CSR: Just a pretty picture?

Posted: January 17, 2011 in Books, Responsible business, Rights around the world
Tags: , , , , ,

I can’t recall the last time I read so serious a book that was so entertaining.

The first thing that must be said about Mark Thomas is that he is a comedian. His book “Belching out the Devil: Global Adventures with Coca-Cola” is a spin-off from a program he hosted for Britain’s Channel 4. As a result, it was never going to be a dry, pseudo-academic work and that is its strength. Official documents sanitise these issues, which have serious effects of people’s quality of living and in some cases amount to life or death.

Mark Thomas is a kind of Michael Palin on a mission. At least half of the book is a compelling travelogue of the eight nations he visits to interview people affected by the company’s operations, and it is as good a travel book as any. My personal favourite was his comparison of traffic in Delhi to

playing Grand Theft Auto with four million people connected to the same console.

Fortunately Mark doesn’t fall into the trap of poking fun merely at the people he encounters, to whom he is actually unfailingly respectful; there is plenty of riducule directed at rich world folk including himself and none so much as Coca Cola’s PR people.

However the book is not a random, meandering string of jokes, Mark remains quite determined to find the people he needs to, and find them he does, countering euphemistic business jargon with gritty real-life stories.

The book focuses on five issues:

1. Union-busting by Coca-Cola bottlers, a denial of the right to freedom of association;

2. Child labour in plantations that supply sugar mills;

3. Impact on local communities’ drinking water;

4. Strong-handed tactics used to maintain its 70% market share in Mexico; and

5. The company’s evasiveness about these as, impliedly, an issue in itself

The most relevant to Fair For All is the first. Mark visits people in Colombia and Turkey who’ve been affected firsthand by the local bottlers’ aggressive anti-unionism. In the case of Colombia, this means turning a blind eye to violence and intimidation by the local paramilitaries. Over the past two decades, a number of workers in Colombia who attempted to form a union in the bottling plant in Colombia have been murdered. Coca Cola’s response is to distance themselves, emphasising that national bottlers are a separate entity to the Atlanta-based company we all know (even though it owns a controlling stake in them) and to make vague reference to half-hearted investigations.

Mark Thomas’s concern is, firstly, that these things are happening, but even more that Coca-Cola’s PR releases and CSR reports, to the casual reader, imply that the company is making concerted efforts to redress these “concerns” when, on the ground in places such as Colombia and Costa Rica, they are doing nothing of the sort.

The most dramatic illustration of the gap between some of the officialspeak and the reality comes on the steps of the company’s Delaware AGM. Mark collars the global head of workplace relations and politely asks him about some of the ‘issues’ he has seen firsthand in his travels. The gap between the harsh reality we have experienced with Mark, and the carefully worded official company response is enormous.

Even more instructive is the additional gap between the Coke executive’s off-record comments and the company’s glossy CSR report which is being handed out just metres away, inside the AGM.

Mark puts it to Coke executive Ed Potter in person:

Colombia. Isidro Gil. I spoke to people who saw him killed – someone was shot and killed on Coca-Cola’s property.

Ed Potter explains away the company’s response (or lack of), saying:

Well we’ve never represented that the ILO was going to do an investigation.

Nonetheless Coca-Cola’s CSR statement “The Facts: Coca-Cola and Columbia”, asserts the company has a:

commitment to an independent impartial third-party investigation and evaluation

Mark Thomas has gone to a lot of trouble to prove his suspicion that he is being told that black is white. Good on him.

The book is available on Amazon, and also on Kindle and Audible.

You can watch Mark introduce the book here:

  1. […] a local supplier in breach of fair labour standards. If that were the case the company could run Coca-Cola’s line about the independence of its bottlers. Rather, the action was taken by a local Syngenta […]

  2. […] contrasts with another book I’ve reviewed, Belching Out the Devil, in that Kelsey does not have a predetermined action plan. He’s not […]

  3. […] to be ready to engage with this. To date, too many have been playing a cat and mouse game (see this and this post), engaging with pressure group demands by being seen to act and doing just enough to […]

  4. […] in the world, I’ll wager that most of the names on most of our lists would not be those of soft drink companies, running shoe manufacturers, or people who sell plasma screen TVs. They would be the names of […]

  5. […] which make a lot more sense in the Scandanavian context than they do in Colombia which is about as unfriendly to unionists as they come. It’s no surprise that the radicalised Colombian workers didn’t feel at home with this […]

  6. […] CSR: Just a pretty picture? 17 January 2011 […]

  7. […] (I’m not going to defend bottled soda though – sorry Coca-Cola!) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s