Coke Decision Pushed Back as Dialogue Continues

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last Thursday, the Kick Coke campaign held a study break to inform students about the ongoing efforts of the campaign, as well as encourage students to write letters to the Board of Managers. Their talking points included both reasons that the campaign is a good one and concerns that if the Board of Managers were to overturn the decision, it would set a negative precedent “against transparency, against consensus, and against student activism.”

The concerns of the students seem to have affected the decision timeline. Although the Board was originally expected to make a decision this weekend, Vice President Maurice Eldridge ’61 now says that “the earliest any decision seems likely to me is December… it is often possible the way the Board works to take more time when that seems wiser than pressing for closure when everybody is not ready.” Kick Coke students will have lunch with some of the Board members and also make a ten-minute presentation for the Committee on Social Responsibility.

Eldridge also wrote in an e-mail that, “I think some students have a misapprehension about the Board, its processes and intent… the Board does not want to overturn administrative decisions nor stifle student voices. They do want us to take well-considered positions on things especially if there will be a public scrutiny of our actions and decisions.” Eldridge continued that when the Board revisits the decision, they want it “to be derived from consensus and with respect for the student voice.”

What the students need to prove is why their position is “well-considered.” David Gelber ’63, Chair of the Social Responsibility Committee, wrote in an e-mail that “Judge Rakoff and I didn’t agree with the initial decision, simply because we didn’t think the charges against Coke were well-supported. Courts in India and Colombia have thrown out allegations of abuse against Coke. It seemed to us old fogies that the principle of ‘innocent till proven guilty’ ought to govern here.”

Kick Coke says that they do have the information to back their stance up. Ruth Schultz ’09 stressed that although Kick Coke was happy to have students on their side, “at this time Board isn’t asking for student support… they want to see that we have done our research.”

Sarah Roberts ’08 explained that the campaign started in the spring of her freshman year [2005] after some students went to an anti-sweatshop-labor conference where a union leader from the Coke plants in Colombia spoke. Since then, the campaign has continued to research the situation. Some of the evidence they presented on Thursday included a report by American University professor Lesley Gill prepared for the American Anthropological Association and the fact that Coke was recently dropped from the Broad Market Social Index of socially responsible companies. A fact-sheet prepared by Kick Coke is available in the PDF sidebar.

Roberts added that “what we and other schools are doing is having an impact… the International Labor Organization [ILO] now has an office in Colombia and Coke has agreed to investigate. We don’t know when it’s going to get done, but that’s something.” Furthermore, “Apparently they’re revising the supplier principles that they send out to their bottling companies and they’ve updated Coke’s labor laws based on the ILO’s guidelines on what it takes to be an ethical company… they also renewed their commitment not to deplete the groundwater they use in India.” Two of Coke’s press releases are available in the PDF sidebar.

The issue of the importance of the investigation’s completion is one that appears to be dividing the students and the Board. When asked about the delay in the decision schedule, Eldridge did say that “now that it’s clear that Coke has agreed to investigations, it seems to make sense to take more time on this.”

Gelber wrote in an e-mail that “as I understand it, Coke has agreed to have the charges of labor abuse investigated by the International Labor Organization. In view of that, I’m not exactly sure why the students think Coke should continue to be penalized.”

Andrew Petzinger ’09 objected to this stance, protesting that “it is highly problematic to frame the cutting of the contract as somehow punitive towards Coca-Cola. Economics is not ethics. Refusing to purchase a commodity is not equivalent to dealing justice, and for a corporation that asks for nothing more than the endless consumption of its product, to leave the contract intact would be a tacit affirmation of its practices.”

Roberts said, “we don’t want to just trust Coke’s press releases, so we think it’s important to wait until these investigations are finished… we don’t have enough information that Coke is doing these things yet. All we’ve ever said is that we want neutral investigations to get completed.”

Many other questions were raised at Thursday’s meeting by students who had come to find out more.

Zoe Bridges-Curry ’09 answered in response to a question about options beyond Pepsi that “we were really excited about the prospect of having a local bottler… Pepsi was the cheapest choice.” In fact, Facilities Vice President Stu Hain reported that “No independent local company submitted a bid.”

What about kicking carbonation altogether and saving the money? Petzinger put it best: “we’d be hard pressed to garner support for getting rid of all soda.” It’s unclear to what extent money is an issue in the decision–at the meeting, Kick Coke described the administration mentioning the price a lot in some meetings and not at all in others. For what it’s worth, neither of the Board members interviewed for this article mentioned financial concerns in their responses.

