Early in 2006, Swarthmore College announced that it was removing bottled Coke products served in some of its dining facilities, and calling on the company to allow an independent investigation into allegations of complicity in murders and attacks on union organizers in Colombia and environmental damage in India.
Then, last fall, administrators decided to stop purchasing Coke products altogether, including fountain drinks that had still been allowed. That decision -- which involved cutting their part of a contract with the company -- was based largely on what the college felt was an inadequate response by Coke to letters from Swarthmore officials asking about the alleged human rights violations and progress toward the investigation.
"Coke has been trying to convince schools that they have been corporately responsible," Maurice Eldridge, vice president of Swarthmore, said last week in an interview. "The position of the students -- and the administration went along -- is, 'Let's see what happens with this investigation.' If we are satisfied that this will happen, the question of the contract can be reviewed."
"Kick Coke," a Swarthmore student group that spurred the college's actions, declared victory after the ban and began coming up with the criteria that would have to be met for the college to consider reinstating the contract.
But now, it appears the door is open for a Coke comeback. Swarthmore's Board of Managers is asking the student group to state its case as to why the college should continue its ban. The board's committee on social responsibility is set to take up the issue at its meeting Friday. Eldridge, who is also assistant secretary to the board, said that it's unlikely that the board will take any action then, but that it could eventually reinstate the contract if there is a consensus.
The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore's student newspaper, quoted Jed Rakoff, one board member, as saying that “as far as I am aware, the board as a whole did not learn about the decision to drop the Coke contract until after it had occurred.” He added that "the more that I and other members of the board looked into the issue, the more it seemed to us that many of the charges were unsubstantiated or exaggerated or, at the very least, had been accepted at face value without any attempt being made to make the rigorous inquiry into the underlying evidence that is one of the hallmarks of a Swarthmore education.”
Added Eldridge: "The board's point of view is that any kind of stand that the college takes -- a public stand on a policy and ethical issue -- needs to represent the college in the best way possible."
Ruth Schultz, an organizer of the Kick Coke campaign, said the group would like to do substantial research on the company's violations, but realistically it doesn't have the capacity. "We're not saying Coke has done all of this, but these are serious allegations," Schultz said. "The company needs to pay attention when people say there needs to be an investigation."
Schultz said she is surprised that the board would consider overriding the college's decision.
The anti-Coke movement has gained some traction in recent years, with colleges such as New York University and Smith College banning the company from their campuses. In saying earlier this year that it would not let Coke do any business at the college, Smith ended a longstanding contract with the company. Smith's president, Carol T. Christ, in a letter to Coke, said that “as a private college with a public conscience, Smith College takes issues of human rights and environmental sustainability very seriously.”
Ray Rogers, director of the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, which is helping to coordinate many of the campus efforts, said that at least 45 colleges have kicked Coke off campus and hundreds of others are pushing for similar action. Rogers said Coke has impeded an independent investigation by the United Nations' International Labor Organization.
Coke has strongly denied allegations of human rights violations. The company acknowledges that many of the countries in which it does business do not have the environmental or labor standards of the United States, but the company says that it is a good corporate citizen, and is helping union organizers and environmentalists. Some institutions have taken to this message. Four months after ending business relations with Coke, the University of Michigan announced it would resume buying its products after saying it was "satisfied" with the company's announced plans for third-party investigations.
Jonathan Augat, a recent Swarthmore graduate who started the Facebook group "Don't Kick Coke," said that although he created the site mostly as a comical venture, he feels there are more worthwhile causes for students to be pursuing. "It seemed that replacing Coke with Pepsi really didn't make a difference on the human rights side of things.... It seemed like they were just replacing one bad company with another," he said.
College officials are often hesitant to take part in boycotts. Some say it is not their job to pass judgments on labor relations, and others assert that their mission is to provide students with services in inexpensive and efficient ways.
At Swarthmore, changing to Pepsi is a costly proposition. For instance, the college bought (in bulk) $14,716 in Coke products through its dining services department in the 2005-6 academic year. If it had bought the same amount of Pepsi, it would have cost $40,553, estimates Linda McDougall, director of dining services.
Eldridge said the decision "is only about cost in the sense that if the college is going to be taking stands on things that reflect ethical and social issues, and if sometimes these positions are going to cost money, there needs to be a system in place that we use to consider how we spend money." He added that if the situation were reversed and Pepsi was being banned, the question would be more about principles than cost.
Swarthmore was a part of a consortium of regional colleges that made bulk Coke purchases, and if the college decides to allow the company access to campus again, it could get back into that group, Eldridge said.