Drawing fire over water problems

The initials CSE may not mean very much in the UK or US, but don’t underestimate them. They stand for Centre for Science and Environment, an India-based lobby group which has already achieved the impossible: getting two of the world’s most implacable brand rivals, Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, to work together.

At issue are CSE’s allegations that both soft drinks companies are marketing products containing deadly pesticides, including DDT, on the sub-continent. The allegations are based upon laboratory tests CSE says were carried out under US government protocols, and relate to the groundwater used in bottling the drinks rather than the syrups which form their patented base.

Nevertheless, the allegations have created a national outcry in India, involving among other things a ban on the two brands by India’s parliament and the vandalising of a Coke plant. Coke and Pepsi are clubbing together to fight the allegations in India’s high court. And for good reason: at stake is their precariously won hold in the world’s second-largest nation, with over 1 billion potential consumers.

Let’s get one thing clear here. The last thing that matters is the actual truth; myth is much more powerful. Note, for instance, that the CSE tests were carried out only on Coke and Pepsi products; and a comparison was made not with local products, but with US equivalents. Bear in mind, also, the words of CSE head Sunita Narain: ‘It is not Coke per se or Pepsi per se that are to blame. It is the lack of government regulations for water.’

It may be that new ‘independent’ tests, ordered by the Indian judicial system, will exonerate the drinks companies and dismiss the health threat. But lasting damage has already been done in the wider context of global branding.

Specifically, the backlash will affect two distinct consumer communities. Local consumers may well continue to believe the story, dismissing the court’s verdict as a whitewash or cover-up. Little excuse is needed in developing countries to bring not-very-latent anti-globalism (for which read anti-Americanism) to the surface, and the ‘pollution scandal’ – in a country which has frequently had its differences with the two US soft drinks companies – could come to represent the same focus of hostility that, say, Mecca-Cola or Cola Turka have germinated elsewhere.

Meanwhile, should it emerge that Coke and Pepsi have indeed employed double standards in the quality of water they use – one for the US, another for the rest of the world – they will also face flak from more sophisticated, and in some ways more vociferous, pressure groups in the West. No matter that the so-called polluted water may actually prove pretty harmless, it is the complacent corporate attitude towards exploiting weak regulation in poorer countries which will be used to galvanise public attention.

Like Caesar’s wife, corporate reputations have to be above suspicion. Nike (partly thanks to Naomi Klein) learned it the hard way, Nestlé is still learning it the hard way. Now Coke and Pepsi seem to have embarked on the same voyage of corporate self-discovery.

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