference," said one Rockefeller kin at the event announcing the family's position.

ExxonMobil management could win out and defeat the resolution -- but it would be a pyrrhic victory. Executives would keep generating publicity that not only makes the company look bad, but reminds the public about the untapped power of shareholder democracy that big business would rather people ignore.

After all, through pension funds and 401(k) plans, ordinary Americans collectively own a lot of stock, and consequently a big chunk of shareholder resolution votes. These votes often go unexercised, but the more attention shareholder resolutions receive, the more citizens will "become educated about various corporation policies" because they will realize "they can do something about them," as famed shareholder activist Saul Alinsky once said. That is what truly scares Corporate America -- and what could bring the most "real change" of all.

NOTE: David Sirota's upcoming book, The Uprising includes an entire chapter on shareholder activists' long-running battle with ExxonMobil. The book will be released on May 27.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

How to Tell Greenwashing from Real Corporate Responsibility

It's a little late for Mardi Gras, but let me tell you about another masquerade.

We all know that the environment has become fashionable. The environmental movement -- despite what its detractors might say -- is going through one of its most vibrant periods. Seventy percent of Americans declare themselves environmentalists. Seventy-one percent of Latinos living in the Southwest believe preserving the wilderness is not only a family value but a religious one as well. In California, 91 percent of Latinos believe it's possible to protect the environment at the same time that we build a robust economy.

This national consensus has become a powerful magnet for Corporate America, which in recent years has tried to establish an environmental harmony with consumers by offering products and services that allegedly respect the air we breathe, the water we drink and the land we cultivate.

But all too often, this harmony becomes corrupted by a green veil with which apparent altruistic intentions hide the fact that, after all, both environmentalism and money share the same color. This marketing trick is known as "greenwashing."

ExxonMobil -- the world's richest corporation and the one that interferes the most in the fight against global warming by investing tens of millions of dollars in denying it -- counters its critics by alleging that it funds the Global Warming and Energy Project. This initiative focuses on how to confront global warming emissions once they have been released into the atmosphere. But what ExxonMobil won't tell us is that the applications of that research could take up to a decade to become available. Nor will it tell us whether it has made any commitments to adopt any of those applications.

Chevron, the oil giant, in October launched its flashy "Human Energy" campaign to promote its green credentials. But at the same time it promised bluer skies, Chevron also attacked the viability of solar and wind energies -- the cleanest ones in existence -- by calling them "too futuristic." No wonder a corporation so firmly anchored in a past of fossil fuels is so afraid of the future.

In 2005, General Electric (GE) -- the ninth largest corporation in the world -- launched its "Ecomagination" campaign to announce its environmental commitment to confront challenges such as the need for clean, efficient sources of energy and reducing emissions. Two years later, GE's environmental credentials still need greening, as the corporation continues selling parts to coal-fired power plants -- the largest source of global warming gases -- and investing in oil-and-gas exploration.

Southern Co., the power utility that operates six of the country's dirtiest plants, insists that it invests "billions of dollars" in cleaning its toxic and global warming emissions. Yet according to the Environmental Integrity Project, Southern Co. owns the three plants that emit the most carbon dioxide in the entire U.S. Two of them rate as the second and third that release the most mercury in the country. And five more rate among the ones releasing the most nitrogen-oxide. More than a green veil, what Southern holds is a suffocating rag.

On the other hand, there are countless examples of corporate responsibility that demonstrate a real commitment to protecting the environment and fighting global warming. In fact, according to the latest GreenBiz.com annual report, 2007 was a record year for the increase of green initiatives by the country's corporations.

For instance, Google is building the largest solar-power facility ever built on any corporate campus in the U.S. This huge solar-panel project will generate 1.6 megawatts, enough to power 1,000 homes, and will allow Google to save 30 percent of its current power use.

