Friday, January 19, 2007

Nestlé, transparency and its refusal to debate

Yesterday I wrote about how Nestlé is presenting its coverage in the One World Trust Global Accountability Report as something to be proud of. Reading the reports shows in reality Nestlé has much to be ashamed of when it comes to transparency. The best that can be said is it has some policies and produces some reports - even if the policies are poor and the reports designed to divert attention from corporate malpractice.

One change we congratulated Nestlé for a few years ago was ending its objection to debating with Baby Milk Action. Prior to 2001 it refused to even speak in public if we were present. But students targeted its graduate recruitment events at colleges, refusing to give it a platform while it refused to debate and eventually Nestlé backed down.

We have had many debates with Nestlé since then. A video of one at a school is available to borrow from us. They are well-mannered affairs, though the Nestlé executives who attend are shameless in the dishonest way they present the company's activities. This is easily exposed with some documentary evidence, however, and wherever there has been a vote Nestlé has lost overwhelmingly. Indeed, in one school students were so unimpressed by Nestlé's peformance that they adopted Baby Milk Action as their cause for a campaigning week shortly afterwards and raised over a thousand pounds for the campaign.

It has been quite a while since there has been a debate with Nestlé. The last one scheduled was at the University of East Anglia in 2005 as it held a referendum on renewing its long-running boycott. Nestlé said it could not make it. Instead Beverly Mirando, then Nestlé Senior Policy Advisor, gave a telephone interview. In the interview she said Nestlé was open to debates and would have been there, but for other commitments. She even said Nestlé would consider taking part in the independent, expert tribunal Baby Milk Action is proposing for an in-depth investigation where expert witnesses could be called.

Unfortunatley after we wrote to Nestlé asking it to set out its terms and conditions for the tribunal, Nestlé backtracked and Beverly said she had not said they would consider taking part. You can hear the actual interview in the broadcast section of our website at:

I go through this history now because there have been two recent changes at Nestlé's anti-boycott team.

Firstly, the former Head of Corporate Affairs, Hilary Parsons, who took part in many of the debates alone or alongside Beverly is now called their head of Corporate Social Responsibility. It was in her Public Relations (PR) role that Hilary launched Nestlé's Fairtrade-marked coffee, Partners' Blend, at the end of 2005. We did point out it was revealing that the Fairtrade project was led by the PR department rather than someone who works for Nescafé coffee, adding to our view the product is principally about opposing the boycott rather than improving conditions for farmers (only about 0.1% of the farmers dependent on Nestlé are involved in the Fairtrade product - the rest see their incomes forced down by Nestlé's trading practices). Perhaps our comment prompted the change in job title.

Whatever, Hilary is now head of CSR and Beverly has the title Head of Corporate Affairs.

The other change seems to be that Nestlé is no longer prepared to participate in debates. A step backwards to the pre-2001 position. We hope this is just temporary situation with Beverly taking on the new post and those having troubling setting up debates will be able to arrange events so we can put our case against Nestlé and the company can respond. Or Nestlé can set out how it markets its baby foods and we can reply with evidence of what is really doing. We will, of course, be as polite and well-mannered as we always are.

This is a company that is today boasting on the front page of its website of its 'transparency'. It would be absurd if at the same time the Head of Corporate Affairs is ending participation in debates.

Ideally I will be able to report that debates will be going ahead and even that Nestlé has agreed to discuss the proposed independent, expert tribunal.

But don't bank on it. For Nestlé 'transparency' is a public relations buzz word, not the reality.

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