Students have a new target: Coca-Cola

The article appeared in the Patriot News, February 27, 2007.

Nike must be heaving a sigh of relief.

For years Nike had served as the whipping boy for socially conscious students on American college campuses. The multinational corporation sold its Air Jordans for prices in excess of $100, and the wages it was paying its workers at its factories in developing Asian countries appeared inordinately, if not unconscionably, low. This prompted aggrieved students to mount vociferous protests against alleged exploitation of Third World workers by greedy multinationals.

Now students have a new target: Coca-Cola. On campuses like Swarthmore, the soda behemoth has attracted ire for its actions in developing countries -- and the movement appears to be spreading. Bowing to the demands of their students, some colleges have banned the sale of Coke altogether while others are contemplating following suit. At Elizabethtown College, the campus newspaper recently published a piece on the subject -- one might be forgiven for detecting a wistful undercurrent in favor of booting the soda maker off the premises.

At Harvard, where such movements seem to originate with undue frequency, the subject has failed to arouse much enthusiasm, leading to speculation that perhaps some sort of protest fatigue has set in among the students. So many causes, so little time. Berkeley is silent. So is Madison. What has gone wrong, one wonders?

So what has Coca-Cola, that quintessential American company, done to earn this opprobrium? There appear to be two sources of discontent. One is the company's alleged complicity in the death of labor activists at its bottling plants in Colombia -- a charge denied strenuously by Coca-Cola.

The second cause for the students' ire is the company's environmental record at one of its plants in India. In an obscure village in the southern state of Kerala (well, actually, not so obscure for some: my parents live in that state), Coca-Cola is accused of using up excessive amounts of water in the area, leaving little for drinking, sanitation and irrigation for the villagers who live nearby. The company has also been accused of selling beverages contaminated by pesticides.

Coca-Cola has had a tough time refuting these charges. They have produced scientific reports showing that the decline in the groundwater was not their fault (a few years of drought coincided with the arrival of the plant) and their beverages meet international standards for purity.

Various government agencies in India have also conducted tests of their own, and obtained largely similar results. But this has not dampened the ardor of critics, who managed to prevail upon the state government of Kerala to ban the sale of Coca-Cola (and for good measure, Pepsi) throughout the state. (Compared to this, the ban at Swarthmore College seems trifling.)

BUT COCA-COLA appears determined to press ahead with its expansion in the Indian market. The robust growth of the Indian economy, and the increasing affluence of the Indian consumer, make the emerging market simply too attractive to ignore. But the company realizes that tastes are changing -- as in the U.S., the demand for colas is being supplanted by a hankering for fruit juices, bottled water and the like -- and its product mix will have to be adjusted accordingly. Whether Coca-Cola can simultaneously manage to assuage environmental concerns remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the company has to contend with the campus protests at home. But there is a silver lining for Coca-Cola. Eventually, the college students will move on to another target (Dell? GM? Starbucks?) and the brouhaha over Coca-Cola's practices will fizzle out.

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