Oxfam America and Coca-Cola: Working Together to Find Lasting Solutions?

My food activism started with Oxfam. Two-and-a-half years ago, I served as the Products Action Team Leader of the University of Texas chapter of Oxfam America. We worked on promoting Fair Trade Certified products on and around campus. Since then, I’ve backed away from international issues, especially those involving the so-called “developing” countries. I still think they’re incredibly important, and I may at some point come back to them, but I’m not sure I understand the issues well enough to make recommendations to consumers and potential activists. I also don’t think that, as an American with only limited international experience, I’m the best person to take them on.

And though I have become rather skeptical of U.S.-based organizations that are fighting global poverty, I have a lot of respect for Oxfam America. Their Right To Know, Right To Decide campaign addresses the rights of people around the world to decide whether and how dangerous and potentially destructive extractive industries, from oil and natural gas to gold and diamonds, can work in their communities. Their Climate Change campaign focuses not just on reducing emissions, but on helping the world’s most vulnerable communities adapt to a changing climate.

Which is why I found Oxfam’s recent partnership with Coca-Cola particularly troubling. Oxfam America, Coca Cola, and Coca Cola’s local bottling partner SABMiller shared the cost of a Poverty Footprint Study on how the Coca Cola/SABMiller system affects poverty in Zambia and El Salvador. This comes on the heels of a donation of $2,500,000 from Coca-Cola to Oxfam America between 2008-2010 for humanitarian work in Sudan.

Oxfam supporters have always pointed to its funding portfolio as a sign of the organization’s sincerity and credibility. They refuse funding from the U.S. government, get nearly 70% from individuals, and only depend on corporations for 4.3%. I’m inclined to say that a transnational corporation like Coca Cola should be in the same category as the U.S. government: they are too powerful and too biased.

Chris Jochnick, director of the Oxfam America Private Sector Department, admits that “the Coca-Cola Company and SABMiller have each been subject to high profile corporate advocacy and Oxfam America takes a risk in co-branding a study like this. We do that with eyes wide open.” He argues that working with the companies gave Oxfam “greater access, more nuanced understanding of things like power dynamics in the supply chain, and more opportunity to promote engagement on the ground.”

That may be true. The report addresses issues such as safety and low wages for sugarcane harvesters. But its evaluation of the companies’ environmental initiatives is mostly positive, and I’d be surprised if its coverage of issues like the companies’ effects on access to water really gives the whole picture. And what it totally lacks is an honest discussion of what happens to people in poverty when Coca-Cola is available on every street corner.

Marion Nestle covers this issue in two recent posts (yesterday’s and today’s.) She argues that “For just under $3 million, Coke has purchased an endorsement from Oxfam of its “anti-poverty” practices and silence on the role of sugary drinks in obesity.

I want to discuss a few of the report’s “Recommendations for Further Action,” ideas for the Coca-Cola system to improve their impact on people in poverty, that Nestle did not cover.

-Investigate how to provide nutritional information to consumers at point of sale and through other methods, given the wide use of glass bottles without labels and low levels of literacy in some areas.

I agree that people have the right to information about what they are putting in their bodies, and in the U.S., I almost always support labeling laws. This isn’t a bad idea, but I’m not sure if it will really help people understand the health consequences of their food choices. As Michael Pollan does an excellent job explaining in In Defense of Food, nutrition science is only one lens we can use to look at food. Among illiterate people in developing countries, it is probably not a very common one. And considering the wacky ideas that nutrition science has made mainstream in America over the last fifty years or so, do we really want to encourage “nutritionism” in a population that does not even consider science the go-to way of explaining the world?

-Explore the feasibility of introducing micronutrient supplementation programs in these markets, working with government, health and civil society experts. Consider how a micronutrient enhanced product’s promotion, pricing, distribution and service practices could increase community purchasing and health.

This is a really scary idea, and one of the main dangers of advocating a “nutritionistic” view of food in countries with even fewer advertising laws than the U.S. VitaCoke anyone? Throw some synthetic vitamins in with that HFCS, artificial flavorings and colorings, and it’s a health drink! It’s unconscionable that Oxfam would advocate a product like this.

-Leverage marketing messages to educate consumers on the value of proper nutrition, a balanced diet and regular physical activity.

It always annoys me when companies advocate a “balanced diet” on the back of a Froot Loops or Pop Tarts box. If everybody ate a balanced diet, Coca-Cola would go out of business.

I think that Marion Nestle hits on the reason some of these recommendations seem so bizarre: “The goal of Coca-Cola is to sell more Coca-Cola.  The goal of Oxfam is to address world poverty.  I’m having trouble understanding how these goals could be mutually compatible.”

What do you think? Can a nonprofit co-brand a study with a powerful corporation that sells health-destroying products without compromising their integrity? How should they go about it? And where does this study fit in?

This post is a part of Fight Back Friday.

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One Response to Oxfam America and Coca-Cola: Working Together to Find Lasting Solutions?

  1. Dori says:

    Thanks for bringing this story to my attention. We have admired Oxfam, but this is sad. I agree with Marion Nestle- I’m having trouble understanding how their goals could be mutually compatible.

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