May 8, 2008: 4:45 AM EDT
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Taco Bell's not-so-green grilling machine

The fast-food giant and Fiji Water claim customers are protecting Mother Earth when they buy taquitos and bottled water. Nice try.

By Marc Gunther, senior writer

Can eating a grilled chicken burrito really help save the planet?

(Fortune) -- You knew you could help save the earth by installing energy-efficient light bulbs or swapping your gas guzzler for a hybrid. But have you heard that drinking Fiji Water and dining out at Taco Bell are supposed to be good for the planet, too?

Fiji Water claims to have become the first big beverage company to go "carbon negative," meaning that it will offset all of its greenhouse gas emissions and then some. "The production and sale of each bottle of FIJI Water will actually result in a net reduction of carbon in the atmosphere," the company's Fiji Green website. "Every drop is green."

Meanwhile, Taco Bell, a unit of restaurant giant Yum! Brands (YUM, Fortune 500), says that it is saving water and energy by replacing steam tables and cabinets with electric grills. A Taco Bell exec says: "Whether you take shorter showers, turn off the water while brushing your teeth or purchase a Grill-to-Order menu item at Taco Bell, you can save water and impact the environment without even thinking about it."

Well, maybe. But let's think about it, anyway.

In truth, the brain need not be taxed too severely to see that Taco Bell's claims are, at best, incomplete. To be sure, the company has calculated that its grilling system will save "enough water per year to fill 8 oz. water cups that would stretch across the U.S. 80 times" and "enough electricity per year to power every household in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Dallas for one day." The new grilling system, the company says, will also save it $17 million a year.

Some green advocates aren't impressed. Paul Faeth, who is executive director of the Global Water Challenge, a coalition of business and environmental groups, says: "It's a nice start. But it would be great if they did an assessment of their whole company, and where the big uses of water are, and what they can do about them."

One place Taco Bell might begin is with beef. One study cited by the World Wildlife Federation found that it can take as much as 3,682 liters of water to produce one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of boneless beef in the United States. Beef and dairy products - the Chalupa Supreme is made with ground beef, cheddar, pepperjack and mozzarella - also generate far more greenhouse gases than chicken, pork or fish, the Los Angeles Times reported on Earth Day. The single easiest thing a consumer can do about climate change is to eat less beef.

I asked Rob Poetsch, a Taco Bell spokesman, if Taco Bell had looked more broadly at its environmental footprint. "You can expect to hear more from us in this area," he said, without elaborating.

As it happens, Climate Counts, a nonprofit group that ranks 56 consumer companies on their commitment to climate change, released its 2008 scorecard this week and gave Yum! Brands a score of one - making it one of the five lowest-ranked companies.

In response, Yum! told Fortune: "The company's first global Corporate Social Responsibility report will be released this summer, so unfortunately, the rankings don't reflect that information."

The Fiji water story is more complicated. To its credit, the company measured and disclosed its carbon footprint last month and joined the Carbon Disclosure Project, a global investor coalition on climate change. It has also formed a partnership with Conservation International, a respected environmental group, to restore and protect forests on the remote Pacific island of Fiji, the source of its water.

A Fiji Water press release quotes Peter Seligmann, chairman and CEO of Conservation International, as saying: "We applaud FIJI Water for offsetting the climate impact of its products, reducing the impact of its operations, and funding crucial conservation efforts that support local communities and protect some of the last remaining forests in the South Pacific." It's worth noting that Stewart Resnick, an owner of Fiji Water, is a member of the board of directors at Conservation International, and that Fiji Water pays the nonprofit group for its advice on environmental issues.

Tom Mooney, senior vice president for sustainable growth at Fiji Water, argues that the company's environmental harm isn't as great as it might appear. Fiji water travels to the United States on container ships packed with Australian beef and wine that are making the trip anyway. Its iconic square bottles, he notes, can be shipped more efficiently that conventional round ones. What's more, the company, unlike beverage giants Coca-Cola (KO, Fortune 500) and PepsiCo (PEP, Fortune 500), supports bottle-deposit bills in state legislation that drive up recycling rates, according to Mooney. It's exploring the idea of building a wind tower to power its operations in Fiji.

"Fiji's efforts are noteworthy," says Mike Brune, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network and a frequent critic of big business. "They're taking a flawed business model and making every effort to minimize its climate action." Still, he said, drinking tap water is a better way to fight climate change than drinking Fiji.

Mooney doesn't disagree. "Versus tap water, bottled water has a higher environmental impact." But he goes on to say that most people drink bottled water in place of carbonated sodas, which require thicker bottles to hold in the bubbles and, in some cases, agricultural inputs from growing corn or sugar cane.

"To me," he says, "the rise in bottle water, far from being a bad thing, is a triumph in terms of health and it's much better for the environment."  To top of page