Danielle Moran investigates why students should question the Coca-Cola boycott.
UCD’s undergraduate student body of over 13,000 may be slightly surprised with news of an upcoming referendum where they will be asked to make a call on whether Coca-Cola and Nestlé products have a place on the SU shop counters within the university.
While the Students’ Union (SU) shut up Coca-Cola’s and Nestlé shops in a democratic manner, the reality is that very few now affected by the bans had any say when they were voted for and it’s quite likely that even less know exactly why students can’t buy a can of Coke or a packet of Smarties when on a break from a study session in the library.
When particularly violent allegations about Coca-Cola’s treatment of its staff members in Columbia came to light in the early 1990s, organisations around the world moved quickly to boycott the soft drink in an attempt to illustrate their condemnation of the company’s behavviour. UCD’s SU was one of the first to do so; the students voted, had their say and all Coca-Cola products were swiftly banned from the shelves of the SU shops.
Yet while the brand cannot advertise or sell their products with an SU stamp of approval, it has not lost its visible presence on campus. Almost all independently-run shops, restaurants and cafés keep Coca-Cola products widely available to quench the thirst of any student looking for a quick sugar fix. Add to this the number of vending machines scattered across campus which stock the drinks and it’s easy to see how many students go about their days blissfully unaware of the boycott against the product.
The SU’s boycott against Coca-Cola does little to hamper the efforts of the company to sell to students and since the vast majority of the student body did not vote for the boycott against the product, it is hard to fault the students who are asking those around to them to vote once more.
Rejecting the previous allegations made against the soft drinks company, a group spokesperson spoke of a recent UN report which rejects the accusations that Coca-Cola employees in Columbia are treated in a violent manner. The students are confident that when presented with these findings, the student body will “see sense and see that the boycott isn’t necessary.”
Despite this, current SU Campaigns and Communications Officer, Dan O’Neill reacted angrily to news of the referendum. Stating that he will be “disappointed” if students do not choose to uphold the ban, Mr O’Neill argued that there hasn’t been a sufficient investigation into Coca-Cola’s treatment of its Columbian workers, adding that he fully intends to “argue [his] point” in favour of the boycott.
It is diffi cult to see sense in Mr O’Neill’s argument that now is not the right time for such a discussion. Yes, students across the country are concerned about the reintroduction of third-level fees and many elected representatives are spending their time informing the student body of the proposals and how they intend to fight them. However to suggest that running a referendum in a single university over the space of a fortnight will harm the national fi ght against fees is ridiculous.
Regardless of what side of the debate students stand on, it is clear that a boycott against Coca-Cola and Nestlé has lost much of its meaning. With products so widely available across campus that students rarely notice they can’t purchase their favourite chocolate or soft drink and little to no explanation about the boycott from those who run it, it’s understandable that some students are completely unaware of the boycott, and those who are know of it can’t understand the reasons behind it.
Earlier this year, The University Observer argued that it was time for the students to vote for their SU to stock products that they want, instead of refusing them on the grounds that previous students fought against them. For those students who, in the coming weeks, will argue for or against Coca-Cola and Nestlé they can at least agree that a democratic, yet overdue, move will be made.
It is over twelve years since Nestlé was run out of the SU shops and over five since Coca-Cola was very publically boycotted. Students on both sides of the argument must recognise that the referendum, regardless of its result, does not represent a step back for students but one forward.