Better than boycott?

Chances are good that if you’re drinking it and it’s non-alcoholic, the Coca-Cola Company had something to do with it.

The company, which has been around for 120 years, is one of the world’s most recognizable brands, and the second-most consumed product in the world, after Marlboro cigarettes, according to research by Philip Morris. The company does $4 trillion in sales on 400 product lines in some 200 countries.

The Coca-Cola Company has succeeded in business in part by diversifying to stay current with a changing beverage market. They have a comprehensive beverage line that includes soft drinks, sports drinks, tea and coffee, health and juice drinks, mineral and bottled water, and juices (including Minute Maid and Hi-C). At one time they owned Columbia Pictures. They currently have an exclusive contract to provide beverages to Subway franchises as well as numerous high schools and universities across the country.

Which is, really, part of the problem with Coke on the PSU campus.

Over the past half decade, Coke has come under fire for allegations of human rights abuses. A number of universities in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. have agreed to boycott Coke after allegations were brought against the company by the Colombian food industry union SINALTRAINAL. Coca-Cola and its bottlers in Colombia were accused of either turning a blind eye toward or hiring paramilitaries who harassed, tortured, kidnapped and murdered trade union members and laborers who wished to join or organize labor unions. SINALTRAINAL filed a 2001 lawsuit against the company with help from U.S.-based unions. In 2003, District Judge Jose Martinez of Miami dismissed the Coca-Cola Corporation and its Colombian subsidiary from the lawsuit. The lawsuit was continued against the local bottlers Panamco and Bebidas y Alimentos.

What this means is that, in the eyes of the law, the Coca-Cola Corporation and its Colombian subsidiary did not have direct, explicit control over their bottling partners to the extent necessary to either approve of or stop the union-busting paramilitary violence.

On the one hand: Coke-sponsored web site has sections under the heading “Corporate Citizenship” for Colombia and India, listing its main bottling partner in Colombia as FEMSA (no mention of Panamco or Bebidas y Alimentos), and shows a comprehensive package of union benefits, including paid leaves, housing loans, home transportation, and plant transfers to all unionized employees.

On the other hand: activist-sponsored web site has a list of “Killer Coke’s Casualties,” union leaders at Coca-Cola bottling plants who were allegedly killed by paramilitaries. The list shows eight names over an approximate 10-year period, and goes on to say that “hundreds of other Coke workers have been tortured, kidnapped and/or illegally detained by paramilitaries, often working closely with plant management.”

Coke has an interesting business.

The PSU boycott of Coke products has been on campus for at least four years. Student leaders from a number of organizations including the Progressive Student Union, College Democrats and ASPSU have been involved in advocating for the banning of the sale of Coke products on campus. PSU’s current food service contract with Sodhexo provides only Pepsi products, but University Market still sells Odwalla – and it is unknown whether or not Sodhexo’s Pepsi contract was a deciding factor, or even considered, in their bid for the PSU contract.

Let’s pause for a little lesson from the business school. Corporations exist as legal entities specifically designed in their charters, the very DNA of their legal persons, to make a profit for their shareholders. Nowhere in their charters are they expected or asked to be socially responsible, to treat human persons (as opposed to corporate persons) humanely, or to engender high labor costs for themselves by improving working wages and conditions for the employees of their foreign subsidiaries’ bottling partners. So, based strictly on what corporations are designed to do, one can hardly blame them for executing horrible human rights violations in the interest of cutting costs and increasing gross profit margins. That, after all, is what increases values for the shareholders.

But wait – shareholders may also value human rights; the value they place on the stock of a given company may also be increased by that company’s spotless human rights record, its staunch advocacy of livable wages and humane working conditions, and its commitment to corporate giving and increasing the sustainability of its operations. In this way, it makes sense for Coke to take every opportunity to do right by its employees, and the employees of its subsidiaries, and to refrain from partnering with bottlers who will engage in violent union-busting activities – not because these activities are inherently, morally right but because they are conducive to a strong public image, good corporate reputation, and high stock price, or continued value to the stockholders. What is morally right in the corporate world is that which is conducive to increasing value.

Sometimes, this corporate right corresponds with the less profit-motivated rights-and-duties-based morality of the non-corporate world. Sometimes, it doesn’t.

Based on the above information, it should be clear that a boycott is not the way to reach a multinational mega-company like Coke, but influencing public opinion is. There is much talk of “voting with your dollar” but, in fact, the financial impact of the combined U.S., U.K. and Canadian boycott of Coke has been negligible. The ancillary publicity generated by the boycott has been more effective from a public relations standpoint.

The take-home lesson is: next time you want to influence a huge corporation, skip the boycott and write a letter to the editor.