Why Everyone Loves to Hate Coca-Cola
Economic Times
June 15, 2005

Coke and controversy seem to go hand in hand. After all the bad press report that it got in India over the pesticides content in its soft drinks, now it's the turn of another Indian, based in the US to cause trouble for the global MNC giant.

Amit Srivastava, a California-based activist has been touring college campuses in the US in his campaign against Coca-Cola India, accusing it of using up precious ground water in India, lacing its drinks with pesticides, and supplying farmers with toxic sludge for fertilising their crops.

This has led to several colleges in the US and even in Europe to ban or stop renewing their contract with coke. And other campuses are considering similar actions. Schools that have banned Coca-Cola products include Bard College in New York, Carleton College in Minnesota, Oberlin College in Ohio and two colleges in Ireland.

Although Coke is a powerful global company which has a presence in almost all parts of the globe, allegations and protests against its practices by groups or individuals like Srivastava has caused it to lose millions of dollars in defending itself and has led to a drop in sales.

Controversy saga in India

Coke's operation has a bumpy history in India. It left the country earlier in 1977 when the Indian government pushed for local ownership and re-entered only in 1993.

In recent years, its bottling plants have evoked much protest from activists and locals living in and around the plants.

In Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, people have been protesting against Coke's bottling plants because they've depleted groundwater level and damaged the environment.

Places like Palakkad's Plachimada village in Kerala drew global attention when BBC Radio 4's Face the Facts presenter John Waite visited Coke's Plachimada plant. Waite carried samples of water and wastes sold by Coke as soil conditioner (but used by local farmers as fertiliser) back to the UK, where laboratory tests showed that they contained dangerous levels of cadmium. Tests at the University of Exeter too showed the material was useless as a fertiliser and contained a number of toxic metals, including lead.

The most well known controversy is the findings by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment that soft drinks in India contain pesticides. In Coca-Cola brands, the amount averaged at 0.0150 mg/l, 30 times higher than European limits.

The repercussions ranged from a drop in sales, protests and public condemnation leading a serous dent on the brand image. And this month, the Rajasthan High Court directed both Coca-Cola and Pepsi to declare the pesticide content on labels of their bottles.

Coke's global controversies

The most serious charges against Coke's officials are that they are in connivance with paramilitary forces in Colombia in killing several Union activists in a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Colombia. There is presently a large scale campaign against the company including lawsuits in the US and the 'Stop killer Coke' campaign on the Web, which aims to put pressure on the company to acknowledge its role in the killings and to persuade it to stop cooperating with violent organisations in suppressing union voices.

In 1999, quality-control problems in Europe sparked a widespread consumer scare and prompted governments to pull Coke products from shelves.

In 2004, Coke's bottled water Dasani, introduced in the UK was withdrawn after it was found that the level of bromate was higher than the permissible level in the UK. Also, it was discovered that tap water was being used although it was labelled as 'pure'(ostensibly to imply mineral water).

And on May this year in the US, more than 2,000 workers at plants in California and Connecticut that bottle Coca-Cola soft drinks went on strike, over the company's proposal that they pay more for health benefits.

Although Coke is the number one soft drink company in the world with an annual sale of $21,962 mn (in 2004), it has to work harder to project itself as a responsible organisation as new and continuous allegations against its malpractices can severely lower its reputation and brand image.

As Srivastava puts it, "It is destroying lives, it is destroying livelihoods and it is destroying communities all across India. That is the story of Coca-Cola in India."

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