Honest Tea Vacates DeCafe Shelves Due to Coca-Cola Ban
“Oberlin College has stopped the sale of Coca-Cola products on our campus, effective immediately,” wrote former College President Nancy Dye to the former Chairman and CEO of the Coca-Cola Company Douglas Daft on November 15, 2004. Since then, Campus Dining Services, DeCafe and soda machines around campus have been devoid of beverages produced by Coca-Cola and its major subsidiaries, including Sprite, Minute Maid, Dasani, VitaminWater, Odwalla, Powerade, Fanta, Fresca, Fruitopia and Barq’s Root Beer.
Now, one more brand name has been added to the boycott list. On February 5, Coca-Cola purchased 40 percent of Honest Tea, making it the most monetarily influential shareholder of the 10-year-old tea company.
In terms of business ethics, Coca-Cola and Honest Tea make for strange bedfellows. Producing healthy, organic, fair trade drinks, Honest Tea pledges in its mission statement that “a commitment to social responsibility is central to Honest Tea’s identity and purpose.” Meanwhile, Coca-Cola markets primarily artificial, unhealthy beverages and has a reputation of unfriendliness toward unions. So is Honest Tea selling out or is Coke buying in?
On his www.honesttea.com blog, co-founder Seth Goldman explains, “I believe that every time we sell a bottle of Honest Tea we are doing a positive thing. The more we sell, provided it is the same product we have been selling for the past ten years, the more good we do and the more we convince the larger beverage companies that there is a market for a product like ours.”
Honest Tea was a wildly popular drink for DeCafe shoppers since its first shipment, selling about 500 bottles per week at $1.69 per unit. A DeCafe employee who wished to remain anonymous, fearing reprisal from management, testified to its demand among the student body, declaring it a “top three beverage seller” along with Pepsi products and IZZE sodas.
But the Honest Tea era at Oberlin is now a thing of the past. On Sunday, Feb. 24, the five flavors of Honest Tea were evicted from their home in the DeCafe refrigerators. They have been replaced by five styles of TEAS’ TEA, a zero-sugar, zero-calorie brand produced in Japan.
When asked how severely the potential loss of up to $850 in weekly revenue generated by Honest Tea might be felt by DeCafe, the employee said, “I don’t know if revenue will fall per se, but I expect there to be a lot of unhappy people.” She remembered that when Coke was originally banned, a number of disgruntled “Coke lovers” expressed their displeasure at having a ban imposed on them from above. “I understand the reasons behind it, but it’s kind of unfortunate that not a lot of information is put out about why it’s done; it’s just done,” she said of the College’s swift and discreet decision to axe Honest Tea.
“I haven’t heard one comment about ‘Where’s the Honest Tea?’” said DeCafe manager Gina Fusco. “I’m sure some people are missing it but so far TEAS’ TEA is actually selling a little faster than the Honest Tea was.”
“I think the decision was made to do an institutional boycott to show that the institution stands for something,” said Diana Roose, who was Dye’s adviser at the time of the original boycott and the current Secretary of Oberlin College. “That’s fine if you like Coke, but we have to educate ourselves about the social implications of our purchasing decisions. Our institutional buying power gives us a responsibility.” As a former Coke drinker herself, she acknowledged, “It’s a sacrifice, but it’s for the greater good.”
Oberlin’s move to cease business dealings with Coke came about in 2004 when the College Purchasing Committee suggested to then-President Nancy Dye that the corporation’s labor and human rights abuses put it in violation of the ethical mandates set forth by Oberlin’s Code of Purchasing. Though the Purchasing Committee was created with the sole mission of keeping the College from contracting with sweatshop companies, Dye agreed that it was worth investigating whether Coke should be dropped.
Student Chair of the Purchasing Committee Sarah Bishop, OC ’07, wrote a detailed letter to Dye outlining three levels of responsibility attributed to Coca-Cola: “First, that the management of the Coca-Cola bottling plants in Columbia aided and abetted paramilitaries in targeting and murdering trade unionists. Second, that corporate Coca-Cola based in the United States turned a blind eye to these activities and did nothing to investigate its subsidiaries and punish its management. Third, that Coca-Cola has done little to protect its workers in Colombia from violence at the hands of paramilitaries.”
The main catalyst in the College’s final decision was that the Coca-Cola Company refused to allow an investigation of abuses, which would be conducted by the Workers’ Rights Consortium, a group of colleges and universities — including Oberlin — that uses boycotts to pressure unethical corporations. 47 colleges and universities across the country have joined the anti-Coke boycott that Oberlin helped create.
Ray Rogers, director of killercoke.org, says that regardless of the size of the school, campus activism for this cause is crucial. “Coca-Cola says if they get a student hooked on their brand name, they have a customer for the next 50 to 60 years,” he said. “Which means their family is hooked for the next 50 to 60 years. [Stopping this] is what Oberlin has become an important part of.”
The president of the SINALTRAINAL factory workers union in Colombia brought allegations against the Coca-Cola Company in a 2001 Miami lawsuit. The union accused the company of being complicit in the fatal shooting of a union leader by paramilitaries inside one of the bottling plants it micromanages.
The fight was lost when U.S. District Court Judge José Martinez dismissed the charges against the Coca-Cola Company in 2003 because the crimes had been committed outside the U.S. Martinez serves as a sports commentator for the University of Miami, which has an exclusive contract with the Coca-Cola Company, inspiring accusations that he harbors a conflict of interest.
Co-Vice President of SINALTRAINAL Juan Carlos Galvis said of the crisis in Colombia, “If we lose the fight against Coca-Cola, we will first lose our union, next our jobs and then our lives.”
From that perspective, Oberlin’s loss of a popular beverage doesn’t seem quite so onerous.