Nike has committed itself to becoming a climate-neutral company by 2012. Green Mountain Power Co. has reached the point where only 2 percent of its generated power comes from carbon-dioxide producing sources. Target is phasing out products containing polyvinyl chloride, a potentially harmful compound. Frito-Lay announced that by 2010 its chip production would rely on recycled water and renewable energy.

But all these examples of corporate responsibility, as timid as they may seem, run the risk of being overlooked by consumers if other companies continue to hide their greed behind a green veil.

Let's all put an end to this masquerade.

Activists "Let it Out" on Kleenex... [VIDEO]

It's repulsive enough that Kleenex actually boasts that its tissues come from "virgin forests," but do we really want to explore the pyschosocial meaning of the appeal of razing said "virgin" forests?

No. Not really.

But we certainly DO want to watch and forward this video from Greenpeace's action to raise awareness of this irresponsible corporate behavior.

There are at least two reasons why you don't want to miss this: 1.) It's fun. That's all. That's the important part of any activism. It makes the lives of the people who do it more exciting, fun and meaningful -- which this action clearly does and 2.) They're not calling anyone evil or advocating for the disbanding of Kleenex's parent company Kimberly Clark. They're just saying, you know, please stop this totally unnecessary and irresponsible behavior so we can blow our noses without worrying about sullying some virgin.... er, forest.

More info on the campaign HERE.

Wal-Mart's New Marketing Strategy Hides Dirty Practices

You know that our world has turned totally topsy-turvy when Wal-Mart -- the low-price, bare-knuckle retailing behemoth known far and wide as the Bully of Bentonville for its ruthless corporate practices -- is suddenly putting on airs and positioning itself as (dare I say it?) metrosexual.

Yes, the world's largest and meanest merchandiser -- stung in the last few years by a grassroots rebellion of employees, small businesses, unions, neighborhood groups, environmentalists, and others that it has been so arrogantly stiffing -- is now straining to project a kinder and gentler image: urbane, upscale, green, socially responsible … even sensitive, for goodness sake. The image spiff-up comes as Wal-Mart executives have made a marketing decision to move from their suburban/rural base into cities, reaching out to a clientele that wants finer goods … and a more refined company.

But has the beast really changed? Inside the stores, and you can see a Nouveau Wal-Martique emerging. To appeal to more affluent customers (this advanced Wally-World calls them "selective shoppers"), Wal-Mart is upgrading its merchandise to include $500 bottles of wine, organic foods, $2,000 plasma TVs, 400-thread-count sheets, imported balsamic vinegar, organic-cotton baby clothes, microbrewed beers, and a new "Metro 7" line of designer fashions. Never mind that the average Wal-Mart shopper lives in the suburbs, is female, stands 5-foot-2, wears a size 14, and is looking for sensible skirts and durable go-to-work clothing -- the reinvented retailing giant is proffering skinny-legged, fur-trimmed jeans for the stylish set. It has even run an 8-page fashion spread in Vogue magazine.

Last March, this high-toned Wal-Martique opened a model store in the well-to-do corporate haven of Plano, Texas. No downscale blue-and-gray, concrete-block facade for this baby. It features two tone brick walls, wood floors, wide aisles, uncluttered shelves with cherry finish, halogen lights, and discrete fitting rooms for a hoity toity clientele. Also, forget the usual in-store McDonald's. There's an espresso bar with free wi-fi and -- Holy Sam Walton! -- a sushi bar to enhance what cosmopolitan retail consultants call "the shopping experience."

In addition, you might note what's not there. No more layaway plans, for example. No shotguns and hunting gear, either. Also, far less in the way of automotive tools and supplies. As the model store's project manager explains, "This customer is telling us they're not doing it themselves. They don't change their own oil."

Eliza Doolittles

Naturally, an upwardly mobile Wal-Mart cannot have its workers -- excuse me, "associates," as they are called in Wal-Martspeak -- garbed in those dowdy blue vests with "How May I Help You?" emblazoned on the back. Too, too tacky. When a corporate fashion designer was brought in, he took one look at Sam Walton's friendly vests and termed them "the lowest guppy in the pool" of retail outfits.

