Let them drink Coke
The commodification of thirst and the monopolization of hydration


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 already (www.killercoke.org; 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. [1]

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 and profitability.

“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 main problems:

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 for choice.

3) The constant need for choice – the dubious politics of distinction and distinctiveness, and the constant ‘rebirth of cool’.

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 the independents.

In 1998, Coke agreed to buy Cadbury’s non-US beverages business for US$ 1.85Bn (http:// www.cadburyschweppes.com/EN/MediaCentre/ PressReleases/ 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 the world.

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 and Quaker.

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 so far.

“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 world.” (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2004/07/11/INGBJ7I02E1.DTL)

Around the world, the provision of drinking water and sanitation has been outsourced to one of Veolia Environnement (http://www.veoliaenvironnement.com/en/) 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 country.” (http://www.cbc.ca/news/features/water/bolivia.html)

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 shortcomings:
(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 ‘soft’ drinks.

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 www.killercoke.ORG 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.

First published in Ghadar [http://ghadar.insaf.net]