Natural born cola

I am determinedly anti-social on the bus. A successful journey from the deep south (of Leamington) to campus is defined by adopting an insular slouch and exuding an air of general dilapidation that says, “stay away from me. I don’t want to talk to you”. In this respect, the forty minutes usually pass in therapeutic monotony. During the elections, I trained myself not to explode, enraged at the sight of the three (three!) ‘Vote UKIP’ billboards next to Evolve; similarly I contain my anguish at Army/RAF/Navy recruiting signs on Tachbrook Road. After all, I know where each and every offensive political advertisement is located in the Leamington area. Lack of mental preparation, however, often ends badly: BNP literature that is shoved through my door is usually burnt in the kitchen sink. The noxious fumes (part incinerated race-hate, part ink and glossy paper) cloak the room with an unfortunate miasma, but it is surely worth it.

Again, and on to the focus of this article, when a Pepsi truck passes on the main road I tend to break my anti-social bus policy. Scoffing loudly, and to those in the immediate vicinity, seemingly at nothing, I jeopardise any appearance of mental stability that I might have been carrying. An explanation is in order.

In a nod to the film Natural Born Killers, Pepsi emblazons the side of its trucks with the slogan ‘Natural Born Cola’. Perhaps it thinks it is being funny; perhaps Pepsi Cola are merely tactless imbeciles of the highest order. It is possibly a jibe at Coca-Cola, who have as bloodstained a history as any multinational, and more so than some countries. As convinced as I am of Pepsi’s idiocy –their own ethical and social responsibility record is not unblemished-, I would be unsurprised if it is a sly dig at their principle competitor.

Coca-Cola is a clever company. Probably the most recognisable brand in the world, it has attained ubiquitous presence. Even your subconscious mind is not safe. As an ex-Coke drinker myself, I still feel predisposed towards ordering one when it is before noon –and thus before acceptable drinking hours. Brand recognition is invasive. Its foray into sports sponsorship, and environmental concerns –partnerships with the WWF, and more locally, Warwick’s new campus recycling scheme- all contribute to the construction of a positive association with the brand. Recycling schemes, especially when backed by such financial muscle, are of course good things, but contextualised, it seems like little more than blatant greenwash.

Come the start of next term, Warwick will have been an officially recognised ‘Fairtrade University’ for five years. In this time, a lot of positive things have been done on behalf of the Fairtrade agenda, some of which I shall document here. Nonetheless, rather than offering a meek synopsis –‘Fairtrade at Warwick: five years on’ etc- I feel it is vital instead to view the situation holistically; keep both the good and the bad in mind. To this end I researched Coke’s record –a stimulating revision displacement tactic in itself- and met with the University, to find out more about their aims and goals for Fairtrade, and their business relationship with Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) – the principle distributor of Coca-Cola products to the US and Europe. My penchant for the ‘Revolution’ being set aside for once, by spreading the horrendous truth about Coke’s ethical record we can build a campaign to (hopefully) pressure them into substantive change, and failing this, kick them from campus.

Students are one of the key demographics for the soft drink giants, and a minor, ethically driven lifestyle change by the individual student (instead of buying fizzy drink ‘x’, buy fizzy drink ‘y’) can have a seismic impact on how Coke treats its workers, and the communities in which it operates. Global capitalism loves to outsource, and by hiding the consequences of our consumer habits thousands of miles away, the hope is that we will simply ignore the suffering we are partly culpable for perpetuating; when we do identify the exploitative relationship for what it is, we will feel so disempowered that we start to believe there is nothing we can do to change the system. This is, of course, a lie.


A number of things brought me to Coke’s door. Mark Thomas’s Belching Out the Devil, a funny and illuminating account of the comedian-cum-political belligerent’s own journey to the core of Coca-Cola’s (mal)practice is one. A second is that in two years at Warwick I have mostly walked the line between political activist and journalist, never fully sticking my neck out for either cause. Arriving at café VIVA on a warm Thursday morning at the end of May, this is something I hoped to change. I had arranged a meeting with Warwick Hospitality, the department in charge of the university’s food and drink purchasing. In other words, whenever you see a Fairtrade product around campus, it is because of the good work of Hospitality. Similarly, Coke’s presence is at their instigation as well. As I looked at the drinks fridge in VIVA the contradiction gazed back. An entire row was laden with ‘One’ water, the poster boy of Warwick’s Fairtrade revolution. Below this stood slightly fewer bottles of original Coke. Our university is rife with these sorts of contradictions. On the one hand, campus is replete with low-carbon schemes, yet at the same time the Warwick Manufacturing Group ‘has long-term relationships’ with arms manufacturers BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce. Indeed, they have rubbed shoulders with the investment banks at our careers fairs for years.

