Earlier this year, The Coca-Cola Company released a pair of in-depth studies examining potential human rights impacts throughout its sugar supply chain in Colombia and Guatemala. 

This intensive, third-party research, which included sugar mill visits and interviews with local government, private sector and civil society organizations in the two countries, found no systemic grievances.  Coke will commission additional studies in Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras and other key sugar-producing markets.  As Ed Potter, director of global workplace rights at Coca-Cola, highlighted in his recent blog, the goal is to measure progress and to develop concrete actions to continuously improve workplace rights practices in the sugar industry and advance dialogue about the complex issues of child labor, forced labor and land rights.

This work advances the company’s longstanding commitment to driving transparency, accountability and sustainability throughout its business system and supply chain in close collaboration with bottlers, suppliers and stakeholder partners. Coke’s Human Rights Policy and Supplier Guiding Principles (SGP) provide the foundation for this commitment, which extends deep into the agricultural supply chain where many key ingredients in the company’s products originate.

In 2013, Coke publicly announced a commitment to sustainably source key agricultural ingredients by 2020.  The company is working with its partners and suppliers to help farmers operate more efficiently and sustainably by introducing measures to boost crop yields, cut production costs, reduce pesticide use and more.

At the same time, the company introduced Sustainable Agriculture Guiding Principles – which build on the SGP and set additional expectations for suppliers related to availability, quality and safety while helping to improve livelihoods and the well-being of farming communities and workers. The principles establish human and workplace rights, environmental stewardship and farm management criteria – including asking suppliers to protect the rights of communities to maintain access to land and natural resources – down to the farm level. 

“We know we can influence and improve livelihoods for hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of farmers by more active engagement,” Ben Jordan director of supplier sustainability at Coca-Cola said. “We expect our guiding principles to ultimately have the greatest impact at the farm level, where some of the greatest strides toward sustainability can be made. Our ultimate goal is to build respect for human rights and protection of workplace and human rights so that they stretch unbroken from our system back to the farm, the forest or wherever the points of origin of our raw materials may be.

Consumer expectations are increasingly high for brands, and as the company works to better understand impacts across its supply chain, engaging stakeholders throughout the process will be critical. 

In 2013, Coca-Cola worked with Oxfam to outline a concrete action plan to address land rights in its supply chain, including zero tolerance for land grabs. The company engaged NGO partners such as Landesa and other thought leaders, and hosted a land rights convening in October 2014 in Atlanta with 25 external experts who provided input and shared best practices on conducting land rights studies.  

This work is also importantly grounded and framed by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which The Coca-Cola Company endorsed in 2011.  Lloyd Lipsett, advisor with Shift, the leading center of expertise on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, says that “Coca-Cola’s impact assessment initiative should be commended as an important part of its broader commitment to human rights due diligence in its supply chain.  The approach of bringing civil society organizations and human rights experts together to discuss the first assessments should support continuous improvement.  Furthermore, the publication of these first assessments for Colombia and Guatemala signals a commitment to on-going transparency and engagement regarding the company’s human rights progress.”

In a recent blog from Oxfam they recognized that work on land rights is not an easy path, and that “(Oxfam) wants to encourage the company to stick with it and make course corrections when needed. In particular, we’re encouraged by Coca-Cola’s openness to learning how to conduct impact assessments better”.

“We have learned that our work on land rights is a process and that conducting these country human rights due diligence studies and getting them right is very challenging,” Ed Potter said. “We certainly do not have all the answers, but our approach is to continue to learn, be open and transparent, and provide the Coca-Cola system and our suppliers with a practical path that better enables us to recognize and safeguard the land rights of communities and traditional peoples.”

Promoting sustainability throughout the supply chain begins with going straight to the source to assess environmental and social impacts.  This effort will take time, and Coke is working in collaboration with its bottling partners, suppliers and others to help bring about the development of a healthy agricultural supply chain for the communities in which it operates.