College cuts fountain Coke contract but wants to continue dialogue

The college has decided to terminate its fountain Coke contract after the company did not respond adequately to its October 23rd letter demanding an independent investigation of past and present abuses and a commitment to responding appropriately once the investigations were concluded.

Zoe Bridges-Curry ’09, one of the leaders of the Swarthmore Kick Coke campaign, explained that in the company’s response letter, “Coke continued to try and justify why the International Labor Organization investigation was independent… when these are claims that have been refuted numerous times.” Coke also did not agree to an investigation of past abuses, which Bridges-Curry believes “is important to the families of people who have been affected.”

This was the second letter the college had sent Coca-Cola, and according to Vice-President Maurice Eldridge ’61, “they responded pretty quickly, so it’s clear that we have their attention… they offered to have someone come to campus to talk so that we could have a civil dialogue.” He went on to say that “Kick Coke was persuasive that we should go ahead and carry it out, but in such a way as to leave open the opportunity to converse with Coke.” Kick Coke hopes to have a conversation with Coke about the set of criteria they would have to meet in order for Swarthmore to purchase from the company again, and this conversation will probably occur on campus at some point during the spring semester.

Bridges-Curry explained that because “cutting the contract in and of itself does very little,” Kick Coke’s next goal is to “start using the media to put pressure on Coke to change their actions… we can use our institutional prestige to garner media attention.” The group is currently working with the administration on a press release about the decision.

Swarthmore currently purchases its fountain Coke directly from the company in Atlanta as part of a consortium with five other schools, including Haverford and Bryn Mawr. The contract was due to run out at the end of 2007, so by cutting it now, Swarthmore is effectively breaking the contract. According to Eldridge, Swarthmore’s decision “does not effect” the other schools.

That said, the Swarthmore Kick Coke campaign has been in contact with the other TriCo schools. Bryn Mawr just launched their Kick Coke campaign, and Ray Rogers, Director of the “Campaign to Stop Killer Coke,” actually spoke there on November 9th. Haverford is reportedly “thinking about” launching a campaign. Bridges-Curry feels that “this victory will encourage them.”

The college is currently taking bids for the new fountain contract, and Pepsi will almost certainly present the cheapest bid and be selected as the new provider of fountain drinks; when the college cut its bottling contract with the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company last spring, Pepsi was chosen as the new supplier of bottled soft drinks. Bridges-Curry explained that it would be “mutually beneficial” for Bryn Mawr and Haverford to decide to go in with Swarthmore on the new contract, since it would give the colleges “more leverage and more ability to negotiate prices.”

Since the college will probably be purchasing Pepsi instead of Coke next semester, it seems worthwhile to ask whether Pepsi is any better from a human rights standpoint. Coke is being targeted by activists because of alleged labor abuses in Colombia and environmental degradation in India, but Pepsi has the same problems in India as Coke does, and the two companies have actually worked together to fight anti-Coke and anti-Pepsi legislation in India.

However, Coke is the industry leader, and Bridges-Curry explained that “the way this model of corporate accountability works is that you try to target the industry leader and other companies will recognize that they have to fall in line.” Eldridge agreed, saying that “I don’t think anything makes [Pepsi] better… but because Coke has the power position in the industry, they also have the potential to lead the industry… it’s a punishment for their success, but it’s also a recognition of their power.”

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