By Thana Dharmarajah | Guelph Mercury | March 30, 2007
Guelph university students have voted to boot Coca-Cola off campus.
The University of Guelph's contract with Coca-Cola expires in August and students want to push for a different soft-drink supplier. In a referendum during student elections last week, nearly 65 per cent of the 4,780 students who voted said they want an alternative supplier.
Alleging human rights abuses in Colombia and environmental devastation in India by Coke, members of Students Against Sweatshops want the university not to renew its contract to have the company be the exclusive seller of carbonated drinks in food-service outlets.
Coke products include Sprite, Minute Maid, Dr. Pepper, Barq's, Canada Dry and Crush.
"This has been on students' agenda for a long time and the university's response has always been 'There's nothing we can do, we're in a contract,' " said Becky Wallace, a student association member.
The 10-year contract between Coke and the University of Guelph stipulates Coke is the sole, exclusive supplier of carbonated beverages in vending machines and food-service outlets. It also doesn't permit advertising any other beverage within 20 feet of where Coke is sold.
Nancy Sullivan, the university's vice-president of finance and administration, said the company doesn't have a monopoly across campus. That means campus bars can offer Pepsi, and food service outlets can offer juices and waters from companies other than Coke.
Coke offered the best price when the university signed on 10 years ago, Sullivan said, but the university has put out a request for proposals and will consider all suppliers that come forward.
David Boeckner, executive director of hospitality services, declined to reveal the monetary terms of the agreement signed with Coke.
Meanwhile, Wallace said students want a contract with a smaller, local supplier.
"A lot of students don't want to buy Coke for ethical reasons," she said. "They don't feel comfortable purchasing it but you walk into any cafeteria, you don't have a choice."
Students Against Sweatshops alleges Coca-Cola is connected to the murder of union leaders at Coke's bottling plants in Colombia and Coke's factories in India caused severe water shortages for rural communities.
David Moran, Coca-Cola's director of communications in Toronto, said judicial inquiries by the Colombian government cleared the company.
The company also provides workers with cellphones and arranges transportation to and from work if they feel threatened, Moran said. An independent investigation by the International Labour Organization is still ongoing, he added.
In India, one state's high court determined the water shortage was caused by lack of rain, Moran said, adding the company is taking steps to reduce water use and undertook an independent review to determine Coke's impact.
Moran said students should look at the independent investigations the company has sought.
"They've really got to investigate the facts and not overreact to allegations that've proven to be false."
Coke plans to put forward a bid to the university again, Moran said, adding the company has to do a better job educating students about its practices.
Meanwhile, Lisa Baumander, a student at the university and a member of Students Against Sweatshops, said they have asked other suppliers such as Beverage World to put forward a bid.
Sullivan said the result of a referendum isn't binding.
"We'll certainly be aware that there was some expression on the part of students that they don't prefer Coca-Cola but . . . the allegations have not been proven," she said.
Students also voted 66 per cent in favour of selling exclusively fair trade coffee on campus, even if it means paying 10 cents more for a cup.
However, Boeckner said fair trade coffee is already available on campus, but it only accounts for about two per cent of sales. With the lack of demand, he doesn't see the university making that move.
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