Student activists seeking to cut the University’s ties to the Coca-Cola Company got an unlikely gift over the holidays. The University chose to suspend its contracts with Coke after the corporation said it would be unable to meet a Dec. 31 deadline for choosing an independent auditor to evaluate charges against it of labor and environmental violations.

Sarah Royce

The Dispute Review Board, a panel of faculty, staff and students charged with upholding the University’s ethical standards for doing business, found last summer after holding public hearings that there was “credible evidence” to support claims of environmental contamination in India and labor abuses in Colombia. To the dismay of many activists, the DRB then advised that the University continue doing business with Coke pending an investigation.

Even after Coke missed the first deadline the DRB set – for agreeing to a third-party audit – at the end of September, the University held that Coke was at least making a “good-faith” effort. It appeared the University was dead-set on continuing its business with Coca-Cola, delighting many a Coke addict too lazy to walk all the way from the Angell Hall vending machines to the Diag Party Store for a fix.

Coke missed the most recent deadline mainly due to some legal complications: It’s already facing a lawsuit over its bottlers’ practices, you see, and it would really hate for any new information an investigation uncovers to be admissible in that case.

Good faith, indeed.

To be fair, it’s not as if Coke keeps a secret strike force on alert at its Atlanta headquarters, ready to fly anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice to kill workers who so much as think about forming a union. But if Coke’s spokespeople are really telling the truth when they say the claims of human rights violations are baseless, it’s difficult to see what the company has to fear from an investigation.

While the Coalition to Cut the Contract with Coca-Cola has been responsible for some of the most vocal activism on campus recently, it has failed to connect with many students. Isn’t every other multinational corporation just as bad? Why should the University do ethical check-ups on companies anyway? And what sort of person with the money to pay tuition here drinks Faygo?

Some critiques of the Coke campaign are merely based in ideology. Others point out the idealistic – perhaps unrealistic – hopes of activists. All of the criticism, however, gives short shrift to the role that activism of this sort plays as one of the few viable checks left on corporate behavior.

Globalization has allowed corporations to invest in countries that previously had little access to the opportunities that international trade can provide. It also enables companies to sever their ties to a particular country and its workers as soon as unions there raise wages or the government passes a law more favorable to actual citizens than corporate citizens, effectively shutting down the two traditional forces able to put brakes on unethical corporate practices. The headquarters of these firms can now disperse responsibility for a company’s actions far down its global supply chains, making it more difficult to hold anyone accountable for any abuses, anywhere.

By exposing unethical practices of corporations like Coca-Cola, even in far-flung lands, activists create what the free market cannot on its own – an incentive for these companies to reform. The students fighting the Coke campaign are in some sense the intellectual heirs of the muckracking journalists of a bygone era. More than the lost business, the negative exposure Coke is receiving from actions by this and other universities is forcing it to take seriously issues that it might otherwise simply ignore. To a lesser degree, other corporations have to modify their own behavior, if only to avoid becoming the next example.

It’s not a perfect solution. But it makes unique use of the environment at the University to push for change in situations where individual students who conscientiously choose not to drink Coke would otherwise have no real voice.

As an institution, the University acts in support of the values it holds. Its admissions policy reflects its belief that the student body should represent the diversity of the state and the nation. It stands for making an education at the University available to all in-state students who are admitted, and tailors its financial aid policies accordingly. And the University has made a commitment to ethical purchases, as shown by its Vendor Code of Conduct.

There can – and should – be continual debate over the values that guide the University’s actions. And there’s a very good chance the University’s ban on Coke will only last until administrators work out an agreement with Coke regarding an investigation, despite what many activists wish. For now, however, the concerted efforts of a group of students have not only affected University policy in a very visible way, but have started a real dialogue about corporate responsibility. That might not show up in a grade-point average, but it’s part of what higher education is about.

 

Zbrozek can be reached at zbro@umich.edu.

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