Coke and Capitalism: A Conversation with Bart Elmore
“I guess those are my two visions. One is to have a conversation with people in the firm. The other is to suggest what we can do as citizens, right now, through legislation and through other means, to make corporations change the business landscape.”
In his new book, Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism, Bart Elmore, professor of environmental history at the University of Alabama, opens a window on to the story of the role of major corporations in the modern world. It’s a longer view of history and humanity that news cycles and market cycles rarely invite, particularly when it comes to questions of sustainability and public health.
Elmore himself is a kind of prism on the story of Coca-Cola in this century. Growing up in Atlanta—the heartland of Coke—and attending a school that was supported by the company, he continues to have great affection for the soft drink, but in his book he asks challenging questions about the sustainability and responsibility of the corporation. He argues that in a globalized world, we all have a personal stake in how this story unfolds.
Listen to our conversation here, or download the mp3 (right-click and “save as”). Edited transcript, below.
Alex Rudnick: I looked at some of the other interviews that you’ve done, and you talked a lot about the ubiquity of Coke in your life—that some of the Coke money had gone to fund Emory and had funded your high school, so I was curious: Coke is a southern story, but it doesn’t seem to be one that’s talked about that much.
Bart Elmore: Yeah, and why, I think that was one of the questions that was interesting to me. What is it about the South that makes us kind of drawn to the agricultural products or the extractive industries of timber, and cotton and tobacco? But I ultimately thought: No, it’s Coke, look at that thing, that thing is everywhere, let’s tackle that story.
Over time, trying to say this was a southern story uniquely became kind of challenging because it really just quickly became a global story. Almost nothing in the drink is American or southern; it’s West African kola nut; coca leaf from Peru; cassia oil from China; sugar from the Caribbean; this thing, in many ways, was just an international product.
For me, I think, well, Coke just bucks all of these trends; it’s kind of an assembler of sorts. When you look at the winners of the twenty-first century, they’re not U.S. Steel, in many ways they’re these businesses that found ways to remain middlemen. They make money off of the transaction not the producing of the stuff or the distributing of the stuff.
This was a book that was never meant to be just about Coke. Coke shows us these patterns, but it also shows us these connections to Monsanto, Hershey and General Foods. It quickly became a story of all these different partners. It’s finding out those other networks that make these businesses possible that I think was really fun.
AR: Take me through that story. How does it bring us to the larger point you’re making in the book?
BE: I think this is a story in which contingency is a key component of the narrative. Asa Candler is the president of the Coca-Cola Company in 1891, and he decides in 1899 that he’s going to allow people to bottle Coca-Cola, which he didn’t really want to do.
He thought that bottling Coca-Cola would be a stupid decision because bottling at that time was very rudimentary. He thought that bottlers around the country would ruin Coke’s good name, the quality of the drink, and those kinds of things. You know, spiders, and mice, and various things were getting into the bottles at that time. He didn’t want any of that, but he agrees to do it because two lawyers from Chattanooga said: “Hey, we really think we can make some money off of this, give us a chance.” Legend has it that he signed away the rights to bottle Coca-Cola for basically one dollar.
There’s just a great moment of contingency where it could have gone another way. The question is, would Coca-Cola be a national brand in the way that it is today if he had just said: “No, we don’t want to do that. We’re a soda fountain company.” But in the end, he does.
I think that story is really indicative of a lot of the stories in the book where people make decisions within the firm that seemingly are kind of small decisions, or maybe inconsequential, to some degree at the time, but then they have these huge repercussions.
AR: It seemed to me that a major takeaway of the book, and maybe not one you started with, was the notion of sustainability and the role that governments play in the subsidization of different parts of the corporate structure.
BE: Yah, I mean honestly, when I first started writing, those things weren’t really at the forefront. Basically, the way I did it was to say: look, I just want to answer where the ingredients came from. Doing that chapter by chapter without really know what the overall thesis was going to be, and see if I can tell this story.
At first what I noticed was this government relationship. It struck me with the public water supply story; how this Progressive Era expansion of public pipes made the bottling enterprises possible. With the sugar story it’s a story of tariffs and the ways in which refineries were supported; there’s a story of government there. Or the coca leaf—I think there’s a clear government story.
But, when I got to the caffeine chapter I realized that this thesis that I thought I was developing really didn’t fit so well with for the caffeine chapter because there wasn’t as strong a government presence in that story. So, it was actually in the fourth chapter where I realized, [Coke] isn’t using government to get these things, it’s really using pretty much anybody. In other words, wow, they don’t own things.
AR: It seems like the fact that it’s not just a business history, but it’s an environmental history, that really allowed you to bring that argument to the forefront.
