In my 10 years at The Coca-Cola Company, we have made great progress in implementing and demonstrating respect for human rights across our supply chain. It has not been easy, and frequently involves complicated issues, where we must engage multiple stakeholder perspectives and acknowledge competing interests. One such critical issue is land rights.

It has now been over a year since we made our commitment on zero-tolerance for land grabs. As part of the rigorous value chain analysis of our human rights impacts that we undertake, land rights had surfaced as one of the risks. However, it was through Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign on land rights and sugar, in which we gained a greater understanding of the issue and risks. We mobilized quickly as we recognized this as a gap in our Sustainable Agriculture Guiding Principles (SAGP). Our SAGP, which outlines our expectations to suppliers all the way to the farm level, demonstrates the importance the company places on transparency and accountability across our supply chain.

In 2014, our work on land rights has centered on building the Coca-Cola system’s knowledge and capabilities, establishing requisite policies, engaging with our NGO partners, bottlers and suppliers and advocating for respect for land rights. As part of our commitment, we are undertaking nearly 30 third-party country studies on land rights, child labor and forced labor through 2020, including those that represent our top 16 critical cane sugar sourcing countries. These studies serve as an important vehicle to build system-wide understanding of our policies and importantly enable us to better mitigate any potential future violations. The initial studies focused on Colombia and Guatemala will be published in early 2015. Other studies to follow include El Salvador and Brazil.

We are working actively with our suppliers to help ensure respect for and prevention of violations of land rights across the Coca-Cola supply chain. In February, we issued guidance on Land Rights to our suppliers that provides clear operational direction on our expectations. In addition, we are updating our Supplier Guiding Principles implementation guide, which will further address land rights. We have worked closely with select suppliers on alleged land rights violations following allegations in Cambodia and Brazil made by Oxfam and directly to the company. We always try to work with suppliers on corrective action, if issues arise. Discussions with these suppliers are ongoing.  

More broadly, we continue to use our voice to encourage our suppliers, industry and governments to respect land rights, including discussions with other private sector actors in and outside our industry and through participation at several major international events at the FAO, World Bank’s Land and Poverty Conference, and the OECD Global Forum on Responsible Business Conduct.

We have learned a lot this past year as we work on the implementation of our land rights commitment. Importantly, 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. 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.

Stakeholder engagement continues to be central and we have dedicated time and resources to building our collective understanding of land rights and its implications for the Coca-Cola supply chain. Partners such as Landesa, which have provided counsel on our policy and approach, and other thought leaders across civil society, government and the private sector, have been essential. To that end, we were pleased to host a land rights convening in October in Atlanta with 25 external experts who provided input and shared best practices on conducting Land Rights studies. As a result of their input, we are revising the initial two studies on Colombia and Guatemala before they are made publicly available.

Building upon over a decade of experience in human rights, I am confident that we have the tools, systems and processes to successfully implement respect for land rights. This is a process that will take time and we are committed to sustained and meaningful engagement.  

Ed Potter is director of global workplace rights at The Coca-Cola Company.