Soft Drink, Hard Task
Students campaigning to ban Coca-Cola products from NUS shelves
are finding it more difficult than expected: the company disputes
any wrongdoing and even if the ban goes ahead there may be a paucity
of ethical alternatives, says Sam Friedman
Most UK students will have no problem remembering the iconic early
1990s slogan, "Always Coca-Cola". Yet few would have imagined that
a decade later they could be responsible for an attempt to topple
this ultimate message of corporate ubiquity.
However, with the National Union Of Students having passed an emergency
motion at its annual conference last week to take the first steps
towards banning Coca-Cola products from 750 student union outlets,
such a move could soon become a reality.
The commercial wing of the NUS - NUS Services Limited (NUSSL) - holds
four multimillion pound contracts with the company, ensuring the supply
of 5m litres of soft drink to student union bars and shops around
But the NUS has now authorised its environment committee to investigate
allegations by employees about Coca-Cola plants in Colombia and India.
In Colombia in 2003 an international boycott of Coca-Cola products
was called by the trade union Sinaltrainal, which represents workers
at the company's bottling plants. The move came about after the deaths
of eight workers, allegedly killed by paramilitaries who target union
members. In India, allegations of malpractice have been made concerning
Coca-Cola's distribution of contaminated solid waste to farmers as
fertiliser and the excessive extraction of ground water, which has
led to drought and low crop yields.
Coca-Cola has denied the allegations.
At last week's conference, students voted unanimously to "mandate"
the environment committee to "research the validity of the claims
and ensure that information about the charges is distributed to all
If doubts about the behaviour and conduct of the company arise, the
NUS "must" use its 25% shareholding in NUSSL to recommend that the
contracts, which come under review at the organisation's annual convention
in January, are not renewed.
Although this 25% share is not enough to effect a non-renewal, student
union sabbatical officers who are responsible for campus outlets and
who make up the convention, are likely to add their support.
"If union sabbaticals are in agreement over something and service
sabbaticals go against it at the convention, we'll have some serious
explaining to do on return," says Dave Smith, vice-president of services
at Edinburgh University.
As one of the motion's architects, Mr Smith is adamant that if Coke
is found to have acted improperly it should be held accountable.
Mr Smith was part of the team that attended last month's NUSSL convention,
proposing that Coke's smallest contract, that of soft drinks like
Oasis, should be revoked in an attempt to "sting" the company into
investigating existing allegations. However, the proposal was rejected
on the basis of "inconclusive evidence".
As a result, he and other students from Sussex, Goldsmiths, Manchester,
Leeds and Middlesex universities decided to draft the emergency motion
for last week's NUS conference.
"It's really important that students are able to make an informed
decision about these allegations, but currently they don't have the
information to do so," he says.
"This motion will ensure that unions nationally are compelled to distribute
not only the NUS environment committee's findings, but information
produced by the Colombian trade union Sinaltrainal, the Colombia Solidarity
Campaign and the Indian Resource Centre."
A spokeswoman for Coca-Cola Great Britain says students should have
access to information regarding the allegations, but was confident
the motion would help the company put its side of the story.
"We are listening to people's concerns and are aware of the motion
at the NUS conference," the spokewoman says. "Whilst it is important
that people have the opportunity to discuss these sorts of issues,
the specific allegations aren't true.
Coke points out that a different Colombian trade union, the bottler
employees' group Sinaltrainbec (not to be confused with Sinaltrainal)
has even gone on record to support its perspective, adding: "We want
people to understand both sides of the story and are happy to engage
with people. The NUS motion has enabled us to do just that."
The chief executive of NUSSL, Ian King, agreed that, so far, allegations
against Coca-Cola had proved inconclusive and he defended the organisation's
decision last month to back the company. He did, however, say that
if a democratic decision to remove Coca-Cola was taken at January's
convention, he would support it.
He also warned that NUSSL had already looked into alternatives to
Coke, but in terms of ethical practice many other companies might
need to be scrutinised. "Hypothetically, we could have a situation
where none of the main soft drink companies have satisfactory records
and we're left with a large gap on outlet shelves," he says. "Consequently,
unions could lose money through sales and consumers through lack of
He adds: "Our ethical and environmental committee is currently 'constructively
engaging' with Coca-Cola, but they rigorously refute all the allegations."
Bertie Russell, from Leeds University, who helped draft the motion,
says that regardless of what has gone before, it is the year ahead
that is crucial. He says: "NUSSL and the Coca-Cola company now have
a year until the next NUSSL convention in which to demonstrate that
their constructive engagement is working, or face the very real threat
that Coca-Cola will be boycotted by 5.2 million students UK-wide."
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