BE: What I love about environmental history is exactly that, it just allows you to go wherever you need to go. Indiana Jones was my inspiration as a young boy. I was always Indiana Jones for Halloween, and I’m a real outdoorsman. I like the adventure. So, I think I was well suited for this project because it did require me to get on the ground.
I did go to India and try to see for myself what the impacts of these bottling plants were in certain parts of India. Just to try to confirm things because there is so much misinformation out there. Then I went to Peru with my dad, and we went around Lima and Cuzco, and talked to people about the coca trade and the relationship between Coca-Cola and the Peruvian government.
I was really doing investigative journalism. I followed them on Twitter . . . then I joined their Civic Action Network. This is a hidden political action network that they created that you can sign up for, and they send you emails about political actions that they want you, as a citizen, to take part in, to contribute to causes that ultimately benefit Coke.
For example, when Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on sixteen-ounce soft drinks came out I got an email immediately that day saying: “Here’s his Twitter account, here’s his email address, here’s his phone number, here’s the other people in city government that you want to contact. Call them today. Write them today. Tell them you want this ban gone.” It was great. They were showing me what their lobbying tactic was and were activating me.
AR: The soft drink and obesity connection is an interesting one. You point out in the book that there’s a local component to Coca-Cola, which seems to go all of the way through the story, where local vendors and communities become dependent on Coke in a lot of different ways.
BE: I was lucky enough to have access to documents in the basement of the American Beverage Association, which was the lobbying group for the soft drink industry. I have no idea why they let me in there, but they did. Ultimately, my access was cut off—in part because the person who let me in left the company—but, I saw then, probably in 2007 or 2008, the issue that was the biggest thing for them, was obesity. They knew it. This was the writing on the wall.
As I say in the beginning of that chapter: it’s one thing to say you’re producing junk—in terms of the packaging and waste—but it’s another thing to say your product itself is junk. You can change the packaging, and you can do those things for the environmental issues, but when becomes that the product itself is problematic that’s when it gets really troublesome.
They’ve known for while that this is the big issue, and they’ve been really fighting really hard. Since 2004, in the United States soft-drink consumption has fallen by twenty percent. We’ve seen in Berkeley, for example, the passage of soda taxes to try and put a price on the medical costs of not just obesity, but also diabetes and other associated diseases.
I think those are good, but they have to recognize that, as you said, the fact that small vendors do actually benefit from selling sugary products. One of the things we have to figure out is: how do we support vendors to transition to a healthy economy? How do we support small business people that previously made profit on sugary drinks? How do we figure in their economic needs? These are big questions without a lot of answers, but I think that the history suggests that we can’t just think of obesity as just a medical issue that doesn’t affect the pocketbook of businessmen.
AR: Are people asking you about Coke and sustainability, and the lessons that can be learned from this history?
BE: Within corporations there are people that I know who are having a conversation with Coke about it . . . but we rarely see historians or anyone that does history in sustainability departments within [any] firms. How can you try out a sustainability path when you have very little real, rigorous sense of the history of your firm?
For me the book was always about the citizens, not necessarily about Coke itself. What we can do to put pressure on businesses to do the things we want them to do? That’s how I’d really like the book to be read. Not necessarily what Coke can do, but what, as citizens, we can do to reclaim control over the natural resources that we think are really important and valuable.
One of the big lessons of the book is: if you don’t make corporations pay for the pollution they generate then they’ll keep doing it. In the case of recycling in the United States we’ve kind of subsidized a lot of throwaway technologies instead of putting a real price tag on those things we don’t think are good and seeing if businesses would adapt. Maybe we can go back to returnable systems or other systems that might be more ecologically friendly.
AR: It’s too bad Coke won’t talk to you more directly. In some ways it seems like they become more shadowy when you don’t have contact with actual people in the organization.
BE: I’m not necessarily surprised by it. I think at the time they probably just looked at me as an annoying grad student who wasn’t a big deal. They were kind of silent until the book came out and then they became a lot more aggressive. They wrote a response to something I wrote in the Atlanta Business Chronicle saying how I don’t understand the free enterprise system, or something like that.
I agree with you completely it’s just silly. Nothing is going to get done if people are just saying: “It’s them versus us.” That was never the intention. I do not think there are bad humans in Coca-Cola doing bad things intentionally to ruin the planet. I sincerely believe a lot of them want to do good.
But I think we need history if we are really going to be able to make sustainable businesses, and we don’t have any history as part of the conversation of sustainably today. I just don’t think we’re there. We’re not in the room, and that’s silly.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alex Rudnick is currently a graduate student in the departments of History and the History of Science at UW-Madison. She is currently working on a dissertation project that examines the history of public health and hunger in the United States. Email.
Song Credit: Waylon Thornton and the Heavy Hands, “Coca Cola Rock n’ Roll”