Coke using Honest Tea to provide both refreshment, responsibility

By Chelsea Fiddyment

As a vocalist and self-proclaimed coffee aficionado, I will heartily admit to dabbling in coffee’s sister beverage, tea. While I have never been a serious iced tea drinker (give me the hot stuff any day), I chanced upon an appealing-sounding brand last year which boasts delicious, minimally sweetened organic bottled teas. It was called Honest Tea. The organic symbol, and in some cases, additional Fair Trade certification, intrigued me enough to purchase a few bottles. I found them quite to my liking, and have been a customer of the brand ever since – that is, when I can find it at the store.

This, however, may be an obstacle Honest Tea shortly surmounts. Just last month, the organic upstart from Bethesda, MD agreed to sell Coca-Cola a 40 percent share of their company. This large of an investment will conceivably provide Honest Tea with greater distribution, allowing them to sell their products in a much wider range of stores and to an increasing variety of consumers.

I can’t say that it wouldn’t be nice to have greater availability of products I enjoy. I definitely can’t say that I wouldn’t be pleased to see other consumers buying organic- and Fair Trade-certified products, as opposed to Snapple, Lipton, or Starbucks’s Tazo.

Maybe the idealist in me even hopes that this push to make organic tea mainstream might encourage Americans to care more about what they drink. But before I get too carried away in my daydream of a happy, hippie, tea-drinking, rainbow-filled world of sparkles and ponies, let’s consider the other half of this merger.

The Coca-Cola Company is the largest beverage company in the world. But according to Brandweek, Coke’s share of the non-carbonated drink market, and in particular the tea market, has remained quite low despite its purchases of Fuze and Gold Peak brand teas. They hope to change this through their acquisition of Honest Tea. Does Coca-Cola care about my vision of a tea-drinking America?

Chances are slim, especially when the business’ vending machines carry more soda (including Vault, the mutant lovechild of Mountain Dew and some similarly repugnant energy drink) than bottled water (actual water, not “Vitaminwater.” Water doesn’t need vitamins; it’s water for Christ’s sake).

While Honest Tea’s goal may be to bring organic products to the mainstream market, it doesn’t seem to be a central concern of Coca-Cola’s – at least, one that goes behind a desire to cash in on the growing popularity of organic food culture.

Still more troubling is Coca-Cola’s track record with bottling plants. While not all of Honest Tea’s varieties are also Fair Trade-certified, at least four of them are, which at least is a step in the direction toward mainstream Fair Trade products.

Aside from this, the growing tea company also offers varieties which advocate social justice causes such as CityYear, an AmeriCorps program that gives 17- to 24-year-olds an opportunity to spend a year actively improving the quality of life in American cities.

This kind of social consciousness from a company seems to run counter to rumors surrounding Coca-Cola’s treatment of its employees, most notably in one of their Colombian bottling plants in 2001. The International Labor Rights Fund sued the beverage giant over the death of a factory employee, who was purported to have been murdered by paramilitary group members who were attempting to violently dissuade the plant workers from unionizing.

The charges were eventually dismissed, though somewhat disconcertingly. A judge ruled that Coca-Cola didn’t have enough control in its plants to be held liable for the incident. Buying up Honest Tea might just be Coca-Cola’s weak attempt at offsetting opinions about the scandals – a kind of embarrassed shrug to the public, asking if we’d please just let bygones be bygones and go back to assuming that only drug trafficking happens in Colombia.

And despite Honest Tea’s aspiration to reach a broader demographic (and command a better market share) with their tasty tea, is it worth it to potentially risk tarnishing their wholesome reputation by becoming glommed into the mass of companies under the corporate umbrella of Coca-Cola? I don’t know about you, but I can already see the rain clouds rolling in over my sunny, tea-based daydream.

Chelsea is a junior in English and music and knows coffee isn’t good for your throat.