Counter-Cola: A Multinational History of the Global Corporation

Political Challenges of Anti-Corporate Environmentalism

By framing the environmental issue around the external corporate actor, diverse movements and their international supporters were able to mobilize around the ubiquity of the Coca-Cola Company’s world system of capital, commodities and communication, a common and familiar icon from their own location and critique, while also being in solidarity with struggles on different continents.  But this mode of environmentalism is a product of neoliberal globalization itself, even as it challenges it, as transnational activists and global corporations have become the actors in a political sphere that transcends state borders and is highly influenced by the market.  So there are some real political traps that this produces. 
First, in focusing on Coke, these environmental movements downplayed other factors in the water crisis – the role of the neoliberal state embedded with the market, and the practices of their own communities.  The Indian government subsidizes power in order to support agriculture, but also hasn’t invested in reliable power service, which is intermittent, so farmers run electric pumps and inefficiently flood their lands when power is available.  And, in an agricultural community, farmers are the largest users of water, still relying on water-intensive crops like rice in increasingly arid areas.
Second, and perhaps more politically and environmentally threatening in the long term, targeting a hyper-visible brand to produce a “critical fetishism”[i] risks framing global corporations as principal actors, not only in environmental destruction but also for social change, leading to the cooptation of movements through the creation of new markets in “corporate social responsibility.”  It can produce a re-fetishization of new “responsible” commodities, modes of self-righteous consumerism, and self-monitoring and promoting companies that delay or resist other social or political action such as regulatory accountability.

The Coca-Cola Company has been actively promoting its environmental responsibility in public relations and marketing asserting that the Company’s business was now “water neutral” in India, offsetting its water usage by returning equivalent amounts to nature and communities. “Water neutrality” and “water offsetting” played on the discourse and political popularity of carbon neutrality.  But the concept of offsets doesn’t translate well to water.  Why?  Water is a more localized resource.  An industry can withdraw water in one aquifer and replenish it in another. This isn’t water neutral for the aquifer that’s being tapped.[ii] The Indian villagers see this clearly – they can only have so many rainwater harvesting stations in their area –C-C is counting water in areas they will never see. 
Environmental activists in the US and Europe have helped the Indian communities poke holes in this concept, and having this transnational reach allowed them to see that this environmental “science” of “water neutrality” was being funded, developed and promoted by The Coca-Cola Company and other water extractive interests, at venues such as this conference on water footprinting protested in these images just seen.
[i] Robert J. Foster, “Show and Tell: Teaching Critical Fetishism with a Bottle of Coke®,” Anthropology News, 49 (4) 2008.
[ii] Will Sarni, “Claiming You’re “Water Neutral” Can Damage Your Brand,” Harvard Business Review, November 23, 2009.  

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