Coke and Pepsi are major players in the transnational
capitalist empire. Together, Coke and Pepsi are larger
than the combined GDP of 40% of the world’s poorest
countries (Coke alone is worth more than the GDP of all
but 44 of the world’s largest countries) and are
focused on consolidating their power and income. Coke,
Pepsi and Cadbury-Schweppes together account for over
90% of the worldwide soda market. Call them Big Soda.
Not much different from Big Tobacco, Big Soda sells a
product that is hazardous to health, especially for the
children it specifically targets; not much different from
Big Oil, profits are largely based and derived from the
exploitation of a natural resource (water in this case);
not much different from Big Oil it employs state and extra-state
violence in order to maintain its monopolies; and not
much different from Big Tobacco, it is faced with the
prospect of dwindling demand for its core products, at
least in the United States and Western Europe.
There is so much to say about Coca-Cola’s actions
as a corporate entity - from the murder of union activists
in Colombia (4,000 have been killed by paramilitaries
in the last two decades ) to the destruction of watersheds
in India and the terrorizing of villagers in Mehdiganj
by Police acting in Coke’s interests - that only
a partial list of the allegations against Coke can be
mentioned here. This list must include Coke’s role
in the rise of obesity, particularly childhood obesity,
diabetes, and the sale of pesticide laden products in
India . Indeed so much has been written on these subjects
The Case Against Coke, The Nation - http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060501/blanding)
that it would be largely redundant to repeat or paraphrase
that excellent journalism here. 
As major players in the global capitalist project, Coke’s
(and Pepsi’s) activities have not gone unnoticed.
In fact, they have spawned numerous local and international
rebellions and fightbacks. In part, our purpose in this
issue is to support these fightbacks and to provide coverage
and updates of these (sometimes extraordinary) battles.
This issue of Ghadar covers highlights and updates from
the battlelines from many of the various fronts where
we are fighting Coke. In our editorial, though, we want
to take a step back from these tactical battles to a strategic
overview of the war. In particular, we will place Coke
and the global anti-coke struggles in a historical perspective,
and examine where Coke is today in its evolution and where
it is headed.
As conscientious consumers and citizens we are battling
Coke in all the ways currently obvious and open to us
– campaigns against their labour records, campaigns
against their contents and, in certain very limited cases,
campaigns against their market practices. It is imperative
that these issues get addressed but it is equally important
to understand that ultimately a Coke that was not engaged
in the extra-judicial killings of union activists and
selling toxic ‘soft’ drinks would still be
a problematic organization.
The sheer power and size of the Coke empire and the entirely
unremarkable yet eerily insidious deception it practices
on consumers as a matter of course need careful examination
and raise obvious questions. How does a company the size
of Coca-cola react when its core business is threatened?
Does it allow itself to be regulated? How does it think
about its business interests, its long-term survival and
its short term profit maximization? And, ultimately, is
there a need for a broader anti-Coke campaign informed
by a more nuanced understanding of where Coke is today
in its evolution and where it is headed?
Coke, as a publicly traded organization is primarily
concerned with the maximization of shareholder value,
which in today’s public markets is governed by growth
“Our goal is to use our Company’s assets
– our brands, financial strength, unrivalled distribution
system, and the strong commitment of management and employees
– to become more competitive and to accelerate growth
in a manner that creates value for our shareowners”
(Annual Report on SEC Form 10-K, The Coca-Cola Company,
2005, Page 1)
Today, Coke (and, to a lesser extent, Pepsi) has three
1) Decline in the consumption of base carbonated beverages
due to health and wellness concerns
Coke generated revenues of $23 Billion for the year 2005,
73% of it from outside the United States. Of this z% of
the revenue and p% of the growth was from carbonated soft
drinks (CSD’s) which is a declining market in the
United States due to increased concerns regarding sugar
in particular and health and wellness in general .
