The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper, serving Greater Manchester

Debate – Should the Students’ Union boycott brands?

Alex Goldhill and Antonia Jennings debate whether the Students’ Union should enforce boycotts

By and

YES – Alex Goldhill

The Students’ Union is first and foremost a democratic organisation, run by students elected from the body it represents, and with a limited amount of funding. It is bound by two main duties, the first to represent the will of the student body (or at least the part of the student body that actually bothers to take an interest in these things), and the second, to ensure that the resources under its control are used in the interest of the students.

I believe in maintaining the Union boycott of certain brands for two reasons; one ethical and the other health related.

The ethical reasons are fairly straightforward.

Coca Cola, which is not stocked in the union on ethical grounds  has a long history of human rights abuses, both against its workers and against third-parties. The Colombia Solidarity Campaign (CSC) started the International Boycott following the murders of eight Sinaltrainal (Colombian Food and Drinks Workers’ Union) which they say the company is complicit in. There have been numerous past boycotts against the company also, and elsewhere it has been reported that Coca Cola is responsible for groundwater shortages at their bottling plants in India, according to the India Resource Center.  The boycott allows the Students’ Union to send a message to the world, on behalf of its members, that this will not be tolerated.

Firstly, by continuing to punish brands for their past actions we send a message to the industry that these policies will have long-term negative effects, discouraging others from employing them and also by making an example. Secondly, Coca Cola is an industry leader and by highlighting them we send a message to the industry as a whole.

As for the health reasons, I am sure it will come as no surprise to you that the fizzy drinks and sweets provided by brands such as Nestle and Coca Cola are not exactly healthy. Now I won’t argue that the Union should boycott Coca Cola in order to save the students from unhealthy products; that argument is flawed on so many levels. It’s patronising to students to tell them what they can and cannot drink, the widespread availability of these brands makes such an effort ineffective, and it’s downright hypocritical whilst the Union still supplies cigarettes, alcohol and other unhealthy products (another debate for another day).

By boycotting Coca Cola the Union frees up its budget to supply the students with better alternatives, both in terms of health and ethics.

NO – Antonia Jennings

Our Students’ Union is not there to make our decisions. It is there to support students, and represent the diverse demographic that makes up our student body. The range of opinions the students at the University of Manchester have should be reflected by our Students’ Union, which should be impartial and politically independent. By boycotting certain products it appears as though the union is acting politically on our behalf, something I don’t think anybody wants or expects it to do.

If people want to boycott brands such as Nestle or Coca Cola, of course they can and will. If enough students wanted the SU to not supply certain brands, they would choose not to buy them – resulting in a lack of demand, and the SU would stop ordering these products. The fact is the Students’ Union not stocking certain brands does not even make a negligible impact. If students are determined to buy a Nestle product, a two minute walk to Sainsbury’s will let them.

The companies and brands the Students’ Union boycotts seem to be chosen in an ununiformed manner. While it is true Nestle and Coca Cola have terrible unethical scandals to their name, we should scrutinise other companies such as GlaxoSmithKline. The University continues to receive huge amounts of money from the pharmaceutical giant, despite its $3billion fine from the Food and Drugs Association (FDA) this year for improper marketing and unethical behaviour. The Students’ Union has not publicly protested about this at all, even following Andrew Witty, CEO of GSK receiving an honorary degree from the University this year.

I am all for boycotting unethical brands. However, I do not think that the Students’ Union should be doing this on our behalf, without all students voting on the matter. With turnouts as low as they are for referendums such as this one (often less than 5% of the student body), it is unjust for the Students’ Union to make a decision that will affect all students. If people want to boycott products they can and should, but it is not the place of the Students’ Union to do so.

  • Laura

    I want a union worthy of the name, that takes real action and is community and ethically minded. I am glad unions act politically on behalf of their members, they would be pretty pointless bodies otherwise.

    I don’t understand the author’s complaint about the SU’s boycott of Nestle as affecting all students when she herself admits students can choose to buy boycotted products in the very near vicinity. I am even more confused by her complaints that the SU fails to boycott GSK, given that they come in the middle of a piece complaining about the SU boycotting anything at all. I am REALLY confused by her argument that the SU should only take decisions after a vote, but that so few students vote that it is unjust for them to make decisions at all.

    The impact that Nestle’s policies wrt infant formula had in the developing world is hideous. Has the author forgotten why people boycott Nestle? I’m glad our union cares more about the lives of children than the right of students to buy whatever they please.

  • Richard Crook

    It cares when it’s convenient. I’m not sure refusing to ban cigarettes, far worse than Nestle in every possible way, because it would be too financially damaging (despite the argument from campaigners last year that money was an irrelevant argument with coke) shows much love for the developing world.

    If we’re going to stop unethical products, why don’t we start with staff/exec free iPads? The people with those iPads are the same people who mobilised the vote to remove coke from our unions.

    http://mancunion.com/2012/11/20/the-unions-ethical-problem/