This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7
What demands are being made?
‘Until Nestlé stops promoting infant formula to mothers who abandon breastfeeding in favour of artificial milk products which they do not need, cannot afford and are unable to safely use; to mothers whose babies fall sick and sometimes die because they have been bottle-fed; until then we won’t buy Nestlé products.’
Of course there are many companies involved in the promotion of babyfoods to the Third World. but Nestlé controls almost half this estimated $1.72 billion market.
The Nestlé Boycott is the largest nonunion boycott in history. Begun in the US in 1977, it has spread to Australia, Canada, Sweden and West Germany. Der Spiegel, the West German political journal, called it, ‘A gigantic movement which has cost Nestlé millions of dollars.’ Interestingly, Nestlé announced that its profits declined by 16 per cent in 1980.
The passage of the WHO Code in 1981 was a victory for the local action groups that had been urging their governments to vote for the Code. The publicity generated by the Boycott helped raise public awareness of the babymilk marketing scandal.
The letter below was made available by
A prominent business weekly for managers of transnational corporations Business International, called the Nestlé Boycott ‘devastating’ and predicted:
‘In the future, the boycott will stand as an example for other campaigns.’ And since the Boycott started, Nestlé has cut back on direct advertising to mothers on billboards and in publications. But violations continue.
Church, health and development groups in the US studied the controversy over babymilk sales. They followed with particular interest the ‘Nestlé Kills Babies’ lawsuit in Bern, Switzerland during 1974. At the eleventh hour the company dropped all but one charge. Although the judge found that the words used were technically libellous, he said that the verdict did not amount to an acquittal of Nestlé’s advertising practices in developing countries.
The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a National Council of Churches agency, suggested that their groups should file shareholder resolutions with US-based babymilk companies requesting information of their promotional activities.
Despite the Bern judge’s call for a ‘fundamental rethink’ of Nestlé’s advertising practices, by 1977 the US groups recognised that nothing had changed. So they formed INFACT (the Infant Formula Action Coalition) calling for renewed protest against Nestlé. Many INFACT groups used Peter Kreig’ s Bottle Babies documentary film. Audiences reacted by declaring ‘We’re going to stop buying Nestlé products.’ The Minnesota chapter of INFACT formally launched its Boycott in July, 1977. By November the Nestlé Boycott had gone national.
Local educational campaigns spread the boycott Students organised to get Nestlé products off their campuses. Major church and health organisations endorsed the Boycott.
Nationally coordinated Boycott events linked local events like the ‘Clip Nestlc Quik’ campaign in 1979. Local groups clipped out thousands of Nestlé’s ‘cents-off’ discount coupons and loaded them onto a ‘Boycott Express’, a truck that travelled from San Francisco across the continent to the Nestlé US Headquarters at White Plains, New York, where the coupons were dumped.
Stouffer’s hotel and restaurant chain is a Nestlé subsidiary. In 1980, Boycotters organised a Stop Stouffers’ campaign to persuade the public not to frequent the chain. Nestlé lost thousands of dollars as major organisations cancelled their conferences at Stouffer’s hotels.
The ‘best opportunity we’ve had’ so far, according to the memo, was brought about by an article commissioned by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The EPPC was a tax-exempt, non-profit body headed by a senior government official, Ernest Lefever. The article was entitled ‘The Corporation Haters’ and attempted to destroy the Boycotters’ credibility by tagging them ‘Marxists marching under the banner of Christ’. The leaked memo showed Nestlé to be delighted with the results of the article, which the EPPC was to reprint and disseminate to a mailing list chosen by Nestlé: ‘We should review the optimum mailing list . . (and) decide how to finance the operation.’
Lefever’s EPPC was given $25,000 by Nestlé in 1980, according to research published by the Washington Post. Nestlé and Lefever do not deny the donation. They insist the money and the article were unconnected.
The ‘chocolate connection’ cost Lefever his nomination as Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights.
(Copies of the Nestlégate memo, providing insight into the mechanisms by which large companies try to buy ‘positive image development’, are available from: INFACT 1701 University Ave. SE, Minneapolis MN 55414, US, from the Baby Milk Action Coalition, 34 Blinco Grove, Cambridge, UK.)
The Nestlégate scandal received international publicity, as did the Reagan Administration’ s opposition to the WHO Code. But the real strength of the Boycott has always been its local base. Local newspapers and newsletters provide the most reliable and extensive coverage.
Most of the funds for the Boycott campaign come from individual donations. And committed local organisers, most of them working from their homes in the evenings, provide a volunteer workforce that has taken on Nestlé’ s expensive public relations professionals.
Recently she organised a fundraising event with Linda Kelsey, a television actress who once did a Nestlé commercial and now contributes her royalties to INFACT.
In North Caroline. another activist, Lew Church, concentrated on supermarkets. Shoppers were persuaded not to buy Nestlé products by pickets and leaflets. One shop owner agreed to print an explanation of the Boycott on all his shopping bags.
The former top health official of the US Agency for International Development, Dr Stephen Joseph, who resigned in protest when his government said ‘No’ to the WHO Code, advised Boycotters: ‘The Nestlé Boycott should continue and even intensify. For it has proved an effective tool in cracking the wall of industry’s non attention.’ U This article was prepared by Doug Clement, the co-ordinator of INFA CT’s International Programs and IB FA N-Minneapolis Clearinghouse.
‘My discovery has a tremendous future. There is no other food to compare with it.' With these words an unknown Swiss laboratory assistant, Henri Nestlé, described his cow’s-milk based infant formula food. It was the 1860s and Nestlé was adapting one of the few natural products of the country, the milk generated in such profusion from the rich Alpine pasture. For the next 70 years the Nestlé empire expanded on milk-based products: condensed milk, evaporated milk, milk chocolate.
Diversification began in the 1930s when the company recognised the marketing possibilities in the coffee crop surpluses that were being destroyed in Brazil. They developed a long-lasting instant powdered coffee — Nescafe — and sales rocketed with huge contracts to supply the US military in the Second World War. Since 1945 Nestlé has bought into many other food industries.
After Unilever, Nestlé is the largest food firm in the world, with a 1978 turnover of $11 billion. Its headquarters remain,as they started, at Vevey on the shores of Lake Geneva With over 300 directly owned factories and about 700 offices in 70 countries, there is scarcely a more international company amongst the world’s leading corporations. More than 90 per cent of its 147,000 workers are not Swiss, and more than 95 per cent of its profits come from outside the country. Europe provided 46 per cent of the company’s sales in 1978, North America 20 per cent and some 31 per cent of sales were in the vulnerable underdeveloped countnes.
Henri Nestlé’s company now spends more on just advertising its products than the total budget of the World Health Organisation. The company’s annual turnover is greater than the gross national product of every African country apart from Nigeria and South Africa While working to diversify into other food products, the corporation is still firmly attached to processing cow’s milk for much of its profit. In Brazil, for example, Nestlé controls 100 per cent of the artificial babymilk market, 75 per cent of the powdered milk market and 95 per cent of the condensed milk and cream market.
Nestlé’ s infant formula sold in the Third World accounts for only two per cent of the company’s global turnover. So why does it persist with energetic promotion of artificial babymilk? Perhaps it’s the prospect of an enormous potential market Perhaps it’s just old-fashioned sentiment for Henri Nestlé’s famous formula.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7
If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.
– Emma Thompson –
Save money with a digital subscription. Give a gift subscription that will last all year. Or get yourself a free trial to New Internationalist. See our choice of offers.