So Wal-Mart is giving a makeover not only to 1,800 stores, but also to clerks. A new dress code dictates a positively preppy look of khaki pants and navy-blue polo shirts, giving the place a feel described by the fashion designer as "much more business casual than working class." Yes, but should workers tuck their polos into their khakis for a sharp, snappy appearance, or leave the shirts untucked as a sign of an easygoing, fun-loving workplace? Believe it or not, the tucking question reached the top levels of HQ in Bentonville. Finally, the word came down from on high: "If they want to tuck it in they can. If not, they can leave it out."

And you thought there was no workplace democracy at Wal-Mart!

Workers, however, are less than charmed by the change in couture, for the company expects them to dig into their own pockets to buy the preppy uniforms. Perhaps these employees will find solace in the assertion by the fashion designer that the new duds "will raise the status of the 1.3 million Americans" who work there. It's entirely possible, of course, that workers would prefer to trade "status" for the genuine elevation that comes from higher paychecks and better treatment.

Beneath Wal-Mart's new cosmetic sheen lies the same old ugliness. The average employee toils for $8.23 an hour -- a poverty-level wage that amounts to about $16,700 a year gross (in both meanings of that word). Many don't even make that, for Wal-Mart defines "fulltime" work as 36 hours a week rather than the usual 40. It's common for bosses to hold workers to under 24 hours a week, which reduces gross annual income to only about $10,000.

Contrast this miserliness with the company's lavishing of wealth on those at the top. CEO H. Lee Scott, Jr., had a base salary of $1.3 million in 2005, plus $4 million in "incentive" payments, as well as stock and other compensation that raised his total haul to $17.5 million (including more than $100,000 for personal use of corporate jets). Also, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton's widow and their four children, who collectively hold 40 percent of the corporation's stock, are living grandly. At present, they are sitting on personal nest-eggs of $15.5 billion each, putting all five of them among America's 11 richest people.

Meanwhile, fewer than half of Wal-Mart's employees get any healthcare benefits at all -- and those who do must pay 41 percent of the cost for a lousy plan that carries a $3,000 deductible per family plus a $300 pharmacy deductible and a $1,000 in-patient hospital deductible. Honchos at headquarters keep insisting that the health benefits they offer are "competitive" with other retailers. But look no further than Costco, where a good plan covers 80 percent of employees and the company pays 90 percent of the premiums.

The richest corporation in retailing, with $312 billion in sales (more than the next five biggest retailers combined), pushes the bulk of its workers onto public-assistance programs, even telling employees how to sign up for government help in a company bulletin called "Instructions for Associates." In all 23 states that have released data on their state-funded health-care programs, Wal-Mart is the corporation with the most employees and dependents enrolled. Also, in a 2005 internal memo, the company's head of benefits conceded that "46 percent of associates' children are either on Medicaid or uninsured."

Last February, during an online "chat" on an internal web site where Lee Scott and corporate managers occasionally exchange niceties, one uppity manager dared to ask Lee why "the largest company on the planet cannot offer some type of medical retirement benefits." Lee snapped back, "If you feel that way, then you as a manager should look for a company where you can do those kinds of things."

Such a snarly corporate attitude expresses itself daily throughout Wal-Mart's empire, where workers are squeezed for every last ounce of labor at the cheapest possible cost and then discarded at the whim of those at the top. It's not by accident that this mingy corporation faces the largest employment-discrimination class-action suit in American history, involving 1.6 million women who've been unfairly denied promotion and equal pay. It's also not by accident that Wal-Mart has been caught again and again using child labor, knowingly exploiting illegal workers, getting its products from grim sweatshops, forcing employees to work off the clock (i.e., without pay), and even denying employees their 30-minute, unpaid lunch breaks.

