Round-up: Coca-Cola’s annual meeting a reckoning on voting rights, health equity, race

This week, in its annual shareholder meeting, Coca-Cola distanced itself—socially and otherwise—from the controversy on important social issues that have been brought to the soda giant’s doorstep by advocates and investor groups. Voting rights. Race equity. Public health.

Since Georgia led the nation in adopting voting restrictions dubbed “Jim Crow 2.0” by voting rights advocates, Coca-Cola has been alternately:

So naturally, at its meeting, CEO James Quincey faced continued calls from multiple stakeholders, including CEO Nsé Ufot of the New Georgia Project (NGP), to defund the legislators, lobbyists, and trade groups behind the national GOP push to keep people of color from the polls. (Find the online petition here).

Ufot had this to say to CEO Quincey and the Coca-Cola board:

“I am increasingly concerned about Coca-Cola’s negative impacts on  populations of color. Our communities are well aware of your reach. We feel your presence in the targeted marketing of liquid sugar products targeted at Black and Brown citizens–disproportionately suffering from diabetes, obesity and other diseases linked to sugar consumption. We also feel your presence when it comes to Coca-Cola’s vast political influence and the corporation undermining the well-being and constitutional rights of people of color including our fundamental right to vote. The cornerstone of our American democracy.” (Click here for a video and text of the full statement).

Quincey responded with a similar statement to the one he released after NGP and a broad coalition of Georgia-based organizations and faith leaders pressured the soda giant out of its silence on Georgia’s repressive new voting law. “We see voting as a foundational right and its access should be broad-based and inclusive.”

It was yet another example of Coca-Cola trying to have its soda and drink it, too. In her statement, Ufot pointed out that the corporation had yet to disavow the U.S. Chamber and lawmakers behind the more than 360 voter suppression bills proposed in 47 states.

But critically, Quincey noted that the corporation continues to suspend its political giving as they “thoughtfully review” how they engage in the policy arena. As Ufot put it, by virtue of this review, “Coca-Cola has an opportunity to make good on its professed commitment to racial justice today. Adopt this resolution, cease political activity that stifles health equity, and condemn suppressive, anti-democratic voting laws with a public alliance to stop contributions to policymakers seeking Jim Crow 2.0. Your global brand, established right here in our hometown, can be synonymous with a better world.”

In other words, the best thing Coca-Cola can do for our democracy, our well-being, racial justice, and our environment is to make its pause on political activity permanent. But listeners to this week’s meeting be warned, the corporation may say it’s paused, but you shouldn’t take anything their CEO says at face value. Coca-Cola may have “paused” its political activity in some limited ways, but its proxies are still very much doing the corporation’s dirty work on Capitol Hill, statehouses, and city halls.

Also at issue in today’s meeting was Coca-Cola’s deep and ongoing contribution to health inequity during a pandemic. Ufot spoke to a proposal introduced by Harrington Investments in partnership with Corporate Accountability, that has also been forcing Pepsi and McDonald’s to reckon with the harms of their sugar-saturated products.   

According to the proposal: Coca-Cola’s “sugary drinks may be associated with two national health epidemics – sugar-related illnesses and vulnerability to the pandemic. Moreover, the pandemic has highlighted issues of disproportionate health impacts of COVID-19 on people of color. The beverage industry has reportedly spent millions of dollars on targeted advertising of sugary drinks to Black, Hispanic, Latino, and Indigenous youth.”

In response, it goes on, Coca-Cola “has been funding lobbying efforts to preempt local control or restrict regulation. In contrast, the proponents believe [Coca-Cola] should be part of the solution and should not be pushing sugary beverages through advertising or funding ‘educational’ efforts that shift the blame from poor diet causing obesity to lack of exercise.”

The proposal concludes by asking the corporation to issue a report that, ostensibly, levels with investors and other stakeholders about the inordinate public health harm the corporation is causing…and the risk that harm poses not just to those most disproportionately impacted, but to investors.

Shareholders representing more than 406 million shares, and around $22 billion in holdings voted for the proposal. Tremendous, especially given the corporation, as is customary, opposed it, while conducting a workshop on spin-doctoring that would make a Madison Avenue ad man blush. For the third year in a row, the corporation insisted the corporation was doing enough. Coca-Cola has reduced the amount of sugar in its toxically saccharin products. Authoritative international bodies have already conducted the review of the proposal’s backers called for.

Ufot begged to differ:

First, the global and U.S. indexes previously cited make it clear that Coca-Cola gets a failing grade. The report clearly states Coca-Cola’s ‘commitments to reduce sugar in a number of products are short-term and lack relevant details.’

Second, the corporation has a history of funding misleading science to hide the truth about its contributions to obesity and racial disparities.

Third, we cannot look past the COVID-19 pandemic. Latino, Indigenous, and Black Americans, all targets of Coca-Cola’s racially targeted marketing practices—are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white Americans and further disadvantaged due to the disproportionate obesity rates in Black and Brown communities.”

And for all the chatter about “being a responsible player” on public health and “fully understanding that people should not consume too much sugar” and “taking specific meaningful action” to reduce sugar consumption, the corporation continues to bankroll the American Beverage Association’s efforts to prevent soda taxes that would help remediate the harms of Coke products in communities of color. It continues to inundate children with marketing. And its core business continues to be the mass manufacture of sugar-saturated seltzer water.

To add a cherry, Quincey also claimed everything the corporation is doing in the policy sphere to reduce sugar consumption “is disclosed on our website.” Sure, Coca-Cola is better than its peers at giving us a look-see at their disturbing policy footprint, but that’s not saying much. The corporation only partially discloses the extent of its U.S.-based political activities and fails to disclose any international political activities whatsoever. And it does do business in more than 190 other countries.

This is all to say, pressure is mounting for Coca-Cola to do more than zero the calories in its artificially-sweetened offerings, but to zero what it is giving to corrode our democracy. And they can start with those behind Jim Crow 2.0.

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