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Convinced of abuses, Smith College severs ties with Coca-Cola

Daily Hampshire Gazette
June 1, 2007

NORTHAMPTON - Smith College's 50-year relationship with Coca-Cola has fizzled out. Fed up with Coca-Cola's alleged worldwide environmental and human rights violations, Smith College officials this week ended their $100,000-a-year vending and dining hall contracts with the world's largest soft-drink beverage company.

In a May 25 open letter to Coca-Cola's issues management director, Diana Garza, Smith College president Carol T. Christ wrote that the college's Soft Drink Advisory Committee, a group of Smith faculty, staff and students, has asked the company not to participate in the upcoming bidding process.

Smith's seven-year contract with Coca-Cola is set to expire Aug. 31.

'As a private college with a public conscience, Smith College takes issues of human rights and environmental sustainability very seriously,' Christ wrote.

'In severing our ties with the Coca-Cola Corporation, Smith joins other institutions and organizations around the world in urging Coca-Cola to take significant steps toward more responsible business practices across all realms of its operations,' the letter states.

After a two-year study into Coca-Cola's alleged environmental and labor rights violations, Smith joins 40 colleges and universities nationwide that have barred Coca-Cola from campus. The list of colleges banning Coke includes Hampshire College (which booted Coke in 2006), Simons Rock College in Great Barrington, New York University and Rutgers University.

In the letter, Christ cites poor business practices in Colombia and India as reasons why the college has decided not to renew Coca-Cola's contract.

In a standing statement on Coca-Cola's corporate Web site,, the beverage giant dismissed boycotts of its products as inappropriate and detrimental to local economies.

'Given the local nature and purposes of the Coca-Cola business, we believe that calls for boycotts of our products are not the appropriate way to further any cause, as they primarily hurt the local economy, local businesses and local citizens,' the company statement said.

Coca-Cola is accused of causing severe water shortages in the communities surrounding its bottling plants in India and used brutal violence and murder to quell labor complaints and union uprisings in its Colombian bottling plants. In its Web site statement, Coca-Cola denies any wrongdoing, but Smith College has chosen instead to take the word of media and human rights reports over the corporation's claims.

The Soft Drink Advisory Committee 'looked at the prevailing concerns over the corporation, their environmental practices in India and their labor practices in Colombia, and we decided that what's being said about Coke is right and true,' said Kristen A. Cole, media relations director at Smith.

An independent study performed by the BBC in 2003 discovered that Coca-Cola was distributing fertilizer containing dangerous levels of lead and cadmium to local farmers in Kerala, India. Coke officials in India downplayed any risk of toxic contaminants to farmers. Coke dismissed these claims as 'groundless,' in a standing statement.

Meanwhile, union organizers and employees at the company's Colombia plants have been brutally murdered, according to the Web site The Web site claims that employee Isidro Segundo Gil was assassinated at the company's Carepa bottling plant. Gil's alleged murder has been the subject of a 2001 lawsuit claiming that Coca-Cola has tortured, kidnapped and threatened union leaders.

In 2005, an independent assessment of bottling plants in Colombia by Cal Safety Compliance Corporation (CSCC) found that workers in Coca-Cola plants 'enjoy freedom of association, collective bargaining rights, and a work atmosphere free of anti-union intimidation,' according to the Coke Web site. Only 4 percent of Coca-Cola's Colombian employees belong to unions, the site states.

Smith College initially began talks with Coca-Cola two years ago, when Christ said it 'conveyed (its) emerging unease' to Coca-Cola President Donald Knauss, urging him to address union woes and environmental degradation. The 2005 Smith-Coke talks were part of a larger anti-Coke movement on the Smith campus. Due to student complaints about the beverage giant, the college established the Soft Drink Advisory Committee.

'Social responsibility is a core value of the college, one we aspire to reflect in our educational mission and in our campus operations,' Christ wrote in her letter.

In addition to booting Coke, Smith has leveraged its finances to encourage political and social changes several times since the 1980s. This year, Smith trustees voted to divest its endowment from the Sudanese government in protest over the Darfur conflict. The college has also banned investment in the South African government, tobacco companies and Canadian oil company Talisman Energy Inc., which had ties to the Sudanese government in the 1980s. The South Africa and Talisman bans were lifted after the two parties ended practices Smith found objectionable, Cole said.

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