Two days after the University received a report investigating the Coca-Cola Company for allegations of environmental violations in India, University officials reaffirmed their plans to continue contracts with the soft drink giant.
Only nine people attended a meeting yesterday where University officials explained their decision to continue the contracts, which total about $1.2 million annually.
“In April 2006, we resumed buying under those contracts and we will continue buying as needed,” said Peggy Norgren, the University’s associate vice president for finance. Norgren and Andy Hoffman, a professor in the Ross School of Business who studies environmental sustainability, represented the University during the meeting.
The report found that several of Coke’s plants have contributed to water scarcity in the region but found no truth to allegations that water used by the plant contained high levels of pesticide.
The India report, released by an independent research organization called The Energy and Resources Institute, represents one half of the University’s dispute with Coke. The University requested a second investigation into the company’s labor practices in Colombia after student activists pushed the University to cut its contracts with the company.
The Colombia investigation, which is being conducted by the United Nations’ International Labour Organization, has not been completed.
Members of the Campaign to Cut Contracts with Coca-Cola, the student coalition that originally lobbied the University, rejected the report, which they claim was conducted by an “ally” of the Coca-Cola Company in India.
“I’m not surprised the University accepted the assessment, but we don’t accept the assessment,” said Clara Hardie, an RC alum, who now serves as an adviser to the campaign.
Hardie said TERI is not a valid independent assessor because Coke has been listed as one of the group’s corporate sponsors.
Coke came under fire in 2004 for allegedly committing labor abuses in Colombia and engaging in environmentally destructive production practices in India. After the University established the Vendor Code of Conduct in 2004, Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality brought four complaints against the Coca-Cola Company before the University’s Dispute Review Board. The board eventually ruled that reports of pesticide content in Coke products warranted further investigation. The University suspended its contracts with Coke for four months in early 2006 as a result of the controversy.
Hoffman said the report’s release ended the University’s role in the India investigation.
“That process has effectively ended,” Hoffman said at the meeting. Hoffman conceded that the report has raised other problems referring to the findings that Coke is contributing water scarcity.
University alum Amit Srivastava, who now coordinates the San Francisco-based India Resource Center, which supports anti-globalization efforts, called the report “a scathing indictment of Coca-Cola’s operations in India.”
“It seems to me that the report concludes quite incontrovertibly that Coke is in violation of the Vendor Code of Conduct,” said Sayan Bhattacharyya, a Rackham Graduate School student and a member of the anti-Coke campaign, at the meeting.
During the meeting, Bhattacharyya and other students demanded that the University suspend purchasing on these grounds.
Hoffman told group members that the University had already looked into their concerns
“This is a statement that you have been listened to,” Hoffman said, thumping the 500-page report on his lap with his hand. “What’s the role for the University to play here? Is it to adjudicate and punish, or to affect real change?”
“This report is broader than the University, but it probably wouldn’t have happened if not for the University of Michigan,” Norgren said.
She cited Coke’s decision to produce annual environmental assessments for its plants as another sign that the company is acting in good faith.
Judith Walls, a post-doctoral fellow in the School of Natural Resources and Environment who studies corporate environmental strategy, said she agreed that the Coca-Cola Company has shown significant progress on that front.
“In the past they were very resistant,” Walls said, “It’s only recently that they’ve begun working on that.”