#1 Risk Factor: “Obesity concerns may reduce demand
for some of our products.” (Annual Report on SEC
Form 10-K, The Coca-Cola Company, 2005, Page 12)
Famously, CSD’s form the vast majority of the Coke
empire and are a core part of the business. However, the
writing is on the wall for CSD’s in the same way
as it is and has been for the fast food industry in general,
and the message is clear: adapt or become irrelevant.
In this case ‘adaptation’ means preserving
the (obesity-inducing) primary source of revenue, while
adopting a “concerned parent” approach towards
your core consumers. This involves gently admonishing
them for giving you too much love, while coaxing them
to add more healthy offerings to their daily diet. For
Coke, this takes the form of ‘Informed Choice’,
and ‘Commitment to Wellness’ sections on their
website - as if the entire problem lies with the consumers
and their proclivity for making unhealthy choices and/or
the essential unhealthiness that’s somehow genetically
encoded into our genes, rather than the addictive caffeine-laced
sugar water that we’re fed since moment we’re
born. It’s in the same vein as tobacco companies
putting warning labels on their products and producing
anti-smoking ads – and other kinds of corporate
‘greenwashing’ in the face of damning evidence.
The problem for Coke (and Pepsi) is the inevitable decline
of their base business, forcing them to diversify –
CSD consumption declined in the United States by 1% last
year, following almost a decade of low-to-no growth .
Both companies are looking to alternative brands and categories
to drive their growth. In its most recent quarter, Pepsico
reported a 1% decline in CSD sales but a 23% increase
in sales of non-carbonated beverages . Campaigns for divestment
or for corporate responsibility have to educate consumers
and campaigners to look beyond the base brands into the
corporate umbrella… and be prepared to be surprised
by what they will find hiding there.
More on this later.
2) Corporate responsibility campaigns that are attacking
their core franchises
This is the thrust of most anti-Coke campaigns raging
today and it is a sure sign of their success that Coke
is on the defensive. Many victories have been won by comrades
worldwide, and the following is only a partial list of
some of the most well-known ones:
- Coke has been banned from numerous universities in the
United States including the University of Michigan and
the country’s largest private university, NYU.
- On September 25, 2004, the Punjab Labour Court in Pakistan
ruled against Coke’s union busting efforts at a
Rahimyar Khan Coke bottler, ordering the reinstatement
of Coca-Cola Workers’ Union president Khalid Pervaiz
following a three year legal battle by the union. Pervaiz
had previously been terminated under trumped up charges
of trying to carry out an ‘illegal’ strike.
The same charges were also used against two other union
members also subsequently reinstated to their prior positions
by the Labour Courts.
- Coke has been banned from the parliament cafeteria in
India, along with hundreds of colleges, universities and
other government bodies across India.
- The high-court of Kerala has ruled that Coke has no
right to mine ground water and that this right cannot
be conferred by the government which is a trustee of this
resource owned in fact by the local community.
- On August 8th, Coke was compelled to run full page ads
in multiple major Indian newspapers in response to the
Gujarat government’s decision to request state-run
colleges and schools not to allow sales of Coke and Pepsi
soft drinks on their premises, and the Supreme Court of
India’s demand that they disclose the ingrediants
in their drinks.
- On August 9th, Kerala’s cabinet met and approved
a ban on the production and sale of Coke and Pepsi drinks
due to heightened pesticide levels in the products
Clearly, there are many factors causing Coke and Pepsi’s
CEOs to stay up at night and feeding directly into the
need for them to diversify their revenue base. What is
curious is how symbiotic this thrust for diversification
is with the constant (and cultivated) desire of consumers
3) The constant need for choice – the dubious politics
of distinction and distinctiveness, and the constant ‘rebirth
In Nation of Rebels, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter present
a compelling analysis of counterculture and its essential
and necessary role in the cultivation and sustenance of
consumer culture. In essence, they argue that today’s
counterculture is tomorrow’s consumer culture not
by some form of subversive systemic cooptation by the
establishment, but by design. The very nature of counterculture,
its creation of difference, its obsessive need to define
itself in variation if not opposition to current mass
culture is what creates the constant and unending ability
for constant and unending consumerism. Even as the latest
Che t-shirt becomes available to the Iowan masses at their
local Wal-Marts, counterculture has already spurned that
symbol and moved on to Marcos / Fidel / Chavez, which
gives Wal-Mart something to sell next season.