Where did the money come from, then? Treasurer Suzanne Welsh writes, “Each year the college has some money for new costs available. A portion of that money was allocated to this. That money, therefore, was not available for something else.” This year the cost was factored into the budget– when asked about the value of $26,000 in college-wide terms, Welsh wrote “that amount of money could fund a portion of a staff position. It could fund a few courses. It could fund about the average scholarship for a financially aided student.” A significant amount for a student, but for the college as a whole? Maybe not.

Another question was of how effective kicking Coke and going to Pepsi actually was. Roberts said that the tactic of targeting the market leader “has proven effective, for example against Nike in the 1990s… you can’t ask everyone to boycott every bad company, so in targeting Coke we hope to put pressure on the rest of the companies.”

Eric Astor ’09 was one student who attended the meeting to find out more. He told the Gazette, “I went in convinced that Kick Coke was based on little evidence… I came out convinced that they knew what they were doing, and that they understood some amount of their social responsibility – but still firmly disagreeing with their stance.”

Astor’s primary objection is that “the Coca-Cola Co. does not own its bottling plants targeted for their practices… meanwhile, PepsiCo does own its bottling plants – and they were also accused in the meeting of having caused significant harm, yet we were willing to switch to Pepsi. I understand that Coke is the bigger soda manufacturer – but PepsiCo is most certainly the larger company, with three times as many employees and over 35% higher revenue. Can we really say that Pepsi is three times better on human rights than Coke? Given that the Pepsi contract is said to cost three times what Coke does, has our situation improved – or is our money just doing more damage than before?”

The questions at stake, then: is there enough evidence to warrant a call for an investigation? how important is it that the investigation be completed? is ‘targeting the market leader’ even a smart strategy? and how can these things be discussed in a clear and transparent manner, so that everyone can “jointly best endeavor to find the truth,” as Jed Rakoff ’64 put it?

Roberts finished her interview by saying, “I hope that the BoM can take time to make sure that this decision is correct… but I hope they’ll tell us exactly how it’s going to happen and I hope that the process will be clear.” She continued, “there’s no doubt in my mind that the board really cares about the students, but I don’t know if they know how best to be involved.”


  1. 0
    Mark Kharas ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    I was surprised to see that Kick Coke claims that there would be no support for just abandoning soda all together. Having talked with numerous friends, as well as random Swatties who happened to be in the area, I think that such an option would be viable, and frankly that’s the only option that I can ethically support if we decide to kick coke.

    The argument about going after the market leader doesn’t seem to me to be a very good one. When I’ve brought up the fact that Pepsi engages in less than ethical labor practices, the argument is always, “well, Pepsi isn’t *better,* but we want to go after the market leader so that they, and then the rest of the industry (including Pepsi) will change. But Pepsi won’t be encouraged to change, in fact they will have a positive incentive *not* to change because they are now getting $40,000 in business that they weren’t getting before. And we, as an institution, will be contributing $26,000 more to an industry that we agree doesn’t have the best labor practices.

    Eliminating soda from Sharples and using the money to improve the food there, or, perhaps buying real juice instead of juice that is sweetened with corn syrup (the corn industry is much more dangerous, in my opinion, than the soda industry) would be a good option. Why do we have the right to have unlimited supplies of free soda?

    If, alternatively, we can’t see our way clear to getting rid of soda all together then we should go with the cheapest option, to use our money in the most frugally way possible and giving the least amount of money to a questionable industry. And Coke is that best option.

  2. 0
    JFK says:

    I feel as though the Board of Managers is overemphasizing this issue when they decide to push it back… this isn’t a de facto attempt to switch a significant portion of the school’s power grid (hi Wind Power) or something that will seriously affect the continued existence of Swarthmore. If they want to make some sort of principled stance as to what “justice” should mean to Swarthmore, I fail to see why they can’t try to deal with the issue now.

    On the most basic level of analysis, it’s a freaking food contract. Sharples brought in fresh, local organic (I believe?) produce this semester… is this something that needs BoM oversight? If Linda McDougall decides to spend a few thousand on soft-serve ice-cream, will there be an extended engagement with the BoM? While I realize there are some serious political and social considerations to the Kick Coke decision (no shit), it pains me to see this matter being dragged out any more than it needs to be.

    (Also, Eric Astor’s stance RE: the ownership of the Coca-Cola and Pepsi plants was interesting. But can’t the *school* revisit this discussion? Also, I’m getting this sense that if Jed Rakoff & co. care so much about this food contract, they should try to have a dialogue with the student body that isn’t through the student publications.)

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