Opinion: University of Michigan Should Terminate Contract with Coca-Cola
Signaling its disdain for the University’s investigation into its
human rights abuses, The Coca-Cola Company submitted its agreement
to an independent audit late last Friday — mere hours before a deadline
the University’s Dispute Review Board set in June. The DRB erred in
allowing Coca-Cola more than a year to reform its practices after
finding it in violation of the ethical standards set forth in the
Code of Conduct for University Vendors. The University should cut
its ties with Coca-Cola immediately to send a message to Coke and
other corporations that vendors who ignore the code can expect to
have their contracts terminated.
In May, the University’s Dispute Review Board validated two allegations
of human rights and environmental abuse against Coca-Cola concerning
reports of pesticides found in Coca-Cola products in India and of
labor abuses in Colombia. Unfortunately, the DRB allowed Coke to delay
accountability for its actions by being far too lenient with the company
in its June recommendation.
Far from advising the University to cut its contracts with Coca-Cola,
the DRB recommended renewing the contracts provisionally and presented
a timeline for an independent audit process. According to that timeline,
the University and Coke do not have to agree on an auditor until Dec.
31. And the timeline does not require Coke to enact a “corrective
action plan” to address its human rights abuses until May 31 — more
than a year after the DRB found that there was credible evidence that
Coca-Cola was responsible for human rights and environmental abuses.
It is especially troubling that the company appears to be delaying
its compliance with the University’s timeline as much as possible.
Rather than acting proactively to clear its name, Coke has deliberately
stalled any progress in the matter for as long as possible while it
continues to do business with the University. It has not been punished
for its past offenses, and it has not taken any action to prevent
The timeline’s rate of progress is too slow. The University’s associate
vice president for finance and Chief Financial Officer — who together
will recommend a course of action to University President Mary Sue
Coleman — can atone for the DRB’s flawed recommendation by suggesting
the termination of the University’s contract with Coke. If the University’s
Vendor Code of Conduct is to have teeth, the University should sever
business relations with any company it has found to be in violation
of the code.
This is not to say the University should never do business with Coca-Cola
again. Should Coca-Cola show that it has addressed its ethical lapses,
the University should feel free to reward it with a renewed contract.
And even if the University stays on its current course and fails to
cut its contract, the results of an independent audit may — eventually
— shine light on Coke’s practices and shame the corporation into reform.
This situation also affords the University a great opportunity to
reaffirm its commitment to upholding human and labor rights. Last
week, Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality protested
the University’s failure to meaningfully enforce its rules against
contracting with companies that use sweatshop labor to produce University
apparel. Meanwhile, the Lecturers’ Employee Organization has had trouble
getting the University to follow the portions of its contract regarding
the proper classification — and pay — of lecturers.
This disturbing trend of unfulfilled promises about labor standards
need not continue any longer. Each day the University continues to
do business with Coke, it condones the actions of a vendor it has
found to be in violation of the ethical standards in the Vendor Code
of Conduct. The University is an institution that claims to value
its credibility and integrity. The immediate termination of its contract
with Coca-Cola would be a meaningful way to provide concrete support
for such values.
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