"Rewarding" workers

Lest you think that such disrespect comes only from the old-style Wal-Mart, check out the brand-new workplace policy now being imposed from Bentonville. Launched three months ago, it caps the wages of rank-and-file employees, doubles the number of part-time workers, cracks down on "unexcused" days off (such as having to tend to a sick child), and requires workers to be available for duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no fixed schedules. The new policy is widely perceived as a crude attempt to convince longtime employees to quit so they can be replaced by even lower-wage, nobenefit part-timers.

Especially grievous is the insistence that workers make themselves available around the clock. "It makes it hard," says a former worker in a Yakima store. "If you have a function with your child or you want to go to church on Sunday, you don't want to miss those things." This abusive claim on every hour of a worker's time is exacerbated by other unsubtle prods to drive established workers out the door. In Florida, for example, several stores have abruptly banned the use of stools by cashiers and other floor workers who have back or leg problems.

Such nastiness has led to some of the first-ever public protests by employees. Once again, though, the metrosexual Wal-Mart has risen to the fore, offering a compassionate new program named "Associates Out Front" to show a little corporate love to the worker bees. Are the harsh workplace rules to be softened? Of course not! But how about this? Every week, ten employees in each store are to be allowed to meet with the manager!

If you think that's thrilling, imagine how excited workers were when they learned that an employee reward program is also being instituted. Cash? No. Time off? No. What? Close your eyes and hold your breath, for here it comes: Workers with 20 years or more service to Wal-Mart are to be presented with a special polo shirt with their years of service stitched right on front! And the honorees will not even have their pay docked to recover the $15 cost of the shirt!

The Smoke Machine

Whether it's Wal-Mart or Wal- Martique, this is a corporation that, as a matter of policy, flat runs over people in its reckless pursuit of another penny increase in profit. Abusing workers, riding roughshod over neighborhoods, squeezing out small business, roughing up suppliers, busting unions, ripping off taxpayers -- all this and more are an integral part of the corporation's business plan.

When any of these corporate uglies bubble to the surface, as so frequently happens, Wal-Mart's executive culture of dishonesty and deception automatically kicks in. Rather than alter any of its practices, the bosses roll out their extensive, richly funded, well-oiled smoke machine, spewing a dense cloud of gimmicks, attacks, stunts, deceits, and plain old hokum to try to cover up. Some examples:

THE WAR ROOM. On the second floor of the mother ship in Bentonville, Wal-Mart executives have set up a war room, modeled on political campaigns. As in the world of roughhouse politics, the corporate war room exists to attack opponents, plant puff pieces in the media, generate fake "third party" groups that give a false sense of public support for the company, etc.

In 2005 Wal-Mart hired Edelman, a huge PR/political firm, to run the war room, and Edelman dispatched its top Washington operatives to Bentonville. Michael Deaver, Ronald Reagan's image maker, was brought in, as were former top political henchmen of Bill Clinton and John Kerry, plus George W's 2004 political director. Staffers live in a corporate apartment near headquarters and report at 7 a.m. to the war room, known as Action Alley, where they work in tandem with Wal-Mart's director of corporate communications, a former political strategist for the Tobacco Institute.

WORKING FAMILIES FOR WAL-MART. WFWM is a PR front created by Edelman and funded by Wal-Mart in December 2005 to project an image of 1.3 million happy employees rallying behind their beleaguered and beloved mega-corp. Alas, WFWM, run by the former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, has been able to get fewer than 10% of Wal-Mart's "happy" workers to sign up. It also has produced more bad publicity than good.

Last February, the front group landed what it thought would be a big showfish when it signed on Andy Young as its chief spokesman. In turn, the former civil-rights leader's company was awarded a consulting contract with WFWM. The deal went bad six months later when Young told an interviewer that, yes indeedy, Wal-Mart does drive out small businesses. But that's OK, he explained, since the little stores are owned by Jews, Koreans, and Arabs who, he glibly claimed, rip off urban communities. Only hours later, Young apologized and resigned from WFWM.

