Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Book Notes: "Belching Out The Devil" by Mark Thomas

Campaigning comedian and journalist Mark Thomas' latest target for his satirical expose is The Coca-Cola Company. Fast-paced, easy-reading, but containing some shocking revelations, Thomas travels the world to reveal the misdemeanours of the worlds biggest brand, from violations of labour rights in the developing world, to over-extraction of water in drought-ridden areas, to allegations of collaboration with violent union-busting gangs in Columbia.

Mark Thomas writes with passion, anger, wit, eloquence and an appalling overuse of foul language. He also rants, (but ranting with style, is OK by me). The result is hardly a balanced or nuanced discussion, but a deliberate attempt to marshall all the evidence to persuade the reader not to purchase Coke again - and to stimulate a grass-roots alternative to the shiny corporate image which Coca-Cola spends billions every year marketing. In this task he is very successful and persuasive.

Of particular note are three things. Firstly Coca-Cola's refusal to take coherent responsibility for the whole "Coca-Cola System". That is to say that while the company makes the syrup for all Coke - mixing and bottling is carried out by franchisees, whose malevolent actions Coke seeks to distance itself from. The reason that this is disingenuous is that (i) Coke control all other aspects of mixing, branding, marketing, site location etc - but claim not to be able to ensure basic workers rights, which is unpersuasive (ii) Coke actually own/control most of these sub-contracted firms (iii) Coke actively claim responsibility for any good that these sub-contractors claim e.g. number of jobs created by 'Coca-Cola'! Thomas' book is a sustained demand that Coca-Cola actively take responsibility for the whole system - ensuring that what happens in communities and bottling plants throughout the world actually follows the fine-sounding policy documents and corporate social-responsibility documents regularly published by the head-office.

Secondly, Thomas' book exposes the way on which Coca-Cola consistently refused to be drawn on any of the key issues about effects of their business model on vulnerable people in countries as diverse as Peru, Mexico or India. Lists of unanswered questions, corporate spin, interviews avoided and misleading press releases all make a sorry tale of a company happy to make huge profits in the developing world, but deeply resistant to challenges to the many ills which take place under its logo. Following reading the book I went to the Coca-Cola website, and trawled their press-releases to see if there were refutations of any of the specific claims made in the book, and in the Channel 4 Dispatches programme that accompanied it. I was surprised to find not one mention of any of the issues involved, and the company essentially being in denial about it - focusing instead on relentless promotion of their brand image.

Thirdly the book highlights the stories of many of the people and movements throughout the world who are seeking to resist the dominance of, and exploitation they have suffered at the hands of Coca-Cola; from bottling plants where to join the union can mean death or beatings, to Indian villagers whose wells have dried -up because of Coke's excess water-extraction, to other soft-drink producers who have had illegal and shockingly brutal campaigns against them by Coke seeking to maintain its monopoly in a market.

Finally the book is entitled "Belching out the devil" because on one of Thomas' trips he discovers a fringe Catholic cult, who use Coke (and its gaseous after-effects) in bizarre exorcism ceremonies. Paradoxically, of course, Thomas is asking us to see that he devil of the piece is the sugary brown fizzy stuff itself, and the irresponsible actions of the global corporation who make it. A fascinating read.

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