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How do big drinks companies exploit people in developing countries?

13:25Ciaran McCormick

Cola is a big business. Transparency Market Research reported that the non-alcoholic drinks market is expected to reach a value of $1,937 billion by 2020. Of course, a Coke is the iconic default option. Pepsi is the default alternative.

It is no surprise then that it has penetrated every part of our culture and advertising. But did you know that both cola corporate giants have been accused of exploiting the religious customs of people in developing countries such as Mexico to sell more product?


A large community of Tzotzil Indians are concentrated in the Chamula area of Chiapas state, southern Mexico. They number about 300,000 and have a diverse religious heritage which has seen traditional Mayan customs mix with the intrusion of Catholicism. In 1997 the Independent first reported on the impact of Coca Cola and PepsiCo in the region.

Many local people practise religious rituals. They consume ‘pox’, a sacrament made from cacti, that they believe cleanses their souls. The more pox they drink, the more that they believe they are purified from the influence of the devil. In recent years, local elites have persuaded their followers to combine this pox with either Pepsi or Coca Cola. They are led to believe that the burping that results helps exorcise the devil.

Whilst this could be seen as innocent enough, there are financial and political issues involved that make it troubling. It has been claimed that Coca Cola has paid spiritual leaders to use their product in the rituals themselves and that PepsiCo have responded in kind.

Local elites also use cola as a political tool. They have provided it free of charge to shopkeepers and on to the customers in return for the support of preferred political candidate. When a  can sells for 50 cents, the average daily income for a person in the region, you can see how powerful this influence can be when it is combined with the demand for the drinks for religious rituals.

In recent years, the severe impact of unhealthy carbonated beverages has been identified in the country. Mexico is the world’s number two consumer of sugary drinks and in 2013, they surpassed the United States as the most obese nation in the world.


The big drinks corporations have been unrelenting in their expansion in vulnerable developing countries and have gained a deep foothold. It has embedded in the culture of Mexico, where Coca Cola is used as medicine, gifts and even legal payment, in addition to its use in politics and religion.

PepsiCo Chairman and Chief Executive Indra Nooyi has described the nation as "one of the brightest stars" in Latin America. "We feel good about our business in Mexico”. report The nonprofit organisation Center for Science in the Public Interest released a report called 'Carbonating the World’ which exposed these trends and revealed that Coca Cola are investing $8.2 billion in Mexico by 2020 and PepsiCo are ploughing in $5 billion over five years. This is fighting the tide of public health protection.

Mexico are fighting back, introducing a tax on fizzy drinks in 2014 ahead of many Western nations that you might expect would go first. It led to an impressive short term reduction by adding a one peso charge for every litre. This added 10% to the price and reduce average consumption by at least 6%.

However, this had a disproportionate effect on poorer Mexicans where the reduction was most prominent. This highlights the way that the tax simply penalised cola drinkers rather than changing their attitudes by rooting out of cultural norms. Indeed, recent growth for both big companies shows that the tax has not stalled their long term growth.

The companies have made efforts to appear more conscious of their social and environmental impact. For example, they have launched campaigns to replenish the water that they use to manufacture their drinks. PepsiCo has planned to replace water at the source that it was taken from, as well as planting trees, restoring riverbanks and erecting fencing to prevent cattle drifting into environmentally vulnerable areas.

Nonetheless, even these efforts have been controversial. Coca Cola got into trouble for failing to restore their water to where it was taken, justifying it by saying that they had replenished water in other areas. The companies have been accused of greenwashing, where they talk the talk about being environmentally friendly to project a better image, but don’t fundamentally implement this into their business practices.

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