TRAVELS WITH LAURA AND JIM. In September, a folksy blog was launched detailing the joyous experience of two average Americans traversing the continent in an RV. Each evening they pulled into a different Wal-Mart parking lot and interviewed workers and customers. And, golly, every single person interviewed absolutely gushed with love for the company -- no one had a disparaging word. The blog, jauntily titled "Wal-Marting Across America," read like an ad. It was. Though the couple did not mention any financial arrangement with the company, they were "sponsored" by WFWM. BusinessWeek magazine learned that this Wal-Mart front group had flown these happy travelers from their home in Washington, D.C., to Las Vegas to begin their cross-country trip. A mint-green RV awaited them, paid for by WFWM, which also paid for the gas, set up Laura's blog site, and paid her a freelance fee.

Battling the beast

So many uglies, so little space! The so-called "new" Wal-Mart is the same heavy-handed profiteer it's been since Ol' Sam Walton passed on.

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The Bottled Water Lie

When Antonia Mahoney moved to Boston from her native Puerto Rico 35 years ago, the first thing she noticed was how much better the water tasted. Over the years, however, the water she was receiving from her tap began to lose its appeal. "Little by little, the taste changed," says the retired schoolteacher, who eventually gave up tap water altogether and began paying over $30 a month to get bottles of Poland Spring water delivered to her house.

Walking through Boston's Copley Square on a sunny day last month, however, she was intrigued by a banner advertising something called the "Tap Water Challenge." As she approached the table, a fresh-faced activist behind it told her the "challenge" was a blind taste test to see if passersby could tell the difference between bottled water and tap water. Mahoney turned her back while four water samples were poured into small paper cups -- two of tap water from Boston and a nearby suburb, and one each of Poland Spring and Aquafina.

"That's tap water," Mahoney declared after draining the first cup. "That tastes just like what I drink at home." Her confidence faded, however, as she downed the next three, which all seemed to taste the same. When the cups were turned over, it turned out that what she thought was tap water was actually Aquafina -- and what she thought was Poland Spring was actually the same Boston tap water she gets at home for free. "I couldn't believe it, I couldn't believe it," she says later. "You know I pay so much for that water. Now I am thinking to stop the Poland Spring."

Mahoney wasn't alone in that decision. A student from Connecticut who attends Massachusetts College of Art says that she has cartons of bottled water stocked in her dorm room, because she doesn't want to chance city tap water. After taking (and flunking) the test, she says now she'll start drinking from the faucet. "It tastes the same as the tap water I drink at home in Connecticut, and I drink that all the time," says the student, Katey vanBerkum. "Why spend your money on bottled water if you don't have to."

The two are among the many who have been converted across the country over the past year by the taste test, which, if not quite as ubitquitous as the Pepsi Challenge, is equally surprising in its results. Of the hundreds of people who have participated in the Tap Water Challenge in cities including Austin, Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia, few of them were able to identify all the samples correctly, says Gigi Kellett, who is doling out water samples this afternoon. "It's usually those who are the most die-hard or committed to a certain brand who are most surprised when they realize they can't tell the difference," she says.

Kellett is associate campaigns director at Corporate Accountability International (CAI), a nonprofit formerly known as Infact, which is best-known for its relentless crusade against tobacco companies in the 1990s. Now, the group has started a campaign to blow away perceptions that bottled water is somehow better-tasting or purer than good old H2O from the tap. At stake, they say, is the increasing commodification of a resource that should be a basic human right, not a product on sale for $1.50 at the local convenience store.