The countercultural obsession with difference - the basis
of hip, cool, deck or what-have-you - is not, and cannot
be, a basis (or even a catalyst) of movements for social
justice because the system is constructed to assimilate
these subversive icons,
“… evacuating their revolutionary content
and selling them back to the masses as commodities”.
(Nation of Rebels, Page 4)
Far from providing a challenge to the system, counterculture
provides constant fodder for increased sales. As Thomas
Frank notes in The Conquest of Cool, Coca-Cola has been
at the forefront of adopting rebellious symbols and heroes,
‘For some, Ken Kesey’s parti-colored bus
may be a hideous reminder of national unraveling, but
for Coca-Cola, it seemed the perfect promotional instrument
for its “Frutopia” line’. The Conquest
of Cool, Thomas Frank, pg 4.
While one only has to turn on the television to be barraged
with Coke’s multi-billion dollar advertising budget,
and Pepsi’s ludicrously expensive advertisements
employing every pop / rock / sports star du jour, one
still has to question how it is that Coke, one of the
most prevalent brands, one of the most iconic of brands,
indeed, one of the very oldest brands, has managed to
stay relevant and fresh to so many generations of not
just Americans, but people around the world. How does
Coke keep from becoming the ‘establishment’
drink or the symbol of western imperialism? And how does
it deal with the constant challenges of trying to be ‘cool’?
It’s easy to attribute Coke’s relevance as
simply deriving from the extensive advertising and constant
association of the brand with today’s counterculture,
subculture, youthculture, etc. However, there is another
- more important - reason for Coke’s continued success.
It’s true that Coke does a great job of advertising,
but what it does even better is eliminate choice. ‘Choice’
only really matters when paired with availability (the
problem of distribution). In the heat of summer, we may
all want fresh icy watermelon juice, but if all we can
purchase at the corner deli is a Coke, then we’ll
settle for a Coke.
On the other hand, if all we truly could purchase at
the corner deli was Coca-Cola, we may actually begin to
understand that we’re being forced to drink it.
The more radical amongst us may in fact start to incite
us against drinking Coke, citing shades of fascism that
would be hard to refute offhand. We may even decide that
this lack of choice is, in fact, ‘anti-American’
(shock and horror!). The best way for Coke to safeguard
against this scenario and to protect its control over
its points of distribution is to give us all the choice
we want or can ever need. After all if you could choose
between Coke, Barqs, Beat, Fanta, Fresca, Lift, Nalu,
Pibb, Tab, Odwalla, Minute Maid, 5 Alive, Full Throttle,
KMX, Powerade, or Dasani, wouldn’t you be less inclined
to spend a lot of time thinking about your lack of choice?
You’d probably also spend less time thinking about
the fact that almost all soft-drink and juice sales in
the United States are controlled by either Coke or Pepsi
through their monopoly of the distributor network. This
is because every delivery to every store in America is
made by a distributor who is either a ‘Coke’
or a ‘Pepsi’ house account. We all know that
barring the most powerful chain retailers, stores and
restaurants carry either Coke, or Pepsi, but rarely both.
This is not because of the fanatic loyalty of retailers
to Coke or Pepsi, of course, but rather the draconian
business practices of these companies. Of course, what
the Coke / Pepsi oligopoly really ensures is that consumers
drink either Coke or Pepsi. Period. Full Stop. What better
way to eliminate the issue of how to stay relevant?
Of course, this is a bit of an oversimplification. In
reality, there are three sets of distributors; the Coke
network, the Pepsi network and the Cadbury-Schweppes network.
In order to get its products (RC Cola, Hawaiian Tropic,
Seven-Up, Dr. Pepper) into stores, Cadbury-Schweppes has
had to invest significant sums of money in setting up
what is called the ‘independent’ or 3rd party
distributor network in the eighties. Always the least
powerful distributor in any market, the independent was
at times allowed by Cadbury to carry 3rd party brands
to help offset the cost of the distributorship. Of course
these could only be brands that did not compete directly
with any of Cadbury-Schweppes’ product offerings.
