MSA pushes for U to investigate Coca-Cola’s business practices

JP Leider

For many students at the University of Minnesota and other universities around the world, it’s a Coke thing.

With allegations it has violated of human and environmental rights abroad, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. has had to deal with lawsuits, governments and, most recently, students.

The Minnesota Student Association’s call for an investigation into Coca-Cola’s business practices abroad is the latest in a series of such requests from universities and colleges, domestically and abroad.

New York University and the University of Michigan halted sales of Coke products on their campuses.

In the case of the University of Michigan, Coca-Cola did not reach an agreement for another third-party assessment into Coca-Cola’s allegations of complicity in violence against and intimidation of union members in Colombia, said Pablo Largacha, director of public affairs and communications for Coca-Cola.

“We have reached an impasse on the (practicality) for an additional assessment for operations in Colombia,” he said.

Any additional assessment could interfere with a pending lawsuit filed against Coca-Cola in Miami, he said.

India

While other universities have pushed first for investigations into Colombia operations, all eyes, at least at the University, are on Coca-Cola operations in India.

During its last meeting, Minnesota Student Association approved a resolution urging University administration to inquire into Coca-Cola’s business practices in India.

Amit Srivastava, director of the India Resource Center, said Coca-Cola’s practices in India are something students should consider before they drink.

Universities, Srivastava said, “have no business doing business with a company that engages in unethical practices around the world.”

The India Resource Center works with communities in India being “impacted” by Coca-Cola’s practices, he said.

Coca-Cola’s practices are unethical, Srivastava said, because they have caused water scarcity in areas in India, polluted water and soil, distributed hazardous bio-solids to farmers for use as fertilizer, and that Coca-Cola product quality in India would not meet standards of the United States or the European Union.

In 2003, the BBC reported that Coca-Cola distributed hazardous materials from its factory in Kerala, India, to farmers. Coca-Cola India’s Web site disputed the hazardous nature of the product, which the company later recovered.

The Web site also said Coca-Cola product quality meets the “highest international standards.”

Largacha said Coca-Cola is sharing facts with interested parties and is making sure people know “there is one set of environmental and one set of ethical standards for (Coca-Cola’s) global business.”

At the University

Since MSA’s resolution passed in December, members have been working to create a public forum where the issue can be discussed.

“We feel that holding a public forum to talk about these issues is one way of investigating valid concerns,” said MSA Vice President Colin Schwensohn.

He said the University should not do business with unethical corporations.

“We don’t want to do business with companies that have a proven, demonstrable record of rights violations,” he said. “I don’t think as a public university and a democratic place we should be doing business like that.”

In the case of Coca-Cola, he said that if some violation did exist, the University could put pressure on the corporation.

However, there are companies doing business with the University that have questionable ethics, he said.

“For the sake of consistency, there needs to be something set up at the University to ensure that the companies we do business with do have ethical business practices,” he said.

However, Schwensohn said, he doesn’t want to draw conclusions until after the public forum, which could be in March.

Jerry Rinehart, associate vice provost for Student Affairs, said the president’s office has reviewed the resolution and is preparing a response to it.

“In particular, we are taking seriously the request to look into the questions that have been raised about Coca-Cola,” he said.

Rinehart said he was pleased to see the student association “take the lead” in helping bring these issues to campus and offering a forum where the issue can be debated.

He said that if the allegations were proved, it likely would be a factor in the University’s renegotiation of its contract with Coca-Cola, but that conclusions shouldn’t be drawn too quickly.

Other avenues

In addition to MSA’s call for an investigation into Coca-Cola’s practices abroad, the issue is also being tackled in University Senate, where Student Sen. Kris Houlton is pushing for establishing a vendor code of conduct.

The prospective code of conduct would set guidelines that corporations would likely adhere to in order to vend at the University.

“Right now there’s no mechanism in place for addressing any kind of ethical violation by a corporation.”

The University does have a code of conduct for manufacturers of University-licensed apparel, which Houlton intends to build on.

The University, she said, is a good place to hold corporations accountable.

“There are all these students that are 18 to 22 who are building their lifelong allegiances to certain products ” and that’s a big deal for these corporations,” she said. “We have this great opportunity to impact what they do ethically.”