For several years now the Coca-Cola Company has charted a careful, politically neutral path to sustainability, and now it has suddenly veered into new, progressive, territory. Coca-Cola has abruptly pulled its funding from the conservative lobbying organization American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The move follows closely on the heels of negative publicity over Coca-Cola’s ties to ALEC, coupled with the announcement of an online petition asking the company to withdraw from the group.
On the surface it may appear that Coca-Cola’s response is an isolated reaction to a self-contained controversy, but in fact it is part of a broader trend among major corporations, and it could indicate a real tipping point for the corporate support of lobbying groups that focus on conservative causes for some funders and neglect the sustainability initiatives of others.
Some things don’t go better with Coke
In announcing that it would no longer provide funding to ALEC, Coca-Cola cited the group’s involvement in political issues that were unrelated to its foundational business interests. By a coincidence of timing that appears to refer directly to ALEC’s promotion of voter ID legislation, which has the effect of suppressing votes in minority populations – an important growth market for Coca-Cola products. ALEC is also the author of model legislation which led to Florida’s “stand your ground” law which some have criticized as a “license to kill.” The law’s impact has been cited in the Trayvon Martin case.
Although not mentioned in Coca-Cola’s official statement, ALEC’s climate change denial activities may also have played a role in the company’s decision to cut funding. ALEC is deeply involved in promoting model climate change denial legislation that is clearly at odds with Coca-Cola’s core sustainability efforts, particularly in regards to the company’s signature water stewardship efforts.
Coca-Cola joins corporate sustainability exodus
Coca-Cola’s action is deeply significant, given the company’s high profile and its close association with American culture. However, it is by no means the first time that a global corporate giant with a forward-looking sustainability model has severed its ties to business groups that are stuck in the past.
Just last week, GM announced that it would no longer provide funding to the lobbying organization The Heartland Institute, which is notorious for its role in delaying effective federal action on climate change. GM, maker of the electric-gas hybrid Chevy Volt, has recently seen sales of its award-winning car soar despite a two-year smear campaign spearheaded by conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh.
In the past few years the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also taken hits from a growing roster of major companies that have either distanced themselves from the Chamber’s denialist position on climate change or have quit the organization outright. That includes Apple, U.S. energy giant Exelon and other utilities, Nike, Johnson & Johnson, and Microsoft among others.
Coca-Cola leads a new phase of corporate social responsibility
Over the years Coca-Cola has proved that it is an expert in spotting and analyzing social trends that provide it with a competitive edge across a broad spectrum of retail consumers, so while the company may be running with the pack in its disavowal of ALEC, there is no denying that its ability to respond so swiftly to the ALEC controversy is rooted in its leadership association with sustainability initiatives as well as diversity issues.
In terms of corporate damage control, so far Coca-Cola is providing a textbook case of how to do things the right way, and it’s a sure bet that other ALEC funders are sitting up and taking notice.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.