If you’ve wondered how and why any non-Coke / Pepsi
drinks ever made it to market, in the US it has been through
In 1998, Coke agreed to buy Cadbury’s non-US beverages
business for US$ 1.85Bn (http://
cola_deal_111298.htm). On February 2nd, 2006, Cadbury-Schweppes
announced the completion of the sale of its European beverages
business for €1.85 billion. Guess which beverage
business Cadbury-Schweppes is likely to divest next? Guess
what’s going to happen to the ‘independent’
distributor network when it does?
Both Coke and Pepsi are remarkably creative and astute
in understanding the nature of choice, resistance and
counterculture and their interdependencies. So good, in
fact, that they battle our hokey pokey politics with choice
itself. Want to campaign against Coke? No problem, people
can switch to one of the 400 brands that Coke sells in
200 countries. Want to fight carbonated soft drinks in
general? How about a Fresh Samantha, or an Odwalla (both
of which will line Coke’s coffers). Finally convinced
that you need to give up flavored drinks and juices altogether?
Have a Dasani or an Aquafina, owned by Coke and Pepsi,
respectively. Of course, you can also choose from one
of the other six brands of water that Coke sells around
Still think you are making choices at the retail shelf?
Consider this. Pepsi owns Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Pepsi Twist,
Mountain Dew, Mountain Dew Code Red, Sierra Mist, Mug
Root Beer, Mirinda, Kas, Teem, Pepsi Max, Pepsi Light,
Manzanita Sol, Paso de los Toros, Fruko, Evervess, Yedigun,
Shani, Fiesta, D&G (License), Mandarin (License),
Radical Fruit, Aquafina, Aquafina Essentials, Propel Fitness
Water, Dole single-serve and SoBe juices; North America's
best-selling ready-to-drink iced teas and coffees (via
joint ventures with Lipton and Starbucks, respectively);
America’s best selling sports hydration beverage,
Gatorade; and also Tropicana. Pepsi also owns Frito-Lay
We don’t have to be geniuses to realize that a
proliferation of beverages marketed under different brands
by the one company monopolizing the points of distribution
and sale actually reduces choice by simultaneously swallowing
entrepreneurial companies and brands and killing local
enterprise. In the meantime, it benefits Coke to beat
the drum for choice right alongside its most coveted consumers
- the global bourgeois youth.
Ever wonder whatever happened to Fresh Samantha? Once
both Fresh Samantha and Odwalla were purchased by Coke,
The Coca-Cola Company decided they only needed one brand
of fresh pasteurized juice to confuse consumers. So Fresh
Samantha got binned . Its too bad - She was only 11 and
still pretty fresh (www.oligopolywatch.com).
So where does this leave Coke?
Despite everything we’ve discussed above; despite
its uncanny unprecedented past accomplishments; despite
its success in creating a bizarre niche and satisfying
it to excess; despite its ability to spread a sugary syrupy
fizzy black beverage to the furthest reaches of the world;
despite its consolidation and monopolization of the points
of distribution; despite its $2 Billion in annual advertising
spending ; Coke has troubles.
In fact, Coke is truly in the fight for its life. Its
core business, carbonated soft drinks, is declining and
these declines will accelerate as health and wellness
concerns receive more press, and more real research and
studies are conducted around the role of sugar and high-fructose
corn syrup in obesity and diabetes. Now, more than ever
before, Coke needs to reinvent itself.
To the extent possible, the company would like to migrate
consumers to other owned brands and keep them within the
Coca-Cola franchise. But, the old smoke and mirrors tactics
need revision. It’s not enough this time to call
something by a non-Coke name and hope the consumer will
pick that up instead because it’s the only other
beverage on the shelf. This time, it’s the product
itself that’s the problem. To some extent, Coke
is finding solutions in brands like Odwalla and Fresh
Samantha which stand for healthy hydration. But ultimately,
there is only one beverage that is perfectly healthy and
to which most consumers are expected to return. The problem
for Coke is figuring out how to make people pay for something
that’s been free, or at least heavily subsidized,
for the majority of the earth’s population?
