When Ethics and Business Meet

When Ethics and Business Meet: Coca Cola’s 5 by 20 Campaign

by Andrew Schwartz

This session was tough to sit through. It wasn’t the speaker’s fault nor was it the resolutions being discussed. Quite the opposite in fact.  What Coca Cola is doing in developing countries is amazing and commendable… yet it is still off putting. A little context: the session I attended at the BSR Conference in New York was focused on Coca Cola’s “5 by 20″ campaign. The campaign (modestly) seeks to empower 5 million women by 2020 by providing expanded opportunities to impoverished women throughout their entire supply chain. Amazing.

This campaign has led to women becoming business owners, which in turn has lifted their entire families out of poverty. As speaker Charlotte Oades, Global Director, Women’s Economic Empowerment for Coca Cola pointed out, women are often the number one spender in the home. They disproportionately make the decisions about how money is spent for the family and are typically the ones who spend money in the communities. Rather than depending on the traditional patriarchal model of business ownership, Coca Cola has aimed to quite literally cut out the middleman by empowering women to be the breadwinners.

Coca Cola has identified four regions to implement this project: Brazil, India, the Philippines, and Africa. It is here where my problem lies: Coca Cola is only implementing this program in markets they are trying to expand into. In short, Coca Cola is using impoverished women to sell their products and they are doing it all under the pretenses that it is a ‘humanitarian project.’ Yes, Coca Cola is empowering impoverished women and yes, the program is improving communities it has been implemented in but they are unabashedly using poor women to ultimately make them (Coca Cola, not the women) richer. As Ms. Oades pointed out, women, as a market opportunity, are a larger market than China and India combined. By supporting women now they are ensuring brand loyalty for generations to come.

The question is one of morals and ethics. What Coca Cola is doing is, in fact, good business. However, should morals and ethics be tied to profit margins? My point: as of 2011, there are just over 29.6 million impoverished people in America. Of those 29.6 million, 17 million are women. However, there is no mention of Coca Cola implementing its empowerment programs here in the USA. Like the women of India, Brazil, the Philippines, and Africa, impoverished women in, say, East Harlem or Seattle, WA, could benefit tremendously from the workshops, jobs training, and business management skills that Coca Cola is offering.

However, unlike their international counterparts the women in Seattle and East Harlem are already dedicated Coca Cola consumers. From the business side, there is no real ROI from empowering women in the States, or say Europe, Canada, Mexico, etc. because they already are loyal to the brand. India, however, represents somewhere near a billion potential consumers. Its brilliant marketing and I would love it more if it weren’t so blatantly exploiting poor women and their communities.

This critique can be taken two ways. One, I’m anti-corporate philanthropy as well as being whiny because my community (NYC) is being overlooked. Or, two, I respect what Coca Cola is doing for impoverished women (even though the campaign is ethically tenuous) but I want to push them into pursuing philanthropic endeavors, not due to the potential ROI, but because it is morally and ethically commendable.

Either way, there is no denying the good that Coca Cola is producing in the four markets they are pursuing or that this program will positively impact far more than their “5 million women” mark. Even more, Coca Cola actually seems to be listening to what the people in these countries actually need. Ms. Oades was explicit in the importance of creating local partnerships to get this project off the ground. They have partnered with local big businesses, civil society, and local governments to ensure that this project comes together to serve the women that they are targeting. They are listening to the voices of the women, asking them what they want and need in order to be successful. By laying this groundwork, Coca Cola is able to directly provide services and training that will have immediate positive impacts on the women’s lives.

Although I have my critiques and ultimately am uncomfortable about why Coca Cola is helping these women, I do believe that Coca Cola has provided a model that is worthy of replicating. From a strictly business perspective, it not only has the potential to improve the lives of upwards of 5 million women. It also provides Coca Cola with excellent PR and billions of new thirsts to quench. While business ethics should not be tied to ROI, compared to many Coca Cola is making steps towards – and is being a decent model of – corporate social responsibility.

Editor’s Note: I appreciate Andrew’s passion for purely egalitarian motives by large corporate entities. However, when you really think about it- Coca Cola’s 5 by 20 campaign is a good example of social enterprise on a multimillion dollar scale. To use for profit methods to solve a social problem IS social enterprise, not corporate philanthropy. Looking at the 5 by 20 program as a social enterprise rather than as purely philanthropic endeavor, it begins to look even better.

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