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The Big Debate: Coca-Cola boycott

Should the Students’ Union continue to boycott Coca-Cola?

Coca-Cola

YES – Ben Lucas
Why should anything be boycotted? Boycotts are a form of activism, where financial support is withdrawn from a product, company, institution or state in order to bring about a change. Provoked by disagreeable actions, boycotts hope to force their targets to change their behaviour in order to maintain their profits and popular support. Sometimes seen as an extension of formal democracy, boycotts can be particularly appropriate when governments are unwilling or unable to introduce reforms.

In 2005, the Students’ Union Council decided to boycott Coca Cola. After large student support and a vote by the Union Council, it was democratically decided that a boycott of Coca Cola products would be put in place and that Union shops and bars would no longer sell the company’s products.

Coca Cola’s continuing history of unethical practices was the reason why this boycott was, and still is, so widely supported. Historically, its name has been muddied: not only was it one of the key sponsors of the 1936 Nazi Olympic games, but Martin Luther King also promoted a boycott of Coca Cola in one of his final speeches, due to the racist attitudes held by managers in many of its factories at the time.

More recently, in the mid 2000s it was found that because it takes 2.5 litres of water to make 1 litre of Coke, Coca Cola’s bottling plants located in poorer developing countries (specifically India and El Salvador) have depleted local water supplies; they have drained from the local water table and polluted it with the chemicals used to clean bottles. El Salvador is also home to a large sugar cane industry, and some parents are forced to take their children to work there due to a dire need to earn extra money.

And yet, instead of withdrawing support from sugar plantations that use child labour, Coca Cola continues to use them. Their large demand for sugar (there are approximately 8 spoons of sugar in one can of Coke) indicate that Coca Cola perpetuates the practices of these sugar plantations, despite the clear power it has to end them.

Finally, besides issues of tax avoidance in the US, Mexico and the Philippines, Coca Cola’s most disturbing ethical gulf comes from its attitude towards trade union workers at its bottling plants. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that it is a human right to join a trade union for the protection of one’s own interests.

Coca Cola Femsa, the bottling company used by Coca Cola, produces 10% of their products worldwide. Coca Cola has a share of just over 30% in Coca Cola Femsa and many members of the Coca Cola board also sit on the board of Coca Cola Femsa. Essentially, it is a key part of the production cycle which they rely on.

In Columbia (where one of the bottling plants is located), right wing paramilitary groups have killed workers and their families because they are involved with trade unions at Coca Cola Femsa bottling plants. Coca Cola have done nothing to help families facing death threats or violence from the paramilitary groups. One particular incident saw trade unionist Isidro Gil shot dead inside one of the bottling plants. A New York City councillor led an investigation into the murder and violence in the Columbian plants in 2004, and found that these workers were victim to a significant number of human rights abuses. I feel that the following quote from the report summarises the aforementioned events – and the corporation as a whole – quite effectively: “The access that paramilitary groups have had to plants is impossible without company knowledge and or tacit approval. Coca Cola’s inaction and refusal to take responsibility for the care and human rights abuses of its workers, shows a clear disregard for their workers’ and for human rights in general.

In summary, Coca Cola clearly exhibit the common ethical failings of many MNCs, by being so completely reluctant to put people and the planet before their own profit.

A clear analogy can be drawn from the practice of consumption: when one pays for a good or service, this can also be interpreted as a vote in favour of a company to continue to produce goods and provide services. I count my voice alongside those who voted for this boycott in not wanting to support the actions of Coca Cola. I hope that once more people know about these atrocities, they will also change their buying habits and chose to support other companies with a higher regard for people and planet.

The argument that has been commonly used against this boycott is that it violates individual freedom of choice. However, in the same way that supermarkets have the freedom to stock whatever they want, so does the Student Union. In fact, by ensuring the decision not to stock this item was democratically approved, they actually went one better. With all this knowledge to hand, the Students’ Union faces a choice between defending human rights or being ignorant of them.

Pessimism is inevitable, but boycotts and divestments do have the ability to be successful. Many changes to the practices and ethics of companies have been brought about by boycotts. In 2009, for example, United Students Against Sweatshops started a campaign that led to 96 US colleges severing their contracts with Fruit of the Loom, making it one of the largest student boycotts ever. Ten British universities followed suit. The campaign was estimated to have cost the company $50million. A Honduran Factory had been closed by Fruit of the Loom after its workers had unionised, but the huge pressure of the boycott led to it being re-opened and its 1,200 staff being re-employed.

