Correction appended: An editorial in Wednesday’s edition of the Daily (Drink Faygo instead) incorrectly stated that The Coca-Cola Company sent the University a letter agreeing to a third-party audit of its labor practices. The University has yet to deterimine whether or not the letter provides consent for such an inquiry.
Signaling its disdain for the University’s investigation into its human rights abuses, The Coca-Cola Company submitted its agreement to an independent audit late last Friday – mere hours before a deadline the University’s Dispute Review Board set in June. The DRB erred in allowing Coca-Cola more than a year to reform its practices after finding it in violation of the ethical standards set forth in the Code of Conduct for University Vendors. The University should cut its ties with Coca-Cola immediately to send a message to Coke and other corporations that vendors who ignore the code can expect to have their contracts terminated.
In May, the University’s Dispute Review Board validated two allegations of human rights and environmental abuse against Coca-Cola concerning reports of pesticides found in Coca-Cola products in India and of labor abuses in Colombia. Unfortunately, the DRB allowed Coke to delay accountability for its actions by being far too lenient with the company in its June recommendation.
Far from advising the University to cut its contracts with Coca-Cola, the DRB recommended renewing the contracts provisionally and presented a timeline for an independent audit process. According to that timeline, the University and Coke do not have to agree on an auditor until Dec. 31. And the timeline does not require Coke to enact a “corrective action plan” to address its human rights abuses until May 31 – more than a year after the DRB found that there was credible evidence that Coca-Cola was responsible for human rights and environmental abuses.
It is especially troubling that the company appears to be delaying its compliance with the University’s timeline as much as possible. Rather than acting proactively to clear its name, Coke has deliberately stalled any progress in the matter for as long as possible while it continues to do business with the University. It has not been punished for its past offenses, and it has not taken any action to prevent future abuses.
The timeline’s rate of progress is too slow. The University’s associate vice president for finance and Chief Financial Officer – who together will recommend a course of action to University President Mary Sue Coleman – can atone for the DRB’s flawed recommendation by suggesting the termination of the University’s contract with Coke. If the University’s Vendor Code of Conduct is to have teeth, the University should sever business relations with any company it has found to be in violation of the code.
This is not to say the University should never do business with Coca-Cola again. Should Coca-Cola show that it has addressed its ethical lapses, the University should feel free to reward it with a renewed contract. And even if the University stays on its current course and fails to cut its contract, the results of an independent audit may – eventually – shine light on Coke’s practices and shame the corporation into reform.
This situation also affords the University a great opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to upholding human and labor rights. Last week, Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality protested the University’s failure to meaningfully enforce its rules against contracting with companies that use sweatshop labor to produce University apparel. Meanwhile, the Lecturers’ Employee Organization has had trouble getting the University to follow the portions of its contract regarding the proper classification – and pay – of lecturers.
This disturbing trend of unfulfilled promises about labor standards need not continue any longer. Each day the University continues to do business with Coke, it condones the actions of a vendor it has found to be in violation of the ethical standards in the Vendor Code of Conduct. The University is an institution that claims to value its credibility and integrity. The immediate termination of its contract with Coca-Cola would be a meaningful way to provide concrete support for such values.