A ‘Breach of Trust’

PepsiCo. Contract Renewed Without Student Consultation

Laura Beach, founder of TAPthirst (right), speaks for a transparent negotiation of the PepsiCo. contract outside the GM building on Oct. 27. The protest quickly turned into a peaceful sit-in (left) after administrators denied claims that there would be “no movement on the negotiation” for renewal of the contract. Photo Christopher Curtis & Laura Beeston
Photo Christopher Curtis & Laura Beeston
CSU President Heather Lucas protests with students Oct. 27. Photo Christopher Curtis

On his final Friday on the job, outgoing Concordia University VP Services Michael Di Grappa received a goodbye gesture he certainly won’t forget.

On Oct. 29, the senior administrator, along with two other directors, was issued a Mise en Demeure, or formal notice of legal challenge, for acting in bad faith after it was revealed the university had quietly renewed an exclusive vending machine contract with PepsiCo.

The soft drink giant—which has supplied beverages to vending machines on campus without competition since 1996—will remain at Concordia University until 2015.

A Secret, Summer Deal

A tip from an anonymous source in the Services department on the evening of Oct. 26 led to a veritable water war on campus between student groups and the administration, thrusting Concordia and its policies into the media spotlight last week.

That night, Di Grappa confirmed with The Link that an “agreement in principle” had been struck with PepsiCo. over the summer.

Laura Beach, who delivered the Mise en Demeure to Di Grappa, has a long history of water activism on campus as the co-founding member of the anti-water privatization student group TAPthirst.

Fronting the campaign since 2007, she maintains that members of the administration made agreements with her that “no movement would be made” on the contract until all parties—students, administrators and vendors—sat down to discuss bottled water on campus in the context of the contract.

The university has denied having made this agreement, with spokespeople stating that the renewal is “standard operating procedure” and “a normal course of activities.”

TAPthirst, the Concordia Student Union and Sustainable Concordia say their attempts to negotiate an environmentally friendly alternative to the agreement were undermined.

The groups made their grievances public on Oct. 26, when they took to Norman Bethune Square to demand consultation and transparency in contract negotiations.

Student Activism,
University Awareness

Last March, students discovered that Concordia’s 13-year contract with PepsiCo. was set to expire on Dec. 10, 2010.

With a target date in sight, and alongside a growing trend of universities across Canada banning the sale of bottled water on campus, Beach was outspoken in her mission to make Concordia the first university in Quebec to “take back the tap.”

Organizing Concordia’s first Bottled Water Free Day on March 11, Beach created a petition that garnered 250 signatures on its first day of circulation. The petition reached over 1,000 signatures by June.

“We’re looking for support from the administration, Hospitality Concordia and hopefully the president,” said Beach at the time. “I think this is the only way a movement can really be effective.”

With this goal in mind, Beach spent the majority of her summer attempting to set up a meeting with administrators from both the Services and Hospitality departments.

On June 17, Johanne De Cubellis, the associate director of Hospitality Concordia, wrote an e-mail to Beach that is at the center of the current controversy.

“We will have a meeting with Pepsi and provide opportunity for information exchange,” the e-mail read. “Therefore, no negotiations or decisions have/will be made prior.”

Hustling signatures of support from nearly every department and faculty on campus, Beach also prepared a letter to Concordia President Judith Woodsworth and a briefing document to Di Grappa.

Both documents outlined the environmental, health and socio-economic concerns of bottled water and water security, as well as the opportunity for change in December.

Environmental Policies,
Business as Usual

In May—as mandated by Di Grappa’s Services offices and requested by Hospitality Concordia—Concordia’s Environmental Assessment Committee held meetings to discuss the exclusivity contract and create recommendations for the administra- tion moving forward.

Beach, along with Faisal Shennib—an Environmental coordinator with Sustainable Con- cordia—was told in a meeting with Marc Gauthier on May 12 that this was the best way to get their objectives through to the administration.

Allegedly, Gauthier also reiterated that no movement will be made on negotiations or decisions regarding the contract until after all parties met with PepsiCo.

Meeting on May 17, the EAC outlined that no individually packaged bottled water should be sold on campus and that beverage contract negotiations should abide by both the University’s Strategic Plan and the Environmental Policy VPS-5.

The EAC recommended the contract ensured health, environmental and socially conscious products, suggesting 30 per cent of all products be supplied locally.