In the past decade, the bottled water market has more than doubled in the United States, surpassing juice, milk, and beer to become the second most popular beverage after soft drinks. According to a 2003 Gallup poll, three in four Americans drink bottled water, and one in five drink only bottled water. Together, consumers spent some $10 billion on the product last year, consuming an average of 26 gallons of the stuff per person, according the Beverage Marketing Corporation. At the same time, companies spend some $70 million annually to advertise their products. Typical are Aquafina's ads advertising the beverage as "the purest of waters," Dasani's ads contending the water is "pure as water can get."

In fact, says Kellett, not only does tap water often taste the same as bottled water, but it is also often safer to drink as well. "They are spending tens of millions of dollars every year to undermine our confidence in tap water," she says, "even though water systems here in the United States are better regulated than bottled water." That's because tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which imposes strict limits on chemicals and bacteria, constant testing by government agencies, and mandatory notification to the public in the event of contamination.

Bottled water, on the other hand, is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which according to federal law is technically required to hold itself to the same standards as the EPA. The devil is in the details, however, since FDA regulations only apply to water that is bottled and transported between states, leaving out the two-thirds of water that is solely transported within states. State laws, meanwhile, are inconsistent, with some mirroring the FDA standards, some going beyond them and some falling far short of the national regulations. What's more, FDA regulations rely on companies to do their own testing, and perform voluntary recalls if products are found to be in violation of standards (if a company fails to do so, the Justice Department can order a seizure of products).

A 1999 study by the National Resources Defense Council of more than 1,000 bottles of water found that, while most bottled water was safe, some brands violated strict state standards on bacterial contamination, while others were found to contain harmful chemicals such as arsenic. The report concluded that bottled water was no safer than water taken from the tap.

In fact, many times bottled water is tap water. Contrary to the image of water flowing from pristine mountain springs, more than a quarter of bottled water actually comes from municipal water supplies. The industry is dominated by three companies, who together control more than half the market: Coca-Cola, which produces Dasani; Pepsi, which produces Aquafina; and Nestlé, which produces several "local" brands including Poland Spring, Arrowhead, Deer Park, Ozarka and Calistoga (a fact that itself often surprises participants in the Tap Water Challenges). Both Coke and Pepsi exclusively use tap water for their source, while Nestlé uses tap water in some brands.

Of course, Coke and Pepsi tout the elaborate additional steps they take that purify the water after it comes out of the tap, with both companies filtering it multiple times to remove particulates before subjecting it to additional techniques such as "reverse osmosis" and ozone treatment. Reverse osmosis, however, is hardly state of the art -- essentially consisting of the same treatment applied through commercially available home tap water filters, while ozonation can introduce additional problems such as the formation of the chemical bromate, a suspected carcinogen. In March 2004, Coca-Cola was forced to recall nearly 500,000 bottles of Dasani water in the United Kingdom due to bromate contamination that exceeded the U.K. and U.S. limit of 10 parts per billion. This past August, three grocery stores chains in upstate New York who all used local company Mayer Bros. to produce their store brands issued recalls after samples were found contaminated with more than double the bromate limit; in some cases, contaminated water was apparently sold for five weeks before the problem was detected.

Water originating with groundwater sources, meanwhile, can have its own problems. Citizens in states including Maine, Michigan, Texas, and Florida have all fought against Nestlé, whom they accuse of harming the environment by depleting aquifers and damaging stream systems with extractions of massive amounts of water though their local bottling affiliates, for which they pay next to nothing in fees and then sell at a huge markup. In 2003, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) won a landmark court victory shutting down a Nestlé plant that was taking water from a stream that fed a wildlife refuge, sensitive marshland and several lakes.

"When you look at the fallen level of the stream, a couple of inches can mean everything to the environment," says Jim Olson, an attorney with the group. "It changed a natural regime that has built up over centuries, drying up ancient marshes of sedge grass relied on by wildfowl, interfering with spawning habits of great northern pike, and creating mudflats in areas where you used to be able to canoe." The injunction against Nestlé was partially overturned last year on appeal, however, in a decision that set a new, looser standard for water rights. The case is currently being considered by the Michigan state Supreme Court.