Perhaps we can take a second to appreciate the wretched,
mind-numbing, heartbreaking, unfairness of the world.
What could be more fortunate for the world’s beverage
and hydration giant than the twin afflictions -- the ultimate
double whammy -- of global warming and industrial and
urban pollution, resulting in the dwindling of the world’s
water supplies and rendering much of the remaining water
unsuitable for human consumption, respectively?
Of course, these are part of the same phenomenon. The
events set in motion by neo-liberalization and the Washington
Consensus are geared towards exactly such scenarios: Unprecedented
urbanization, minimal environmental laws or consideration,
and unmitigated industrialization cause watershed disasters
around the world. Unable to respond, beleaguered by debt,
trade and structural adjustment programs that prohibit
their direct involvement in public enterprise, governments
abdicate the responsibility of providing water to their
citizens which are happily assumed by corporate representatives
of the neoliberal empire. Lest you dismiss this as the
deranged prophecies of a conspiracy theorist, let me assure
you this has already happened.
Make no mistake; water is the last frontier. And the
water wars are going to eclipse anything we’ve seen
“Fortune Magazine calls water the oil of the 21st
century: "the precious commodity that determines
the wealth of nations." The Central Intelligence
Agency says that by 2015, access to drinking water could
be a major source of international conflict around the
Around the world, the provision of drinking water and
sanitation has been outsourced to one of Veolia Environnement
and Suez (www.suez.com).
Together, Veolia and Suez control a mind-boggling 70%
of the world’s privatized water businesses. In an
exhaustive report available Public Citizen has detailed
“…Veolia's global track record of corruption,
broken promises, environmental degradation, price-gouging,
obfuscation, misdirection and secrecy…” (http://www.citizen.org/documents/Vivendi-USFilter.pdf)
The very same can be said of Suez, of course. Where vast
profits are at stake and the World Bank is involved, transparency
is generally a low priority. Hardly surprising –
it’s not a great idea to advertise too loudly when
you’re robbing communities of the very means of
survival and selling them to the highest bidder.
How can they be allowed to do this, ask horrified individuals
upon hearing of the vast wealth being accumulated by these
multinational corporations almost exclusively from the
poorest of worldwide communities – those being the
ones with the most urgent wastewater and infrastructure
issues, and so the first to be privatized? There are many
answers, but the most telling is the classification of
drinking water as a human need rather than a human right
by the World Bank thus opening the doors for for-profit
enterprise to charge mark-ups with impunity. Yes, it truly
is insane. For more detail and documentation of the corporate
takeover of the worlds water resources, consult the immaculately
researched and comprehensively documented Blue Gold .
There is not space here for us to adequately explore
the greater issue of the appropriation of the commons
through the collusion of governments and private corporations.
What happens to downstream communities when Coke or Nestle
put a water treatment and bottling plant upstream of them?
Who is accountable for the insufferable inequity of communities
losing access to drinking water because their wells are
drying up due to a nearby Coke plant extracting all their
water? This is the bind that we are already in and that
is already crippling our poor (often rural) communities.
Water is the big bet. Coke and Pepsi may have been left
behind by Vivendi Universal and Suez in the sanitation
and home delivery business, but they have no intention
of losing the war for drinking water.
How has Coke responded to the global water crises? You
guessed it; by launching, buying and marketing no less
than seven different brands of drinking water. And lest
you confuse ‘drinking water’ like Dasani and
Aquafina, with ‘mineral water’ like Perrier
or Evian, consider that mineral water needs to come from
a natural source like a stream, aquafier or glacier, whereas
‘drinking’ water is simply filtered and ‘purified’
tap water. That’s right. Coke is taking water out
of the taps, often in the same communities where we live,
filtering or chemically treating it, and selling it back
to us for more money than a can of Coke ($1.00+ for a
bottle of Dasani, vs. $0.65 for a can of Coke). Think
they are incentivized to continue?