Their objectives also called for non-exclusivity, and the possibility of multiple suppliers so that “negotiations of the contracts will be clear, democratic and transparent, as per Law C-65.”

This Law—known as the Act Respecting Contracting by Public Bodies—standardizes all public-private partnership contracts in Quebec, mandating that any contract worth more than $100,000 go through an open bidding process.

However, because the PepsiCo. file was an existing contract with provisions for renewal, the university was not legally bound by the Act.

Beach said she considers this legal loophole a poor excuse that allows the university to ignore its own environmental policies.

The signatures, briefing and EAC recommendations on bottled water and negotiation of the contract were sent to Woodsworth and Di Grappa on July 7.

On Aug. 20, President Woods- worth gave her first public comment to The Link supporting the potential ban of water bottles, but made no mention of the contract.

A month later, Shennib received another e-mail from De Cubellis. In it she wrote, “There has not been any movement on the Pepsi file [which] is likely due to everyone’s vacation schedules.”

By all administrative accounts, however, the agreement in principle had already been reached at this time.
When asked why the administration failed to inform the student groups about the renewal, Chris Mota, director of communications, said it came down to business as usual.

“What organization do you know of where clients tell the organization who to sign contracts with?” said Mota. “It’s not how these kinds of decisions are made. […] Contracts are signed on a daily basis. Two people sit down, put the pen to paper and it’s done.”

“We will have a meeting with Pepsi and provide opportunity for information exchange. Therefore, no negotiations or decisions have/will be made prior.”

—Johanne De Cubellis,
associate director of
Hospitality Concordia

Selling Out

After the Oct. 27 sit-in, the university issued a statement in response to the increased media attention the contract had been receiving.

“The university has a strong commitment to sustainability and has been speaking with representatives of the industry to determine whether offering bottled water contravenes our principles,” it read. “The university has decided to renew its contract with Pepsi, […] however, the extension of the contract and the university’s position on bottled water are independent of each other.”

When asked why the administration failed to inform the student groups about the renewal, Chris Mota, director of communications, said it came down to business as usual. Not so, says Beach.

“We’ve been looking at the stipulations of the contract since the get-go,” she said. “That’s what sustainability is: looking at all of the systems that interact with each other.”

To date, the administration cannot explain how the renewed PepsiCo. contract pertains to Concordia’s official environmental policies, which spell out their commitment to “tender to suppliers that are local and/or committed to environmental sus- tainability.”

“I’m not sure what the tie is to this [contract] in particular,” said Di Grappa on Oct. 26. “Is this about water? Or plastic? Or both? I’m just trying to understand. […] To me, it’s also about choice: no one has to buy a plastic water bottle if they don’t want to.”

Though the university’s official position is to keep the water bottle issue and the PepsiCo. contract separate, Beach maintains the conflict cannot be understood in these terms.

“It’s a divide and conquer tactic,” she said. “If they divide the bottle water issues and then grant us a bottled-water free campus in 2011 and [expect us] to be happy with that, that is a totally false solution.

“It’s not really [looking] at the fundamental framework of multinational contracts within Concordia and what that means to sustainability within the university.”

According to Mota, the school’s administration has acted in good faith throughout the process.

“The university is confident that we handled everything according to the best practices,” she said. “We followed our standard procedures and we certainly don’t have anything to apologize for.”

In regards to potential legal proceedings, Mota said that Beach “has every right to pursue that avenue if she so chooses.”

Beach has not yet decided to pursue further legal actions, but hopes her Mise en Demeure will change the way that the administration does business from this point forward.

“Above all, I would like for this opportunity not to be a scandal or bad PR for the university, but for the administration to institutionalize public consultations and inclusion on contract negotiations.”

To comment on the contract and read the documents, check out:

  1. Briefing Document For Michael Di Grappa Sent on JulyJuly 7, 2010
  2. Email Exchange between Administration and Laura Beach in terms of renegotiation of beverage contract and potential meeting
  3. Environmental Policy
    Letter to President Judith Woodsworth, Sent on July 7th, on behalf of over 35 faculties and staff.
  4. Reaching Up, Reaching Out: A Strategic Framework for Concordia University
  5. The Gazette Article :Concordia ready to take Pepsi challenge, verdict on bottled water on hold

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 12, published November 2, 2010.