You might notice the soda on campus is a bit different this semester.
Over the summer session, Stony Brook’s Faculty Student Association (FSA) switched from Pepsi products to Coca-Cola to bring in extra money when the former’s “pouring rights” contract to exclusively sell its beverages on campus was set to expire. The decision to change from Pepsi to Coke products seems to have been made without student input and has failed to take into account the convoluted history of Coca-Cola products on campus.
The Coca-Cola Company previously had a 10-year contract with Stony Brook University for the exclusive pouring rights on campus. But controversy surfaced in 2005 over a lawsuit from Colombian labor union Sinaltrainal that accused a Coca-Cola subsidiary of human rights abuses. The union claimed Panamco, Latin America’s largest soft drink bottling company, used paramilitaries to assassinate and intimidate its bottling plant workers for over a decade.
In 2008, following a student-led campaign, Stony Brook became one of over 30 college campuses across the country to end their contract with The Coca-Cola Company after the organization neglected to independently investigate Sinaltrainal’s claims.
While the Sinaltrainal lawsuit was eventually dismissed in the U.S., a 2015 case study stressed that the original criticism might be still valid even today. However, close to 10 years later, new budget pressures have led to a renewed conversation surrounding Coca-Cola products on campus because of the increased payments associated with the change.
The FSA Board of Directors discussed this exact topic in January 2018. According to meeting minutes, there was a lack of growth seen in soda sales revenue from soft drink vending machines and lackluster results from “being exclusive” to one particular brand in comparison to peer institutions. It was noted in that meeting that FSA was only receiving $332,000 in sale commissions and $350,000 designated for use for scholarships and there was a potential opportunity to capture more revenue if they would separate the ‘exclusive use’ and soft drink vending machines into two distinct contracts. That would be a total of $682,000 (332+ 350) in indirect revenue to the campus or $26.41 per student using Fall 2017 enrollment numbers. One might argue that with more revenue, there is a better chance of a paid student position funded from FSA monies. According to the April 2018 meeting minutes, the argument supporting the change of vendors gained a lot of traction. It was determined that FSA could achieve an increase of $200,000, resulting in approximately $500,000 for scholarships per year alone in net increases to the university if they adopted the change.
The question campus administrators and the student body have to ask themselves is a simple one: are the financial upsides of Coca-Cola’s return to campus enough to make up for its spotty past? Are student scholarships worth the ethical price of admission?
Only time will tell what actual benefits will be seen on campus through this new contract with Coca-Cola. At the very least, the new vending machines that are painted red are a welcome change in comparison to the ugly black boxes Pepsi supplied. As we get closer to the Fall 2018 term, I hope the exact impacts of this new contract will be apparent to the entire campus community, and not just the board of directors.