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How a Major Turf War Between Pepsi and Coke Reveals There's No 'Good' Multinational Soda Company

A fight over 'pouring rights' at the City University of NY campuses made 'killer Coke' out to be the bad guy, but Pepsi is no angel.

Last month PepsiCo won a battle in the cola wars against Coca-Cola when the City University of New York awarded the global conglomerate exclusive pouring rights in a $21 million deal to distribute its beverages to all 24 of CUNY's campuses.

Leading up to the decision, students and activists had crusaded relentlessly in the " Killer Coke" campaign against Coca-Cola’s presence on campus in an effort to expose its poor record of labor and human rights abuses, particularly with regard to the murder of union leaders in Colombia. The effectiveness of their campaign resulted in CUNY rejecting Coca-Cola's latest bid. 

“The real drive behind that resolution was that we don’t do business with corporations that have issues with human rights and workers’ rights,” said David J. Rosenberg, the president of the student government on the Brooklyn campus.

But while campaigners deemed the move a victory against the corporate giant, any sense of triumph was quickly overshadowed by CUNY’s announcement that Pepsi would take its place. Officials attributed the switch to a better offer from Pepsi. 

“[Pepsi’s] proposal offered a variety of products and a level of support and a total royalty number that was superior,” Michael Arena, a spokesperson for CUNY told the New York Times.

The decision is a slap in the face for activists who, after working tirelessly to boot Coke, are now faced with another transnational company that essentially reintroduces many of the same concerns as its predecessor, namely: a company concerned only with profit at the expense of the health and general wellbeing of the population.  

Both Pepsi and Coke have been accused of producing unhealthy products, promoting false marketing campaigns and fueling the obesity epidemic in the United States. Both have also attempted to vary the way people think about water, from a basic human right to something to be bought and sold, through their bottled-water marketing.

As Michele Simon, president of Eat Drink Politics and author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back explained to AlterNet, “It is sad to see universities who are trying to do the right thing by keeping out a company like Coke with a horrible track record to then allow Pepsi, which may not be killing people in South America but is killing people in other ways, to take its place. 

“It is a sign that we are not looking at this issue in the right way. Too often we are focused on one aspect of how a corporation does business, comparing evils to slightly lesser evils. I don’t think having vending machines with either of these products whatsoever is very settling. While we don’t want to discourage universities from activism, to replace Coke with Pepsi isn’t a victory,” she said.

While Pepsi has spent a vast majority of its PR campaigns focusing on how it actively participates in initiatives to address water challenges around the world, the impetus behind such a move is nothing more than a coordinated effort to promote a “profit-driven privatization scheme that undermines the human right to water and local, democratic control of global water resources,” as Corporate Accountability International (CAI) explained to AlterNet:

“Pepsi’s involvement with the 2030 Water Resources Group demonstrates how it has been colluding with water intensive industries and powerful institutions like the World Bank to make private controls of water by setting up water-for-profit systems," said Erin Diaz, campaign director of Think Outside the Bottle and Public Water Works at CAI. "In each of these Pepsi-funded projects, water rates are tied to paying off private investments from multinational corporations.” 

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