Taking the Fizz Out of Coke's Image
Coca-Cola is the latest US corporate giant to face the wrath of environmentalists.
Now campaigners are organising a UK boycott of the fizzy drinks company,
claiming that Coke is leaving India thirsty. James Clasper reports
An anti-Coke protestor demonstrates in BangaloreIt made its name teaching
the world to sing in perfect harmony. But Coca-Cola is facing growing
criticism of its corporate policies. The company is soon to become
the target of a UK consumer boycott campaigning against its environmental
record in India, where the multinational is also the focus of angry
UK boycott organisers hope the campaign will be as effective as a
similar action against Nestle. The confectionery and drinks giant
has been blackballed by "ethical shoppers" who believe Nestle has
pressured new mothers in the developing world to forego breastfeeding
for its less nutritious powdered milk alternative. Nestle has always
denied the allegations. But no matter - the campaigners' message has
reached a wide audience.
In July, US-based independent corporate watchdog the India Resource
Center will open an office in London, from which it will organise
its anti-Coke protest. It hopes to capitalise on the ire of some big
campaigning names against Coke's policies in India. Body Shop founder
Anita Roddick has written on the subject several times and has publicised
the work of the India Resource Center, which also contributed a chapter
to her latest book on global water shortages. And comedian Mark Thomas
is backing the boycott.
"Coca-Cola has a huge amount of power, which it abuses in the destruction
of local indigenous groups to dominate the world market," Thomas says.
Campaign organiser Amit Srivastava is adamant that Coca-Cola is destroying
livelihoods in India. In particular, he says the company is reponsible
for using precious water resources in a drought-ridden area, and that
it has in the past distributed cadmium-laced soil-amendment substances
to local farmers.
"If we show people what Coke is responsible for, they'll never want
to drink it again," he insists. He will be in London next week to
scout for a base for the campaign. He plans to work with people who
have family links with South Asia, trade unions, and universities
to create "Coke-free zones".
"It's important that we affect not only Coke's market but also its
image," says Srivastava. "We want to get local businesses - 'mom and
pop stores' - to stop carrying Coke's products. We're going to focus
on areas with high concentrations of those shops."
The group has run a high-profile campaign in the US, which hit a high
point at last month's Coca-Cola's shareholder AGM. The board was forced
to deal with repeated questions on environmental concerns about its
India operations. And last week the 51,000-student Rutgers University
cancelled its US$17 million contract with Coca-Cola.
There have also been protests at several of Coca-Cola's 54 Indian
plants. This week saw a meeting in New Delhi, at which Gandhi's independence
call "Quit India" was echoed against the company.
The most contentious protests have centred on Coca-Cola's bottling
plant in the Kerala town of Plachimada, where a state-wide boycott
of products started last week. The firm shut the plant last year after
local claims that its use of 400,000 litres of water a day was exacerbating
the drought in the rain-starved region. However, Coke last week won
a Supreme Court ruling confirming a lower court's decision allowing
it to re-open the plant.
A year-long independent study had established that the plant could
use up to 500,000 litres a day without adversely affecting the water
table even in times of rainfall shortage.
The company does, however, accept some culpability in the distribution
of soil-amendment substances containing cadmium to local farmers,
a practice it has now stopped.
"We have found trace amounts of that [cadmium] in the materials from
time to time," confirms Harry Ott, director of Coca-Cola's Global
Water Resources Centre in Atlanta. "Where there was a problem, we
have gone and taken it back. All of our bio-soils we now take to a
hazardous waste site, even though they are not hazardous."
Coke says it has not yet decided whether to re-open the plant, although
it has kept its 270 permanent Kerala employees on its payroll. Any
decision will be taken by the Indian division of the company "in consultation
with the local community," Ott adds.
He says the company is proud of its record in India. It employs 10,000
people and has invested US$1billion in the country in the last decade,
including "a significant amount of money" in local communities.
"The money we invest in India stays in India," he insists. "Any time
that you operate in a country where there is drought, you have to
be sensitive to that country's needs. But we are a hydration company.
Why would we build a plant to draw all the water and drive ourselves
out of business? We have reduced water use in our plants by 27% since
"We are not going to draw all the water just because we have a legal
right to do it," he adds. "We have learned from all this that we need
to work with the community."
But that Kerala community remains angry. The state-wide boycott of
Coke products that began last week seems to be gathering pace. Vigils
are being held outside government offices and local MP Veerendra Kumar
insists: "Coca-Cola is taking water and selling it for a profit."
Arundhati Dhuru of the National Alliance of People's Movements, an
umbrella organisation for Indian tribal groups, adds that Kerala is
just one front in the fight against Coke. She is involved in a similar
campaign in Uttar Pradesh.
"The people of Kerala have a right to decide what's happening in their
area to their resources," she says. "The water table has been depleted.
People have to go 15, 20 miles to find water. Coca-Cola are absolutely
not required. There's no logic. They offer no benefit to the people."
The campaigners may have lost in the courts, but they think they can
win where it counts - in some of the multinational's most lucrative
"The court decision was a slight setback, but the campaign has matured
and is now escalating," says Srivastava. "Coke's response to all these
allegations has been to deny everything. At base, it characterises
the impunity with which large US multinationals operate in India."
FAIR USE NOTICE. This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. India Resource Center is making this article available in our efforts to advance the understanding of corporate accountability, human rights, labor rights, social and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.