Change only occurs if people keep trying their best to enact it, and until it does occur, there will be more to do and more people to convince. Unfortunately, the Students’ Union’s failure to communicate the reasons for the Coca Cola boycott to new or current students may have undermined it. However, until change does occur, there will be more to do and more people to convince. The Coca Cola boycott displays attributes that attracted me to Sussex to begin with: the active political conscience of students, and that issues in our global community are taken seriously by them.

NO – Samuel Blausten
The boycott of Coca Cola’s products by the Students’ Union in 2005 was founded on perfectly sound reasons – protesting the various alleged malpractices of Coca Cola’s operations in developing countries. However it is at the same time absurd and completely hypocritical. Additionally it can be seen as obsolete in any practical terms, now that we have such a tiny Union shop and a large Co-op store on campus that stocks Coca Cola.

The Union has not looked at the Coca Cola boycott in an objective way. If it had, it would realise that the vast majority of the other products stocked in the Union store and sold to the same students who may have voted for the continuation of the Coca Cola boycott, are from such ethical luminaries as Kraft foods, Cadbury’s (now owned by Kraft), and most damning of all, Pepsi. Coca Cola has been singled out unfairly over outdated and unproved allegations.

PepsiCo, the company that owns Pepsi, was implicated, and is still implicated, in the very same Indian groundwater scandal that formed a major part of the Union’s case against Coke in 2005. PepsiCo still runs a quarter of its Indian plants in water stressed areas, significantly damaging the water supply for villagers living in the area. It was also recently implicated in another scandal regarding quantities of pesticide and lead in its cola, nearly 30 times the safe limit for human consumption.

Both companies have reacted somewhat favourably to the news outrage directed at them for their exploitation of groundwater in India. Thankfully the Indian government has also finally proposed some basic legislation to prevent companies doing this in the first place – it was perfectly legal back in 2005. Although seen by many as hollow PR exercises, Coke has committed $4 million to a UN water sustainability project in Africa and Asia, and is now recycling 35% of the waste water used in its bottling plants. Both companies promote recycling and community schemes to achieve ‘water neutrality’ and a ‘positive water balance’ in India.

Boycotts of products are primarily political messages but they also can be commercial ones – the somewhat idealistic rationale is that Sussex students will hurt Coca Cola’s UK sales by not buying their goods in the campus store. Seven years ago that may have sounded reasonable – with tens of thousands of students on campus using the Union stores for everyday shopping, we were denying Coca Cola from a substantial market. With the opening of the independent Co-op in Bramber House last year, that goal has been made completely redundant.

The continued vilifying of Coca Cola for allegations made a decade ago, is completely unfair and hypocritical. Our Union shop stocks most of its products from big cocoa companies and big tobacco companies. These huge multinational conglomerates like Kraft foods which now controls nearly 8% of global chocolate processing, have unrivalled power in some of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world. They contribute an outrageously pathetic proportion of their huge annual profits to ethical PR projects in these countries. Kraft has made much of the $70 million it is spending over 10 years on community and welfare projects in the African countries that supply it. Yet it made $54 billion net profit last year alone.

We voted to boycott just two of these companies (Coke and Nestlé), seven years ago because of allegations that have been quashed and thrown out by courts twice in Colombia and twice in the US. The India scandals were valid, but were shared by all the other drinks producers working in India including PepsiCo, because of a lack of basic legislation from the government there.

The Columbian incidents with trade Union murders was the spark that kicked off the boycotts and the whole ‘KillerCoke’ movement in the first place. According to lawsuits filed in the US on behalf of the Columbian Union, subcontracted bottlers working for Coke, “contracted with, or otherwise directed, paramilitary security forces that utilized extreme violence, and murdered, tortured, unlawfully detained, or otherwise silenced, trade Union leaders.”

However, there is no evidence linking Coca Cola to the abuses of its subcontracted bottling plants in Colombia. These murders mostly took place in the 90s and the last was in 2002. Since 2004 there have been no fresh allegations made about their activities in Colombia that have been brought to court. Yet in 2012 we still boycott this company based on a media scandal 10 years old.

Our Union needs to move on, as most other campuses around the world have, and lift the arbitrary and unfair ban of Coca Cola that is outdated and hypocritical.

 

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  1. Pingback: Debate argument: Should the Sussex Student Union continue to boycott Coca-Cola? – No. | blaustenblog

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