Bart Elmore, the author of Citizen Coke, is a historian. He teaches History of American Capitalism: Making America Modern and the Coca-Cola Capitalism: History of American Business at the Ohio State University. Currently we works on his new book Seed Money: How the Monsanto Company’s Quest for Power Remade Our World that will offer the first global environmental history of the St. Louis firm, tracing Monsanto’s astounding evolution from making DDT to manipulating DNA.
Please read an exclusive interview generously granted by Bart Elmore to CSR BootIQ.
Water is one of the scarce resources we no longer afford to waste. How long do you think it would take before Cokeand others would be forced to admit the harm they have done (to both communities and environment)?
Today, Coke CEO James Quincey and sustainability folks at Coca-Cola express a sincere interest in improving the environmental footprint of the company. I really have no reason to question the sincerity of their claims to want to do good in the world. If we look back to Coca-Cola’s past, there have been other executives in high positions in the firm that have shown an interest in environmental sustainability. I’m thinking specifically of Paul Austin, Coca-Cola’s leader in the 1960s and 1970s, who I believe–after many years of reading through Cokearchival documents–was someone who did care about the environment. The problem in Austin’s case (and I think with most leaders at Coca-Cola) is that he never really questioned the fundamental metric Coke uses to assess whether it is generating value. That is the thing Coke executives are most reluctant to confront: a model for making money that depends on selling more beverages next year than it did last year. There is nothing ecologically sound about that perpetual-growth model and until the company begins to fundamentally question this principle that is at the heart of Coke’s sales strategy, I don’t think we’ll see truly transformative changes on the water front, or on other fronts for that matter.
There is an increased economic pressure on suppliers that would eventually lead to social consequences and extreme environmental damage. As an environmental historian, how many past mistakes do you think the humanity would make until humans would learn their lesson?
The logic that looks to Coca-Cola or any corporate supplier to solve our global ecological problems is a distraction. People always ask me, „What can Coke do to become environmentally sustainable?” This is the wrong question. The story of Coca-Cola is a story of citizens building infrastructure that Coca-Cola used to make its commercial empire. In other words, its a story that should show average citizens that they are the builders in our global economy. With that understanding of where real power lies, I’m hoping people will stop looking upwards for change and realize that we are the ones that set the rules and the ones with the natural, social, and political capital to bring about transformative change. Coke is not going to fix our global water problems; we will.
In Citizen Coke you highlight the fact that the book is not exclusively about Coca-Cola, but about a business model that is about to become business as usual (and you mention Microsoft, Apple, McDonald’s). In your view, is this something that would continue to replicate?
Historians are always loath to prognosticate, but what we see in the twentieth century is a pattern that has continued into the twenty-first century where brokers (firms that act as middlemen, making money off transactions) rather than doers (firms that actually make the stuff we consume) attain profits that place them at the top of our economy in terms of net income earned each year. Confronting this reality should force us to ask whether we might want an economy that distributes capital rewards differently. Considering all the environmental problems we face today, and the real ecological challenges that businesses might be using their capital to solve, it is a strange state of affairs that the selling of sugary brown water (a nonessential, luxury item) sits at the top of a Fortune 500 list that represents, in some sense, the most important things we value. What does this say about us?
There is a new wave known as activist CEO. Do you give it any chance?
If there’s any lesson from environmental history, it’s that people do matter. Having an important, visionary figure who wants to think outside the box could be a game-changer for some firms. But as I mentioned above, such an individual will have to do more than roll out well-worn messages about improving efficiency and reducing waste. Efficiency only gets you so far, and in fact, if you don’t question models that depend on perpetual growth, than in the end, efficiency will likely result in the use of more resources than before efficiency gains were first made. To be truly revolutionary, then, firms need to have hard conversations with shareholders about generating value in other ways other than selling more widgets next year than they did last year. I think of someone like Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia as someone who seems to get it. He once told his customers „don’t buy this jacket,” speaking of his own product. That’s the kind of thinking we need in the twenty-first century.
You end your book as follows: “We should be the ones setting the price for public resource use rather than the ones accepting the bill for corporate waste. Reclaiming that history of citizenship, one that rightfully challenges a culture of corporate dependency and restores faith in the power of private citizens to develop public systems to deal with collective problems, is the first step toward sustainability—as we must come to know it.” How can We, The People(s) (this is how the UN Charter begins) regain control over public resource prices? How can we make corporations pay for the corporate waste? And how can we restore faith in the power of citizenship after so many years of corporate dominance?
In the United States, a country that can play a considerable role in shaping transformative change considering its historic role in transforming our global economy in the last century, real change begins with campaign finance reform. Today, our government answers to special interests and big-dollar donors. We can make substantive changes to laws governing elections that would change that. If we want to give humanity a fighting chance to live on a planet that can keep them happy, hydrated, and well-fed, we have to start there. And then, we have to make laws that place prohibitive price-tags on polluting behavior. We have relied largely on a tort system in this country to deter bad corporate behavior and that system simply has proven ineffective at curbing ecologically-unsound practices. We have an EPA today that is enervated and that is allowing corporations to self-regulate. This is a recipe for disaster and it has been brought about, in part, because of corporate dollars that flow into our political system. That is why I say a revolutionary environmental movement must begin with campaign finance reform. It may not be a sexy talking point, but it will inevitably be the starting point for the major changes we need to see at home and beyond our borders.