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How Not to Pitch Sustainability
Alex Steffen, 4 Mar 08

This is an email I got today:

Hi Alex, ...I’m currently working on behalf of Ethos Water and their ongoing mission to provide clean water to children around the world. I’m reaching out to influential (types of site) such as, (name site here) to engage you and your readers in the humanitarian initiatives of Ethos Water ( I was reading your site and I see that you are looking for solutions not just problems, well I think the Ethos Water mission falls within that category. That being said, I’d love to offer you content, assets, prizing, etc. and talk to you in more detail about what your readers may be interested in. We have lots of great things we can offer. Since 2005, Ethos Water has raised $4.2 million by donating a percentage of every purchase to the Ethos Water fund. Ultimately, Ethos Water plans to raise $10 Million by 2010 in grants for water programs around the world in an effort to help the 1.1 billion individuals worldwide that lack access to safe drinking water. All this has been effortlessly accomplished by conscientious people simply purchasing Ethos Water. As a recognized blogger within the (xxx) community, you may know that this coming March 22 is World Water Day. I’d also like to extend an invitation to you and your readers to participate in the Virtual Walk for Water and join Ethos in building awareness surrounding the world water crisis. If you are interested in sharing some of this information with your readers please feel free to email me.

A couple bits of free advice here for marketing/PR folks:

1. Fill in the blanks before sending.

2. Know who you're pitching. I am not unsympathetic to Ethos as a company -- indeed, WC contributor Jonathan Greenblatt is one of the company's co-founders -- but this kind of action isn't what we do.

3. Know your story. If we were to write about Ethos, it certainly would not be an uncritical promotion of the value of buying something. I think it's a real open question whether what's "been effortlessly accomplished by conscientious people simply purchasing Ethos Water" is a net gain against the ecological impacts of their bottled water and the (false) sense these "conscientious people" people may have that we're well on the way to solving these problems because of their actions. I'm not saying Ethos water is a bad idea. I am saying that we'd never write about it without exploring those deeper systemic questions. Pitching an uncritical story to someone like me is getting the story wrong, and likely to result in a story other than the one you want.

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Not to mention the amount of grammar and spelling areas that the e-mail is riddled with, and just how generally unprofessional it sounds. Ah, this made me smile. Way to stay on the ball, guys!

Posted by: Terra Verde on 5 Mar 08

Hi Alex, It’s me again. I think you are right on in your ideas about marketing or pitching stories. I am an artist and in my work I have been looking at volume recently, the amount of things produced and the impact of that volume on the world as a whole. Bottled water is perhaps one the most obvious, but yet still under the radar in volume, because it, pure water is some how good. I think it was you who wrote a piece on clean water? Anyway the point of the story was how much energy it takes to get bottled water to the market, a market that has safe drinking water in the first place. I would like to see more stories on the volume of supply and demand. Like all those little plastic toys one really wants or needs. The other story I would like to see is this, a story on reversed needs and global manufacturing. Somebody somewhere comes up with and Idea, like Pepsi cola or Coke, did, where they invented a need a market for bottled water where the water was already safe and good, and sold water. This reverse need is how the global market functions today. Products are invented then the need is invented and sold. The reverse is; instead of identifying a real need and then inventing a solution and developing a product that is truly needed. I would like to see more stories on these issues, so people like my self might learn more about these Red Herrings in the market place and stop buying these products. I mean just how many dollars stores full of un-needed junk do we need. Have you heard about the continent of plastic trash floating in the Pacific?

Posted by: David E on 5 Mar 08

You're more generous than me. I'm sympathetic to 's take on it. Big waste, big expense, big promotion, small donation.

Most of us in the West can drink tap water, saving money and reducing consumption of resources. Just don't forget to give some of the money you save to a good cause.

Posted by: Chriswaterguy on 5 Mar 08


I’ve spent the last 7 years building and nurturing Ethos and its mission. This effort was born from personal experience in Africa, and the recognition that there was a critical need to expand the circle of understanding about and direct involvement for addressing the world water crisis.

As the brand grows, the number of hands that touch what we do increases every day. This process inherently increases the possibility that the people we hire will make mistakes. As the founder who is still leading Ethos, I own these mistakes, even if I’m not their direct author. As you fairly point out, the communication you received was just plain dumb. It is completely the opposite of what Ethos is about.

Rather than discuss the specific virtues of Ethos, our mission, our accomplishments, or the specific criticisms posted here, I’d invite your readers to simply visit our site and decide for themselves what they think. Most importantly, please see the ‘Who We Help’ section, which lays out the programs that the customers of Ethos have funded across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Since 2005, we’ve committed grants that are helping about 440,000 people gain access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene education. The world water crisis is huge, and we are committed to addressing it.

I appreciate what you are doing at and respect very much your community’s ideas and collective efforts to build a better world. To the extent that our agency’s efforts created the impression that we and those working on our behalf don’t understand your site or respect your hard work, I sincerely apologize.

If you or members of your community want to contact me directly at, please do.



Posted by: Peter Thum on 6 Mar 08

Have you heard of the LIFE STRAW, it is a water filter that can filter most any water and provide a family with clean safe drinking water at the source no mater what it is. Life Straw gives its product to those who need safe water, via donations and support. It is a product that was developed by need, with a real solution in mind. The life straw is easy, it is carried by the person who needs clean water and can be used anywhere, and it costs about the same as a bottle of water.