In this narrative, it is difficult to know what role Hospitality plays. As purveyors of both ethical and unethical branded products, there is no casting them as villains or heroes. Perhaps they embody the contradiction at the heart of Warwick’s identity, though I think this would be an unfair assessment. I met with Vicki Boyd, in charge of retail with Warwick Hospitality, to find out more. Over the course of our conversation it became obvious of the direction her department wants to explore. The ‘One’ brand is an advancing feature of campus retail; its new vending machine in the library is the first campus owned (as opposed to leased) ethical vender. While the economic downturn prevents this more costly type of acquisition being repeated, fairtrade products are still put in Nestlé machines. The Coca-Cola owned Vitamin Water range is being removed from the library outlets, in favour of the new ‘One’ flavoured waters. More broadly, local sourcing, environmentally friendly packaging, and upheld workers’ rights remain at the heart of their agenda.

A number of roadblocks exist to furthering what seems like a genuine cornerstone of Warwick’s policy, however. All purchases on a given ‘commodity group’ (e.g. drinks) with a value above £10,000 must go through public sector purchasing. Stocking a university the size of Warwick means few contracts deal with quantities below this. There are two purchasing consortiums Warwick is a member of: the Southern University Consortium, and TUCO. Purchasing contracts (usually three years long) must go through one of these two consortiums, and by extension, their nominated suppliers. CCE is one of these suppliers, through whom Warwick is stocked with Vitamin Water, Oasis, and Coca-Cola. Trying to push a local or ethical agenda is prevented if a nominated supplier cannot provide the product. ‘One’ water was not introduced immediately for this very reason. According to Vicki the original Fairtrade teas stocked on campus in 2004 tasted truly devastating. Thankfully this is no longer the case. Whilst fairtrade products have proliferated and become more diverse, the state of the economy prevents their full inception. Warwick’s supplier of Ubuntu cola recently went to the wall, disrupting the campus supply for a number of weeks. Perhaps the most pressing area for Fairtrade’s expansion is in catering (i.e. large) size products. Rice and chocolate are either unavailable or sold in bitesize portions only.

Whilst this area of Hospitality’s pursuit is laudable, it remains mute on the morality of supplying products made by Coca-Cola, a corporation which colludes with paramilitaries in order to cripple trade unions in Colombia; employs illegal child labour in El Salvador; devastates the water supply in drought prone areas of India, and then has the audacity to sell the toxic sludge it emits as fertilizer for the struggling local agriculture. These claims are not unsubstantiated, and neither are they isolated. So how does it get away with it? By subcontracting production to regional or national bottling franchises, (the only thing Coca-Cola technically produces is the syrup concentrate, mostly made in Ireland) it is able to dissociate itself from the illegality surrounding its products’ production. Coca-Cola’s mockery of corporate responsibility is in evidence closer to home as well. Unionised workers at a syrup producing plant in Drogheda, Ireland were informed an hour before going to press that the plant would be closing and one hundred percent redundancy would be effected. Once the potential for redistributing the labour was dead, it was announced that a new plant –performing a similar function- would be opened, only without a union. This was in 2008. In England, Dasani Water (the precursor to Malvern water, remember it?) was revealed to be no more than bog standard tap water (with added carcinogens!) sourced from Sidcup in Kent. Bottled water, ironically, isn’t subject to the same rigorous scrutiny as tap water, in terms of the pesticides and other evil chemicals that get pumped into it. Coke decided to set the bar for true capitalism by hitting Dasani with a three-thousand percent mark up. Understandably their fraudulence was busted. Nice…

Coke, like all the best corporations with political aspirations, successfully buys off bigger fish than mere local militia. Between 2000-2006, the current Mexican President was president of Coca-Cola in Mexico and Latin America. Following his ascent to the national presidency, Coke got twenty-seven major concessions allowing them to steal and pollute water supplies owned by indigenous peoples, and water from villages with limited supplies. Again, acting with an political impunity usually reserved for states with a large arsenal –or states backed by states with a large arsenal- Coke manages to sell 100,000 bottles a day to Sudan, despite the embargo imposed on it due to its genocidal tendencies.

Whilst Hospitality is certainly stocking fewer Coke products, the rationale is largely economic. As Vicki explained, students like drinking Coke, and as long as the demand exists, so to will the supply. This could be taken pessimistically, but it merely reinforces how as students we have the power to shape local purchasing policy, by changing our own lifestyles. One can only hope that if the truth about Coke is broadcast enough, its products will simply become undrinkable. But in the meantime we should not criticise Warwick’s own policies too much: attempting to remain solvent, meet its students’ demands and expectations, and yet enforce an ethically driven regime is much like walking a tightrope. Just as we can’t expect our national governments to make a genuine effort on climate change without our own personal, political will, neither can we indict our campus for stocking fizzy drinks made with the blood and sweat of downtrodden labour. After all, we are the ones who buy it.


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