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Bicycle Network responds to criticism on its partnership with Coca-Cola

The decision by Bicycle Network to enter into a partnership with Coca-Cola has attracted strong criticism from public health experts.

“How can Bicycle Network promote healthy lifestyle messages to the community while riding tandem with Coca-Cola at the same time?” asked one of its members, Ross Green, in this Croakey post. “Surely this undermines a lot of the work they do,” he said.

Todd Harper, CEO at the Cancer Council Victoria, was also concerned, noting that Bicycle Network was not alone in “being targeted by the corporation’s weight-washing drive” and said it was vital that other organisations “don’t follow suit and become cheerleaders for the sugar sweetened beverages industry”.

Bicycle Network CEO Craig Richards responds to the criticism in this Q and A below.

***

Q. What do you believe is the intention behind Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of organisations such as yours?

Craig Richards: We can’t speak on behalf of Coca-Cola – this is really a question for them – what we can speak about is the intention behind the Happiness Cycle program.

Because the intention of the Happiness Cycle program is clear: get teens physically active. This isn’t a sponsorship of something we were already doing. This is a brand new program aimed at addressing a massive problem.

We know that a frightening two out of every three Australians aren’t physically active enough! The tragic consequence is that half of those will unnecessarily suffer a major preventable illness.

The Happiness Cycle will see more than 5,000 bikes handed to teens (aged 15-16) across Australia by the end of 2014.

That means thousands more teenagers jumping on two wheels and getting moving to combat the issue of physical inactivity – not to mention the thousands of others who will be influenced by these teens to also start riding regularly (we know this happens from our other highly successful programs like Ride2School and Ride2Work).

We’ll also be monitoring the outcomes to ensure the program is working.

At Bicycle Network, we are hell bent on getting more people physically active by riding bikes and we’ll fight hard to make that happen.

Q. Do you accept concerns raised by public health advocates that your organisation is enabling a “health-washing” campaign by Coca-Cola?

Craig Richards
: One of the really tough things about being a not-for-profit is that some people expect you to solve all the world’s problems.

They get angry with you when you’re not working on other worthy causes. We know that if we tried to solve every problem we’d end up solving none.

We have to focus on our problem – physical inactivity. It’s a huge one. There’s plenty to do. The Happiness Cycle is going to address a key aspect of that problem because if we can make physical activity an ingrained habit when people are young it’s so much easier than changing habits later in life.

So, to the other not-for-profits who are attacking us for not working on eating fruit and vegetables or weight management, I wish them the very best with solving your problems. The world needs you. But I know it needs us too, so please let us get on with it.

Q. What are the potential benefits to your organisation and members of this arrangement with Coca-Cola?

Craig Richards: That’s an easy one – we get teens physically active. Like all not-for-profits we dream about the day we can pack up the tent.

That magical day when you solve that difficult problem you’re doing everything in your power to conquer. For us that day is when everyone is riding bikes and getting enough physical activity.

To achieve this we need to do something big: to change the world. It’s a bold but worthy task. What this program does is take us one step closer.

Q. What are the potential risks to your organisations and members of this arrangement?

Craig Richards: Going into this we knew there’d be a reputation risk. We knew we’d take some heat, especially from that curious group of people who criticise you no matter what you do.

I have been a bit shocked at other not-for-profits. I imagined that, like us, they’d be really busy trying to fix the problems in the world. I didn’t think they’d spend their valuable time trying to destroy an organisation that’s trying to do good things.

In the end though, while there’s a risk to our own organisation, the risk to the world of not addressing teen inactivity is greater. Being a not-for-profit takes guts. There are times you have to put the cause ahead of yourself. I believe this is one of those times.

Q. How extensively did Bicycle Network look into other, more ethical partnerships?

Craig Richards: This is a really strange question that frankly I find a bit insulting. Of course we’re always looking high and low for support. I’ve been with Bicycle Network for six years and, in that time, the Coca-Cola Company is the first company that’s stood up and said they want to do something about teen physical inactivity.

As one of your own writers pointed out, there is only so much money government has. Of course, we’d love financial help from the Cancer Council and the other health agencies

As for the ‘more ethical partnerships’ question hidden within the question, well, I’ll let that one go through to the keeper. Of course, one thing we should all keep in mind as we sit in judgement on others is, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’

Q. How many/what proportion of members have resigned or expressed displeasure as a result of this arrangement?

Craig Richards: Less than 0.5 per cent of members have written to us about the arrangement. I’m not aware of any members resigning. I used to work at a footy club and pretty much every time you lost a game a membership card would be cut up in protest.

Our members are fantastic. They trust us to do our job. Like us they share a vision of a better world – a world where it’s easy to ride a bike. We know that 59 per cent of people are interested in riding but they’re concerned. Our members know that if the conditions are right, bikes can make a massive dent in the physical inactivity problem.

Q. Are you aware of the extensive public health literature urging health organisations and professionals not to enter into partnerships with companies that profit from unhealthy products?  If so, what is your response?

Craig Richards: Yes we are. But what we’re most aware of is the medical evidence that shows the link between physical inactivity and major preventable diseases like heart disease and heart attack, Type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, breast cancer, stroke and depression.

The evidence is overwhelming. It started in 1953 when Professor Jerry Morris linked physical inactivity to heart attack risks through his study of London bus drivers and conductors.

We also know, that some parents from this generation will outlive their children – it’s a national tragedy – and so our path is clear: we need to fix this problem and we need everyone to help us.

Q. Has Coca-Cola or any of its agents been involved in providing advice – whether formal or informal – on how your organisation should respond to the criticisms?

Craig Richards: Our answers to our critics have come from us. We’ve chatted to Coca-Cola about the criticism, but they don’t have a hand up behind our backs pulling the strings. They didn’t approve these answers but we’ll show it to them.

We may be a small organisation which I’m sure means a number of people see us as weak: as someone who can be intimidated and pushed around. I’m sorry but that’s not how we see ourselves. As we’ve said, we are hell bent on getting more people physically active by riding bikes and we’ll fight hard to make that happen.

So instead of devoting their energies into trying to crush a not-for-profit, we offer an open invitation to our critics: come and join us in our fight against physical inactivity – we could use your support.

 

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