I was definitely struck by these ads the first time I saw them. As with many striking marketing things, I felt both offended and intrigued by the messaging.


When you can. When you can’t.

A reusable drink bottle when you can, disposables when you can’t.

Be environmentally friendly when you can, it’s okay to use plastic when you can’t. It’s a clever way to tackle bottled water’s “bad guy” reputation as Dolphin Killer and Destroyer of Oceans.

Doing the right thing – when you can

This advertising slogan expresses a commonly held principle that you can’t do everything all the time, but you can do something some of the time.

You may not be able to save the planet, but you can do your bit to make the world a better place.

Hard to disagree with, isn’t it?

It would indeed be a sad day if we all decided it was too late to save the oceans from plastic and didn’t bother with recycling anymore.

Photo credit: Brian Yurasits.

In the face of intractable, wicked problems, every little bit counts. As an employee of a nonprofit and someone who has wrestled with my own privilege, I do believe this with all my heart.

When you can. When you can’t.

But the more I think about this slogan, the more I start to see that a deeper narrative underlying this advertising campaign is: Do the right thing when it’s convenient. Your convenience matters more than higher ethical concerns.

Despite increased concerns around environmental and social concerns within our consumer culture, convenience remains king.

Doing the right thing – even when it’s inconvenient

Altruism works better when it’s convenient.

It’s much easier to avoid single use plastic bags now that supermarkets provide reusable ones at low cost. I’ll bring my envirosac along or handcarry all my groceries rather than buy a bag. It’s still inconvenient, though not impossible, to go completely plastic-free like my boyfriend’s mum.

It’s much easier to be a vegetarian now that almost every restaurant has a veg option. I’m pescatarian at home and will often go meat-free. It’s still inconvenient, though not impossible, to be vegan like my housemate.

Photo credit: Creativ Eight.

It’s also much easier to not give to the homeless guy now because most of us legit don’t carry cash anymore. Occasionally I’ll offer to duck into a 7-Eleven to buy them food or drink. It’s somehow inconvenient, though, to do this when I’m on my way to work or an appointment. It’s somehow inconvenient, too, to go to an ATM and withdraw $20 for them (kudos to you if you have done this).

Love your neighbour, when you can. Put yourself first, when you can’t.

This is when the mantra begins to be problematic. The whole point of love – at least as described in the Bible – is that it’s hard. Inconvenient. Costly.

The Good Samaritan went out of his way to pay for the injured man’s stay at the inn, and offered to cover additional expenses incurred. It was inconvenient. It was costly.

We’re constantly weighing up the cost of doing good before we decide to do it. The Good Samaritan saw the inconvenience, saw the cost – and did the good deed anyway.

Doing the right thing and coronavirus

I can’t neglect to cover how this may apply to the coronavirus pandemic the world is facing. Hopefully there aren’t too many of us who think everyone’s going to get infected anyway so why self isolate.

Image credit: visuals by Charles Diluvio.

When you can. When you can’t.

Stay home when you can. Keep a 1.5-metre distance from others at all times when you can’t.

You can’t cure COVID-19 but you can contribute to reducing the spread of the virus. With indoor and outdoor gatherings limited to two people, and restrictions on what you can leave your house to do, we’ve now gone beyond convenience for the sake of the greater good.

It’s interesting that there is greater fear and urgency around this pandemic than there is around plastic waste.

Is it because of COVID-19’s capacity to swiftly and directly kill vulnerable people we know and love? Is it because the government is taking a stronger leadership stance in addressing this particular problem?

I’m not sure, but I am encouraged to see more unity on this than on pretty much any other contemporary issue.

Doing the right thing – because it feels good

There’s another tag line in the Cool Ridge water ads: Do good, feel good.

I like to think this is more than a quid pro quo – we’re not doing good in order to get good vibes in return. This is more than doing the right thing so we can give ourselves a pat on the back, or for the sake of karma, or for some natural high.

Photo credit: Nathan Lemon.

There is a sense here of it being right to do good – and we can feel that this is so. We can feel that this is so even when we experience the inconvenience of being cooped up at home. It isn’t convenient at all to practise social distancing, let alone self isolation, yet I’m seeing many people committing to this inconvenience and exhorting others to do the same.

Do good, feel good is a profoundly humanist approach to altruism. Yet even Bible believers can agree that doing good is more than obedience, more than “because God says so”. If you’re a Christian, doing good feels right because it is right.

Jesus showed us that doing good is what the kingdom of God is about. It’s part and parcel of what it means to be a citizen of that kingdom and a child of God. To do the right thing is to be in harmony with the physics of that kingdom.

Whether you’re coming from a Christian or a humanist approach, I think we can agree that doing good is the best way to be truly, fully human. That being the case, with respect to when you can, when you can’t, the reality is that more often than not, we can. We can, even when it’s inconvenient. We can, even when it’s costly.

Header image: André Noboa. Does this picture glorify bottled water?

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    1. Agreed! But it does help when it also feels good … unless you’re of the school of thought that says it is therefore no longer a good deed since getting the benefit of feeling good makes it a selfish act. It may be a greater good to do good when it doesn’t feel good (eg. loving your enemies, compared to loving your friends) but if more good gets done because it feels good, I’m okay with that.

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