The Coca-Cola Company has put on a happy face for the North American public by pledging to help protect the iconic polar bear while, at the same time, continuing to be one of the worst environmentally destructive corporations in the underdeveloped world.
Pointing out on its website that the rapid loss of sea ice in the Arctic threatens the future of the polar bear, Coke says it is extending its financial support for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) with $2-million over five years toward conservation efforts.
In addition, Coke will match up to $1 million USD of consumer donations in Canada and the US made until March 15, 2012.
At the same time, the company is spending millions on TV advertising and has even changed the appearance of its Coke cans by displaying polar bears on them so it can get a big boost in sales for being such a great corporate citizen. Since advertising is a business expense, the cost of the ads is a tax deduction for Coke, and the company will receive an additional tax break–for its contribution to the WWF–both courtesy of the Canadian public.
There is no denying that the polar bear project is very important, and was warmly welcomed by The Thompson Citizen.
However, this project raises two important questions:
Should Coke be allowed to get away with the hypocrisy of exploiting an emotional campaign to help save polar bears while, at the same time, depleting water resources, exploiting workers in developing countries, and telling us that it is “fun” to drink its sugar-laden products? Secondly, should the World Wildlife Fund Canada be taking money from a corporation that destroys the environment and wildlife in other parts of the world?
KillerCoke website tracks violations
Coke–which sells 1.7-billion drinks a day–has been listed among the world’s 10 worst corporations more than once.
The company is so strongly hated in several underdeveloped countries that a worldwide network of volunteers opposes its abusive activities. A supporter in New York, Ray Rogers, launched the website: KillerCoke to track a number of disputes involving Coke.
While Coke cannot get away with serious rights violations in Canada, The Council of Canadians is lobbying for an end to the sale of bottled water because they believe it is unsafe and because Coke and Nestlé are using huge quantities of municipal water and groundwater.
While Coke is demonstrating its social conscience while helping to save the polar bear in North America it continues its sinister activities in underdeveloped countries.
In India, Coke is accused of many serious rights violations, including the destruction of the environment and local agriculture by privatizing scarce water resources, severe pollution of the groundwater and land around its bottling plants, and having high levels of pesticides in some of its products.
In Kerala, India, for instance, nearly a decade ago, Coke’s Plachimada plant severely depleted the groundwater affecting thousands of communities and destroying their agriculture. That very same water was then bottled and sold back to these communities under the names Dasani and BonAqua. On December 17, 2011, 22 former plant workers occupied the now-vacant plant demanding that the foot-dragging regional government pass a bill to compensate them for the serious damage done to their lives at least seven years earlier.
In Latin America, union groups are still trying to fight their way through the U.S. court system in cases against Coke for proper compensation. They claim that starting as long ago as the 1970s in Guatemala and later in Colombia, paramilitaries paid for by Coke were responsible for anti-union tactics including murder, torture, kidnapping and detention. The Guatemalan lawsuit was filed in 2010.
The case concerning Colombia drags on, with Coke and the U.S. courts likely hoping that all the complainants will be dead before a decision is reached. Meanwhile, Coke-related companies have pretty well gotten rid of the union threat in Colombia by getting rid of full-time employees and hiring casual workers. Five years ago, Bloomberg Businessweek investigated the charges against Coke.
Other countries where Coca-Cola is accused of various violations include Turkey, China, Mexico, El Salvador, and the Philippines.
WWF faces criticism for corporate dealings
WWF Canada – which has been funded in part by Coke in recent years – and WWF International are both criticized for accepting corporate donations. Some people say non-governmental groups should not accept money from corporations that have questionable social and environmental responsibility records. Others, because they believe corporations are anti-social and anti-citizen because of their very nature, say that no corporate money what-so-ever should be accepted.
Of WWF Canada’s 24 corporate donors listed on its website, at least five of them could easily be rights violators or responsible for environmental damage as part of their business practices. Sometimes immoral corporations make donations to a high-profile charity to try to compensate for, or “greenwash”, their bad image. In this regard, Coca-Cola is one of the most cunning and manipulative corporations in the world.
Monte Hummel, who pioneered the practice of appointing business people to the Board of WWF Canada, tells the International Institute for Sustainable Development: “Show me a single decision that has ever been improperly influenced by a relationship with a corporate donor.”
Well Monte and I do not live in the same world. I was involved with a prominent Canadian NGO for some 20 years and, as soon as the group started soliciting corporate donations and started putting on fundraising dinners paid for largely by corporations, conservative types were added to the Board and the organization’s activities became more conservative.
In the case of WWF’s work, both in Canada and internationally, from what I have observed, their campaigning never names corporations as being responsible for damage to wildlife or the environment. International WWF works on water issues in India, but a search turned up no references to the destruction caused by Coke.
Corporations have too much influence
While WWF’s view is that NGOs have to collaborate with powerful companies if they are serious about changing them, critics say that WWF International is being influenced too much by its relationships with corporations.
Ben Schiller, a British freelance journalist specializing in environmental issues, wrote a 3,500-word essay on the website of the Ethical Corporation in November 2011, painting a damning picture of how large corporations are exploiting their relationships with WWF International, often “greenwashing” their image.
The article describes serious weaknesses in two programs through which WWF International is supposedly convincing giant corporations to be more eco-friendly and responsible: its 30-country timber harvesting program and its 526-member Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) project.
While WWF International officials argue their case strongly in the article, the comments of critics are more believable. “Conservation groups such as WWF have been co-opted by companies that have worked out that a “soft-power” approach is more effective than being in conflict with NGOs,” Christine MacDonald, the author of Green, Inc. says in the article. Her book is an examination of the work of large U.S. conservation NGOs.
“If you look at these relationships over a decade or two, it’s not at all difficult to see who is getting the better end of the deal. You see time and again that the corporations are.”
Don’t boycott WWF Canada, yet. WWF Canada performs valuable work through its many projects, operated from seven offices located across the country. My personal disclosure is that a friend purchased one of their polar bear support memberships for me as a gift, and I value it greatly.
Even so, I think that WWF Canada should abandon its corporate funding and support program. A look at the organization’s 2011 financial report shows that, from overall revenues of $22,800,000 only $3,700,000 came from the corporate sector, which amounts to a small portion of its total budget relative to the cost of loosing its integrity.
If the WWF wanted to do so, it could quite easily get rid of its corporate funding program. I am sure that thousands of Canadians would be willing to send increased donations to see powerful and self-serving corporations pushed to the side. For now, anyone supporting WWF Canada should send along a note asking them to abandon the corporate program. If they’re still taking corporate money by the beginning of 2013, people should give to another organization.
In the long term WWF Canada has a responsibility to be a good “corporate citizen” itself. It doesn’t make sense for the WWF to take funds from a corporation to do good works in Canada while the same company is raping the environment and busting unions in other areas. Neither does it solve the overall global environment catastrophe. The point is not to just save the polar bear, but to save all species.
Footnote: If you would like to boycott Coke products, here is the list of the company’s 3,500 drinks sold around the world.
Originally published on Nick Fillmore’s blog.