International Bottled Water Association spokesperson Stephen Kay defends the rights of bottled water producers to extract water, saying that bottled water producers are no different than any other industrial user or food producer that uses water in its products. Nationally, he says that bottled water only accounts for .02 percent of water use in the country, and that even in local cases, water producers are sometimes singled out unfairly as the most visible users of water, while other large users of water are given a pass. "We need to understand all of the uses on an aquifer and make sound and scientific judgements that take all of those uses into consideration," he says.

Kay questions the idea behind the Tap Water Challenges, saying that consumers have chosen bottled water not only for its consistency and taste, but also for its convenience. It isn't competing so much against tap water, he says, as it is against other beverage options. "If consumers are in a convenience store and they want a beverage without calories, caffeine, or sugar, it's just ready to go," he says. "In this era of obesity, it's irresponsible to try and sway consumers away from a healthful beverage choice."

While he allows that some tap water might taste as good as bottled water, he says, not all water users are so lucky. In some parts of the country, water is tinged with a sulphurous taste or suffers from a noticeable taint of chlorine. Indeed, at the Tap Water Challenge in Boston, one participant, Leila Saba, says she drinks tap water in Boston but chooses bottled water when she visits her parents at home in South Florida, where the water has an unpleasant taste. "I think tap water is always safe to drink," she says, "but they could make an effort to make the water taste better."

For the activists behind the taste test however, the growth of bottled water undermines the public's willingness to invest in the kind of infrastructure investments that could improve all public water supplies -- opening up the door in some cases to privatization of water systems by for-profit corporations. "People get in the habit of paying a lot more for their drinking water, and they say if we are paying for bottled water, there is no reason we shouldn't be paying a lot for these water services," says Tony Clarke, director of the Polaris Institute and author of "Inside the Bottle," a report critical of the bottled water industry. The downside, he says, is increased cost. "Whenever there is a public service utility taken over by a private service the first thing that happens is that rates are jacked up."

That's exactly what happened in the city of Cochabamba in Bolivia in 2000, when takeover of its water by the Bechtel Corp. sparked a popular uprising known as the Water War, in which citizens successfully reclaimed their water supply as a public right. Today, some 300 million people around the world still get their water from private suppliers. In the United States, water privatization has been a disaster, with cities such as Atlanta, Indianapolis and New Orleans seeing rates soar and quality suffer after contracting with private companies such as France's Suez and Veolia.

The struggle over control of water is only bound to get more heated over the next few years. Currently, more than 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, a number that is only bound to rise with increases in population and environmental stresses. This past March, environmental and indigenous groups converged on Mexico City to protest the World Water Forum, a meeting of industry and government leaders from around the world, sponsored by Coca-Cola., in which leaders failed even to agree that water was a basic human right. This month, citizens in 30 countries have planned demonstrations on the issue in an effort dubbed "Blue October," which will include a street celebration in La Paz to commemorate the Water War, and culminate next week in a three-day conference on water rights in Montevideo, Uruguay, from Oct. 28-31. In 2004, Uruguay became the first country to enshrine the right to safe water through a citizen-led constitutional amendment banning privitization and guaranteeing piped water and sanitation to all citizens. A similar effort kicks off this month in Mexico.

Activists like Kellett see a direct relationship between the commodification of water on the international level and the rise in bottled water among individual consumers. "Worldwide, people spent $100 billion on bottled water last year," says Kallett. "That's three times more than the amount that we'd need to spend to meet the United Nation's goals of giving everyone access to water by 2015." In the meantime, the activists with CAI will continue to bring their Tap Water Challenges on the road in an effort to convert people one by one. Purity, they contend, is only a twist of the faucet away.

CAI will hold a Tap Water Challenge at 1 p.m. today (Oct. 26) at Denver's Writer Square. Student groups will also hold Tap Water Challenges across the country next month on Nov. 14. For more information, visit Corporate Accountability International.

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