In Pakistan in the summer of 2006, one could witness
the well oiled machine in action. Every day newspapers
would brim with stories of the horrors of tap water. Tens
to hundreds -- at times thousands -- hospitalized with
gastro-enteritis from drinking tap water. Walk around
in the 120 degree weather for a bit and you couldn’t
help but reach for the nearest bottle of water –
Nestle, naturally. If, that is, you could afford it. If
you’re one of the 100 million or so who cannot,
you take your chances, and … well … there’s
always the hospital. I remember growing up in Pakistan
in the early eighties. As kids, we would play cricket
on the streets, in school, in people’s drive-ways,
and we would drink copious amounts of water from taps
in fields, in people’s gardens, often on the street.
I never once got sick. And today I see those taps as festering
fetid swamps of germs and bacteria. I know I wouldn’t
let my children drink from them if I could help it.
And this is exactly what is happening all over the world;
poor people are losing access to drinking water. In South
America, private companies have taken over municipal water
supplies in at least half a dozen countries. In Bolivia,
a 40 year deal in 1999 to Bechtel caused riots within
6 months (http://www.cbc.ca/news/features/water/bolivia.html)
as the cost of drinking water to individuals skyrocketed.
“No matter whose version of events you believe,
hundreds of thousands of Bolivians filled the streets.
Their protests turned into riots. One young man was killed
by sniper fire.
The government suddenly announced on the eighth day of
bloody conflict that the company [Bechtel] had fled the
As Coke and the other major beverage multinationals join
the fight for share of the consumer’s water dollar
, life is going to get very complicated for us as activists.
We can try to convince people that Coke is bad for them,
or that between Coke and Pepsi, they should choose Pepsi
based on Coke’s horrible human rights records in
South America, but when everyone’s selling water
that has been stolen from communities that depend on it
for their survival, and when the only way to get pure
water is to purchase it from Coke or Pepsi, what are we
going to do?
It is imperative that we continue to fight for ‘voluntary’
change and self-regulation in corporate policy. Campaigns
aimed at consumers calling for them to divert their beverage
consumption to competitive brands are an effective tool
in the short-term to winning concessions from these corporations.
But in the long run, these campaigns have two fundamental
(i) They disenfranchise poorer consumers, often the ones
most effected by Coke’s (and other multinational
corporations’) actions, by linking political power
to purchasing power – one dollar, one vote. This
has always been a key flaw of consumer politics, where
we vote with our wallets.
(ii) Too often we dilute our politics and our struggles
in the rush to offer people alternatives, or ‘choices’.
Hence, we fight Coke, but by advocating that consumers
switch to Pepsi, we ultimately end up bolstering the exploitative
system that allows these corporations to prosper.
This is where bourgeois interests come and collide with
those of the ‘lower’ classes. As long as we’re
focused on trying to find an alternative to satisfy our
Coke craving and our conscience we’re missing the
point. Because while we’re confused and for as long
as we’re confused, they are taking the battle to
the source, planting their flags over our resources. In
the time that it takes us to convince ourselves that yes,
maybe drinking Coke isn’t the best thing, they’ve
bought, fought, won or usurped our streams, rivers, icebergs,
and water fountains. By the time we decide that we’d
rather drink water, all we can get is Coke-water.
This argument is in no way meant to deride the fantastic
work that current and past anti-coke campaigns have done
and real victories they have won through decades of principled
struggle. Without the killercoke campaign in Colombia
and the various campaigns in India, Coke would still be
killing union organizers with impunity with no awareness
of these actions and little fear of reprisal, and would
still be selling pesticide laden toxins in the guise of
If anything, our hope and expectation is that these campaigns
can evolve legislative and regulatory fronts and become
the vanguards in linking the battle against Coke to the
global struggles of oppressed communities for drinking
water and sanitation.
1. If you’re
looking for facts around Coke please make certain to visit
and not www.killercoke.COM which is a propaganda site
run by The Coca-Cola Company to purposefully confuse consumers
and reroute them to www.Cokefacts.org.