Documents Expose Concordia’s Secret Dealings with Pepsi

Students protest Concordia’s “lack of transparency” in its negotiations with PepsiCo in 2010. photo Christopher Curtis

Emails exchanged between Concordia administrators in 2010 reveal a secret plan to short-circuit student activism on bottled water while negotiating the terms for renewing beverage company PepsiCo’s exclusivity agreement with the university.

Administrators had informed students from Sustainable Concordia and TAPthirst, a group fighting against bottled water, that no such negotiations were occurring. The documents suggest the university was working to include a damage-control mechanism in the Pepsi deal to protect Concordia from student activism on the issue of bottled water.

Those emails and the exclusivity agreement itself were obtained through an access to information request.

According to Laura Beach from TAPthirst, Marc Gauthier, Concordia’s former executive director of finance and business operations and current treasurer, had agreed verbally in May 2010 that there would be no movement on the Pepsi deal until all parties had a chance to meet.

In June, that verbal agreement was confirmed in writing in an email to Beach sent by Johanne De Cubellis of Hospitality Concordia.

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

In August 2010, Concordia President Judith Woodsworth told The Link that she expected her VP Services, Michael Di Grappa, to work with students to introduce a bottled-water ban.

In October 2010, Gauthier sent a series of emails to Di Grappa that mentioned the secret negotiations while expressing concern about student resolve on sustainable water policy.

“Are [students] still committed?” asked Gauthier in an Oct. 4, 2010 email to Di Grappa. The email also mentioned a provision in the draft contract (the one administrators had led students to believe did not exist) that set a penalty in the event of a bottled-water ban. The draft agreement would have transferred all of such a ban’s costs onto Concordia. Gauthier suggested there ought to be “dual responsibility should the ban occur.”

The “dual responsibility” clause was a damage-control measure in the event of a ban that administrators thought they still might be able to avoid. The problem was the “commitment” of students to such a ban.

But administrators had a plan to reduce student commitment and activism. In an Oct. 13, 2010 email, Gauthier informed Di Grappa about an upcoming meeting where a representative from Nestlé Waters was to “educate them [students] on the ‘other side.’” Gauthier explained to Di Grappa that the objective of the meeting was to “convince them [students] not to have a ban.”

The plan to “educate” students was never put into action. The day before the meeting was scheduled to take place, students learned through an anonymous source that Pepsi and Concordia had already reached an agreement in principle, a stepping stone to a contract, and that the signing of a final agreement was only days away. Students showed up to the Oct. 27 meeting with Nestlé to stage a sit-in protest.

Despite the protest, Di Grappa went ahead and signed the final agreement on Oct. 29, 2010, his last day in office before taking up a position at McGill as VP Administration and Finance. It seems Concordia had hoped that students, faced with the fait accompli of a renewed exclusivity agreement, would abandon the cause of a bottled-water ban. If that was the university’s objective, then things did not go at all as planned.

Beginning of the End of Bottled Water

Concordia’s unilateral move lit the fuse on a student activist bomb. Sit-ins and legal letters preceded protests and petitions, culminating in a March 2011 referendum organized by the Concordia Student Union that saw students voting in favour of banning bottled water from being sold on campus.

In April 2011, soon after the student referendum, university administrators changed tactics, announcing a gradual move away from selling bottled water and towards improving public water fountains. The moves would be made in concert with Concordia’s corporate partner, Pepsi.

Today, there is no bottled water for sale in any vending machines on Concordia’s campus. Does this mean the student activists won?

Reflecting on the end result, Faisal Shennib from Sustainable Concordia pointed out that Pepsi’s bottled water has been replaced with vitamin water, which he said is not his “preferred outcome.” Nevertheless, with the pro-free-water momentum and the university’s contract with food service provider Chartwells set to expire in 2015, Shennib predicted that Concordia would be “a fully bottled water-free campus in a year or two.”

Beach agreed that the move towards free water and away from plastic waste is a positive one, but she noted that the issue of bottled water has overshadowed a much wider student agenda.

“The administration and the media, frustratingly, kept focusing on the bottled water issue and completely ignoring all of the other recommendations and demands,” she said, “including a non-exclusive contract that prioritized healthy, environmentally and socially conscious products.”

From this perspective, the university’s unilateral signing of the Pepsi exclusivity deal behind students’ backs effectively shut down any chance for the kind of broader change envisioned by student activists.

The contract’s “dual responsibility” clause splitting the cost of a bottled water ban between Concordia and Pepsi allowed Concordia to avoid the worst consequences of giving in to student demands in one particular area while maintaining its overall corporate partnership with the beverage company.

What Do Students Want? (Besides Free Water)

Stefan Schmidt was a TAPthirst supporter in 2010 and sits on the board of the Concordia Food Coalition. With both the Chartwells and Pepsi contracts set to expire next year, he said he is “skeptically optimistic about the possibility of a post-Chartwells Concordia.” Whatever path is taken, Schmidt thinks it’s realistic to foresee the inclusion of “new guidelines regarding environmental sustainability, and more specifically organic and local sourcing.”

But Schmidt is well aware of “the university’s history of being less than truthful with students when the interests of students are in opposition to the interests of large corporations.” He sees an important role for student mobilization in countering the administration’s pro-corporate bias.

“Students have been pushing for changes to the RFP [Request for Proposals–a document that sets out the basic requirements expected from a potential food services supplier] and are facilitating the possibility of social-economy organizations bidding against Chartwells,” Schmidt continued.

“If we keep up the pressure, changes to the big contracts will come. [They] may not all be realized this fall, but they will come.”

Will History Repeat Itself?

Gauthier did not respond to a request for an interview and Di Grappa referred all inquiries to Concordia spokesperson Chris Mota.

Mota refused to talk about Concordia’s secret dealings with Pepsi in 2010. “I am not going to talk about what happened in the past,” she said.

When asked how Concordia was working to win back the trust of students, Mota said that she was not aware of any trust issues and that students have been participating in the current RFP drafting process for food services.

“The university established a working group to get student input in the RFP and everybody has been working together in good faith,” Mota said, adding that she expects the RFP to be released before the end of 2014 so that new food and beverage supply agreements can be in place by May 2015, when the current agreements are set to expire.

The Pepsi agreement is also set to expire in 2015, but the RFP drafting process for the beverage contract is not as advanced.

Not Everybody Is Sweet on Pepsi

In 2010, the issue was bottled water. In 2015, the issue could be sugar.

In the wake of the medical community’s successes in fighting Big Tobacco as a contributor to lung and heart disease, there is now a call for action against Big Soda as a leading culprit in today’s obesity and diabetes epidemics.

Dr. Jeff Ritterman, vice-president of the board of directors of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, has been supporting ballot measures to tax sugary drinks. He said Concordia students should reject another deal with any soft drink corporation.

“When Pepsi partners with a public institution, it gives the corporation legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve,” Ritterman said. “Pepsi is closely linked to tooth decay, type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart attacks, strokes, hypertension, fatty liver disease, probably dementia and decrease in sperm motility.”

Mota would not comment on the ethics of dealing with a corporation that profits from unhealthy sugar consumption but said, “If that is a concern, it will have been brought up [at the working group] and will be taken into account in the RFP.”

Dr. David Bernans (PhD) is a former president of the Concordia Graduate Student Association (2005-2006). He is a Quebec-based writer and translator.