Posted by: David E on 6 Mar 08

An open letter I'm sending to presidential candidates in U.S. as well as current U.S. congressional representatives.

Dear U.S. Leader,

The U.S. is spending over $80 Billion dollars per year in Iraq military occupation - more than half of the "troops" from U.S. there are are overpaid mercenary forces from commercial U.S. ventures, such as Blackwater.

1 Billion people in world have no clean water.

Life Straw personal water filter costs about $3 per person.

$3 Billion dollars - even a single event purchase - could produce enough good will around the world to mitigate any "potential strategic advantage in future event of China or Russian nation grabbing control of remaining oil reserves in Middle East or north of Afghanistan".

The U.S. could have a billion or more new friends ready to walk half way around the world to help us get any crude oil we need, if we just keep helping them obtain drinking water to live. (And assuming U.S. starts by giving LifeStraws to all Iraqis whose water system the U.S. has destroyed)

How can the U.S. argue with saving $80 Billion dollars a year, all of which goes to fueling destruction of lives, destruction of national infrastructures, and to pay private military ventures - who are motivated to continue the cycle of destruction and profit from "reconstrutction"?

The continuing expense to the U.S. for 1 Billion people would be to continue to provide for, about 2 litres of water per day per person. If We only start the effort by providing LifeStraws for the first year, as they need replacement (assuming they function for about 11 months or Purify minimum 700 litres of water), then $3 Billion dollars investment could help the families and communities of over 1 billion people survive for more than 1 year, while avoiding the infections and disease that would not only risk their lives, but cost their communities more emotional pain and added expenses of labor for medical care, reducing their limited resources further, risking the lives of the families and benefactors of the 1 billion people.

Economically quantifiable and verifiable cost data can be gathered and maintained for accountability to:
1. social welfare programs:
2. continued biomedical engineering development of clean-healthy-water-source solution;
3. as well as to justice policy programs around the world.

If the U.S. "occupied" itself by doing just this single task for 4 years, and closed the dozens of already existing military bases built in and around the Middle East, for the sake of the dwindling, inefficient, crude-oil resources, and spent less than 3% (1/33rd) the amount we are already spending in a sigle year in the Iraq Occupation, how many allies do you suppose the U.S. might garner favor from? The U.S. might begin to regain a fair estimation for love and generosity among nations as we commence the necessary, bold steps of:

1. Begin reduction of loss of lives of U.S. citizens for an unjust, ilconceived military action abroad.

2. Beginning public acts of independence and freedom from advanced military expenditures to cling to dwindling crude oil reserves.

3. Begin rebuilding the moral character of U.S. global endeavors and policies as we could exceen the goals for 2015 UN Millenium Development program by a factor of 2 by 2009. Not simply decreasing the need for clean water by people by half, but providing means for 100% for at least 1 year, from the very first year. (If I was president, might I want to expend the necessary influence at home to get permission for spending approximately $3 billion dollars for such an effort? Hmmm? Let me think about it.).

4. Establish a powerful pool of resources and human intelectual and human moral capital that can lay a foundation for local, indigenous cultural flourishing. Assist building local self reliance and economic development. For the political forecasters of "worst case scenarios", China and Russia would become immediately more vulnerable to calls to action by their own citizen constituencies to redress domestic infrastructure needs and health care, rather than spending on any development for cold or hot war capabilties.

I believe the technical term for such an inexpensive venture with such great human, moral and economic gains is called a "grand slam." (baseball term for a successful hitter scoring the maximum possible points, 4, by hitting "home run" while 3 other players are already on-base)

Might any members of the U.N. agree to assist the U.S., should there ever be an attempt to illegally occupy Iraq or prevent legal, legitimate market access to the material resources there? We, the U.S. currently have some horrible, evil, destructive policies. We need to train our citizens, soldiers and congressional representatives to understand and make the needed legitimate challenges to illegal military orders which are in the form of crimes against humanity as developed at the post World War 2 Nuremburg Trials.

The above cited figures based on factual claims from LifeStraw website
and published press reports of U.S. military budgets for Iraq military ventures to date - 2008.

Greg Rice

Posted by: Greg on 6 Mar 08

Define: "someone like me"

Posted by: RemyC on 7 Mar 08

Wow. I thought I was pretty cut-throat for the sustainability world, but this is just cold. Publicly humiliating a seemingly well-intentioned company on the WC site. Alex, if you would indulge your readers a little, by what rationale did you arrive at the decision to publish their foolish letter? Was it really to teach your readers a marketing lesson? If so, did you have to re-publish the email to teach the lesson?
Personally, I find your article here repulsive and hypocritical. I have read plenty of non-critical, cheerleader pieces on WC. But maybe you don't take responsibility for those?

Posted by: Bill on 7 Mar 08

Bill, I'm surprised that Alex wrote as calmly as he did.

That greenie lightweight Lester Brown ;-) (who only founded Worldwatch and the Earth Policy Institute) has basically said the entire bottled water industry should be culled.

Check it out on Treehugger TV.

Posted by: Dave Lankshear on 8 Mar 08

I must agree with culling the bottled water industry. Ethos is clearly employing "solutions" that lead to more problems--not more solutions.

Posted by: greensolutions on 9 Mar 08



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