Haiti earthquake Photo attributed to: Matthew Marek/American Red Cross

Haiti earthquake Photo attributed to: Matthew Marek/American Red Cross

The biggest names in alcoholic and soft drinks have pledged immediate aid to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, as disaster relief emerges as a key pillar in corporate social responsibility strategy.

Cash donations and practical assistance for the emergency relief effort in Haiti have poured in over the last week from the likes of Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Coca-Cola Co, PepsiCo and Nestle, among many others.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been at the forefront of dealing with a natural disaster that the United Nations has described as the worst it has known in its 65 years of existence.

Diageo said late last week that it has sent emergency medical supplies and food to Haiti via a privately-commissioned plane. Pernod Ricard told just-drinks that it has pledged EUR40,000 (US$56,500) in emergency aid for Haiti to international aid organisation L'APPEL and has pledged to match all employee donations.

Coca-Cola Co and PepsiCo have each pledged an initial US$1m in aid, while both companies, along with firms such as Nestle and Anheuser-Busch InBev, are sending supplies of bottled water. A-B InBev said it immediately shipped 350,000 bottles of water to Haiti and has pledged another 600,000 cans of water.

"I think there is genuine shock at these events and a genuine desire to help in the minds of all CEOs," said Toby Webb, managing director of the Ethical Corporation, which advises businesses on CSR strategy.

He rejected the notion that CSR disaster relief is being used as a public relations booster.

"They do it because they see it as being a part of their remit as a global business," Webb told just-drinks, adding: "What companies also want to do is reassure employees that they are up-to-date with global events, that they do care and that they can respond quickly."

PepsiCo told just-drinks: "As a company that operates globally, we try to be responsive to major disasters, whether an earthquake in Haiti, hurricane damage in Mexico, tsunami damage in Thailand or flooding in India."

Coca-Cola Co has significant numbers of employees in Haiti.

An internal email sent to all Coca-Cola employees by group CEO Muhtar Kent urges private donations. The email, seen by just-drinks, adds: "Our thoughts go out to all of those who have been affected by this tragedy. We are awaiting an update on the safety of the 850 people who work for our bottling partner, Brasserie de la Couronne."

An inspection on the bottling plant is due to take place today (20 January), a Coca-Cola spokesperson said last night. If damage is confirmed as minor, the group plans to use the plant to supplement the 4,000 cases of drinks that it is currently trucking over daily from neighbouring Dominican Republic.

Diageo has a minority stake in Brasserie Nationale d’Haiti, which employs more than 1,300 in Haiti and also distributes PepsiCo drinks in the country. There is a brewery in Port-au-Prince, the capital city was heavily damaged by last week's 7.0 quake. It is still not clear how many employees have survived.

Both Diageo and Coca-Cola, the latter with its fabled distribution system, told just-drinks of the "logistical expertise" that private firms can bring to disaster areas.

"Many wonder why we do not just donate money and stay out of the way," said a Diageo spokesperson. "Through our experience in humanitarian aid, for more than ten years, we have learned that in many places the authorities welcome this kind of practical help."

Webb said that Hurricane Katrina, which caused mass flooding in New Orleans in 2005, was a turning point for CSR disaster relief among many companies with bases in the US.

"Katrina kick-started Wal-Mart's drive into sustainability. They realised that they could do a better job in some areas than the Government," he said.

Most companies are working in Haiti in tandem with respected non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as the Red Cross. Diageo, via its involvement with the privately-funded Spirit of America initiative, has been working with the World Food Program (WFP), International Medical Corp and Bridge Foundation, which specialises in rapid disaster relief.

Diageo North America's senior vice president of communications is part of a corporate team on the ground in Haiti. In an internal briefing, seen by just-drinks, he reported yesterday that WFP aid is reaching more remote areas, although he echoed mainstream media reports of "many bodies" still lining the streets.  

PepsiCo is also working with the WFP, as well as with the US military.

As well as notions of socially responsible business and assurance for employees and customers, some experts argue there is a cost incentive involved in disaster relief.

"It’s easy to see why over the years, the role of business in disaster response has been evolving from ad hoc relief contributions to one of systemic and pro-active engagement," said Stephen Jordan, executive director of the Business Civic Leadership Center, aligned to the US Chamber of Commerce. 

"Disasters are too costly, too impactful to do otherwise," he said late last year.