Coca-Cola: A Model for Good Public Relations, Not Sustainability
The following opinion appeared in the Economic Times, the largest
English business daily in India.
The Coca-Cola company and its CEO, Mr. Neville Isdell, must be congratulated
for some excellent public relations work lately, and in particular,
in India. Neville Isdell was the "guest editor" of the Economic Times
on March 17, 2008 and he used the platform provided him to pull off
a wonderful public relations coup that would make marketing textbooks
- create an image of itself that it clearly is not.
In his editorial "A New Model of Sustainability", Mr. Isdell writes
that we must view business from a "broader context" and that if the
communities are not sustainable, then the business is not sustainable.
We must agree.
But Coca-Cola is the least qualified company to talk about new ways
of operating and building sustainable communities, given its track
record in India.
Not once in the entire newspaper, which also included a lengthy section
on corporate social responsibility, did the crisis that Coca-Cola
creates and faces in India find mention.
We feel it is time to set the record straight and away from the spin
Coca-Cola's bottling plants in India are the target of many community-led
campaigns, accusing the company of worsening water shortages in areas
where it operates and polluting the scarce remaining water and soil.
In a very high profile case, one of Coca-Cola's largest bottling plants
in India, in Plachimada, Kerala, has been shut down since March 2004
because government and independent agencies have confirmed that the
bottling plant has polluted the water and soil in the area.
Coca-Cola, in the past, has rejected the campaigns against it in India
as being not based on facts and the agenda of anti-globalization activists.
But the momentum has turned against Coca-Cola, as various government
and independent studies confirm what the communities who live around
Coca-Cola's bottling plants have been saying all along - that the
Coca-Cola company is responsible for exacerbating water crises and
In what must have been a shocker for Coca-Cola, a study that it paid
for (and conducted by the Energy and Resources Institute - TERI) released
earlier this year was a scathing indictment of the company's operations
in India. The company was forced to agree to an assessment of its
operations in India a result of a sustained international campaign
led by the India Resource Center to hold Coca-Cola accountable.
Not surprisingly, the study found no mention in Mr. Isdell's edition.
Coca-Cola's own study has recommended that Coca-Cola shut down its
bottling plant in Kala Dera in Rajasthan. The study found that the
"plant's operations in this area would continue to be one of the contributors
to a worsening water situation and a source of stress to the communities
Noting that Coca-Cola has not respected the rights of farmers and
groundwater conditions, the study also warned Coca-Cola about declining
water conditions around another campaign hotspot-Mehdiganj in Uttar
Pradesh. Bolstered by the study, the community of Mehdiganj will be
holding a demonstration against the bottling plant later this month.
The study by TERI also found that in the plants assessed, not one
plant had met the Coca-Cola company's own wastewater treatment standards.
What is the point of having your own standards, we ask, if you don't
meet them? And the study found an alarming incidence of pollution
in the immediate vicinity of Coca-Cola's bottling plants.
The assessment, which covered only six plants (out of fifty) is very
clear that the Coca-Cola company has located its bottling plants in
India from strictly a "business continuity" perspective that has not
taken the wider context into perspective.
So where is the placing of the business in a "broader context" that
the Coca-Cola CEO talked about in his editorial? Surely not in India.
And sustainable communities? Coca-Cola's own study has confirmed that
the company is responsible for exacerbating water crises, and recommended
the shut down of one of its bottling plants. Coca-Cola has not respected
the rights of farmers, and has exploited the groundwater to such an
extent in some areas that thousands of farmers have lost their livelihoods.
The Coca-Cola company did not even bother to share the environmental
impact assessments (that it should have conducted prior to locating
its bottling plants across India) for the study after repeated requests.
Coca-Cola cited legal and confidential reasons for not sharing the
The environmental impact assessments look at the various factors including
water availability, existing stresses on water and potential impacts
on the community.
The fact is that the Coca-Cola company has located many of its bottling
plants in India strictly from a business and profit motivated principle,
and has given scant, if any, attention to the impacts on the community.
Such a company cannot and must not be allowed to talk about new models
Coca-Cola must walk the walk before it can talk the talk.
Amit Srivastava is the Director of India Resource Center, an international
campaigning organization based in San Francisco, USA.
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