I was a bright-eyed Smith College freshman the first time I learned about the evils of Coca-Cola. I was sitting down to lunch in my college dining room, when a friend knocked a small cluster of grapes out of my hand. “Those grapes were picked by exploited migrant workers,” she said. “And the Coke you’re about to drink is helping to fund oppression in South Africa.”
I’d grown up in a suburb of Upstate New York where the most oppressive thing anybody did was make me go to school in blizzard weather. I didn’t know anything about migrant farm workers, much less oppression in South Africa, but I was about to learn; and that’s part of the real education that students pay for when they attend Smith College.
My friend and I never did see eye-to-eye on the migrant farm worker issue, but the fact that Apartheid was raging in South Africa with the apparent support of an American financial powerhouse like Coca-Cola made a lasting impression on me. Because of the heightened awareness Smith College gave me about global responsibility, shortly after the lunch room incident, I went to see Nelson Mandela when he came to speak in Boston. I never looked at Coca-Cola the same way again.
In light of America’s own struggles with slavery and race relations, it seemed unconscionable to me that any of our companies (much less the man who would become our sitting Vice President) would have taken anything but the most uncompromising stance when it came to Apartheid. I’d always thought that an “All American” company like Coca-Cola would want to brand itself not just with red and white, but red, white and blue. Unfortunately, sometimes the only color of importance to Coca-Cola is U.S. Mint Green.
So it came as no surprise to me to learn that Smith College recently discontinued its contract with the soft drink giant. In fact, I only wonder what took Smith College so long. Certainly, they’ve banned drunken frat boys from UMass for less.
You see, Apartheid isn’t the only stain on Coca-Cola’s record as a corporate citizen. Their current business practices in countries like India and Columbia are causes for humanitarian and environmental concern. And in light of Coca-Cola’s history, it was only a matter of time before the college’s conscience outweighed the allure of that delicious bubbly beverage. Smith College tells its students that they can do better when it comes to expectations for the world; now they’re leading by example.
Initial media response to the news questioned whether a small educational institution like Smith College could hope to make any difference with what amounts to a symbolic act. Smith College has a small campus and educates only a few thousand students a year, so their decision isn’t likely to cost Coca-Cola corporation much money in the short term.
On the other hand, Smithies are highly educated women who sometimes go on to lead very influential lives. Smith alums include Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Gloria Steinem and Molly Ivans. Though Smithies may differ politically, their experiences at Smith make them care deeply about the world. Smithies graduate to become scientists, politicians and business leaders. More importantly to Coca-Cola, they also go on to become beverage-buying wives and mothers who know that you don’t just vote at the ballot box; you vote with your wallet too.
Certainly, I’ve avoided drinking the “Real Thing” since that day in the college dining room. So perhaps, in breaking up with Coca-Cola, Smith College isn’t going to force the company to be a better corporate citizen, but it might make better citizens of its students — and that’s its mission statement, after all.