An absorbing history of how Coke’s insatiable thirst for natural resources shaped the company and reshaped the globe.
W.W. Norton
Publication Date
December 6, 2016

Citizen Coke

How did Coca-Cola build a global empire by selling a low-price concoction of mostly sugar, water, and caffeine?

The easy answer is advertising, but the real formula to Coke’s success was its strategy, from the start, to offload costs and risks onto suppliers, franchisees, and the government. For most of its history the company owned no bottling plants, water sources, cane- or cornfields. A lean operation, it benefited from public goods like cheap municipal water and curbside recycling programs. Its huge appetite for ingredients gave it outsized influence on suppliers and congressional committees. This was Coca-Cola capitalism.

In this new history Bartow J. Elmore explores Coke through its ingredients, showing how the company secured massive quantities of coca leaf, caffeine, sugar, and other inputs. Its growth was driven by shrewd leaders such as Asa Candler, who scaled an Atlanta soda-fountain operation into a national empire, and “boss” Robert Woodruff, who nurtured partnerships with companies like Hershey and Monsanto. These men, and the company they helped build, were seen as responsible citizens, bringing jobs and development to every corner of the globe. But as Elmore shows, Coke was usually getting the sweet end of the deal.

It continues to do so. Alongside Coke’s recent public investments in water purification infrastructure, especially in Africa, it has also built—less publicly—a rash of bottling plants in dangerously arid regions. Looking past its message of corporate citizenship, Elmore finds a strategy of relentless growth.

The costs shed by Coke have fallen on the public at large. Its annual use of many billions of gallons of water has strained an increasingly scarce global resource. Its copious servings of high-fructose corn syrup have threatened public health. Citizen Coke became a giant in a world of abundance. In a world of scarcity it is a strain on resources and all who depend on them.

Book reviews

The Wall Street Journal

“[Elmore] examines an old story in a very new way, offering unaccustomed perspectives on a company whose leading product is a household name around the globe.”

The New York Times

“Halfway into “Citizen Coke,” Bartow J. Elmore describes taking a treacherous journey through an Indian jungle in 2010.

This vivid, suspenseful scene encapsulates the book’s essential argument: That for all its attempts to brand itself as an engine of economic development and a philanthropic force, Coke’s thirst for growth has turned it into a parasite on public health and the planet.”

Times Higher Education

Book of the Week

“This is a carefully researched and thoughtful history of a fascinating corporation, and a lesson in how this business grew and prospered largely through getting others to take the risks.”

Kirkus Reviews

Kirkus Star

“A superb, quietly devastating environmental and business history.”

Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food

“As the soda wars heat up, this book is an indispensable resource: Citizen Coke by Bartow J. Elmore.”

Axiom Business Book Awards

Gold Medal

Citizen Coke has been awarded a Gold Medal in the 2015 Axiom Business Book Awards, honoring the year's best business books and their authors and publishers.

The American Interest

“Anti-Coca-Cola activism has such potential to bring together health, environment, democracy, inequality, labor, and human rights concerns into a coherent vision for a better world. Citizen Coke is required reading for those who need the factual basis to take the first step toward realizing this potential.”



“I was expecting standard fare in business writing — a straightforward chronology of the company from its beginnings as a cocaine-laced stimulant popular in the American South to today’s universal symbol of imperialism. But that’s not what I found. Citizen Coke by Bartow J. Elmore is much more than that, and much better.”

Ted Steinberg, author of Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York

“Coca-Cola is one of the most powerful economic institutions of our time, but its social and ecological impacts remain understudied. Now, in the hands of a talented young historian, corporate capitalism gets the attention it deserves in a careful dissection of the material underpinnings of the world’s most valuable brand. Citizen Coke will cause you to drink less and think more.”

Mark Pendergrast, author of For God, Country, & Coca-Cola

“A fascinating, thought-provoking approach to Coca-Cola history through the drink’s primary ingredients — water, sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, coca leaf, caffeine — and the glass, plastic, and aluminum that contain them.”

Vandana Shiva, author of Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply

“Citizen Coke is a brilliant analysis of Coke’s empire in ecological, economic, and social terms. It allows us to see the contours of an economy based on partnerships between governments and corporations like Coca-Cola. It makes us conscious of the giant ecological footprint of the Real Thing, which impacts the real lives of real people. If you want a deeper understanding of our world today, read Citizen Coke.”

Publishers Weekly

“A well-researched and accessible history of one of the world’s most iconic brands.”

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