Negotiations to renew the current $30 million contract, which makes Coca-Cola the exclusive beverage supplier for Ohio State, have sparked controversy among students concerned with the ethics of the company’s business practices.
Students Against Coke sponsored a forum, “Coke and You,” Wednesday night that accused Coca-Cola of human rights violations in Colombia, the exploitation and pollution of water sources in India and other environmental and ethical infractions.
Coca-Cola declined an invitation to the event, saying they refused to put themselves “in a public forum with professionals … with false information and graphic videos.” A company representative denied all accusations made by SAC.
The aim of the event was to spread knowledge of Coca-Cola’s alleged unethical business practices with the goal of deterring a renewal of OSU’s contract with the beverage company.
In a petition to President E. Gordon Gee, SAC wrote, “OSU’s 10-year contract with Coke expires in June of 08. It is our strong belief that this contract should not be renewed. Our beverage needs can be satisfied elsewhere without supporting a company that tolerates such gross human rights violations.”
Ray Rogers, whose company, Corporate Campaign, Inc., finances the advocacy organization Killer Coke, was the sponsored speaker for the event.
As he spoke to an audience of about 50, Rogers seemed passionate about the cause.
“The reality is, the world of Coca-Cola is a world of lies,” Rogers said. “We need people to stand up against these injustices … by holding companies like Coca-Cola accountable.”
According to one of Killer Coke’s fliers, lawsuits filed against Coca-Cola in 2001 and 2006 by the International Labor Rights Fund and the United Steelworkers union on behalf of SINALTRAINAL charge that “Coca-Cola’s bottlers in Colombia contracted with or otherwise directed paramilitary security forces that utilized extreme violence and murdered, tortured, unlawfully detained or otherwise silenced trade union leaders.”
Killer Coke and SAC accuse Coca-Cola of committing these human rights violations in Colombia in order to achieve lower wages for its employees.
SAC hopes that by not renewing the contract with Coca-Cola, OSU will be sending a message to the beverage giant that it needs to be accountable for its business practices, said Eddie Klatka, treasurer for SAC.
“The outcome we’re hoping to achieve is them coming out and taking corporate responsibility and to fix what they’ve done,” she said.
The claims Killer Coke and SAC make about Coca-Cola are contentious and for every accusation that is made, Coke has a response.
“The allegations are very scandalous when you hear them out of context,” said Diana Garza, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola. “Independent assessments look into it, government agencies look into it, district courts look into all those allegations. Every single one has found there is no truth to these allegations.”
Garza did not deny union leaders are getting killed in Colombia.
“Colombia is a very violent country,” she said. “There has been civil strife there for decades. That the Coca-Cola system in Colombia is in any way involved … is absolutely false.”
Garza also addressed claims of Coke’s environmental mismanagement in India, quoting findings from The Energy and Resource Institute.
“At the request of the University of Michigan in 2004, an independent assessment (of depleting groundwater and pollution of water sources in India) was done with TERI … The report is very clear,” she said. “We’re in compliance with the government and our own more stringent standards.”
The $30 million OSU has received from Coke during the 10-year contract has gone largely toward funding student activities, including diversity programs and scholarship funds. Losing this contract would have a large impact on students.
“Most of the money goes to student programming,” said Kate Christobek, USG president. “Whatever we can do to bring funds to students and enrich the student experience, then that’s what we’ll do. Coke can bring that.”
The claims made by SAC have been given consideration, said Xen Riggs, assistant vice president for Student Affairs.
“We’re concerned and we want to get as much information as we can,” he said. “I’ve been reading everything on both sides for over a year … It’s a complex issue. Just because Killer Coke says they’re doing these things doesn’t make it true and just because Coke says they’re not doing these things doesn’t make it true either.
“We’re not a court, we’re not a jury,” Riggs said. “It’s a very complex issue and it’s a lot more complex than ‘Coke is bad.'”
Riggs said that as a large company Coca-Cola is going to encounter problems and issues but believes that more change can be achieved by working with the beverage company.
“We can impact Coke greater by engaging with them and helping to instigate change when needed, where it’s needed,” he said.
Negotiations to renew the contract with Coke have been underway for a year now, in what Riggs said is a complex process. Although he was unable to divulge many details about the contract renewal, including how much it is likely to be worth, he said Student Affairs aims to include a corporate responsibility clause in any new contract with Coca-Cola.
SAC suggests signing an exclusivity contract with another beverage company as an alternative for OSU signing with Coca-Cola.
Rogers said that although not perfect, Pepsi is a more ethical beverage provider.
“Pepsi and Cadbury Schweppes certainly do not have the record of Coca-Cola,” Rogers said.
OSU has considered other options, but still believes Coca-Cola will represent the best deal for students, Riggs said. He said Student Affairs hired a contractor to evaluate the situation. The evaluation revealed the best scenario for OSU is still to remain with Coca-Cola.
“Our goal, ultimately, is to benefit our students in every way we can,” Riggs said.
Briony Clare can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.