Monday, March 09, 2009

Nestlé loses anti-boycott referendum at Sheffield University

Sheffield University Students' Union held a referendum on ending support for the Nestlé boycott last week. The proposal was rejected. The boycott stands.

All students and others who are campaigning to hold Nestlé and other baby food companies to account can learn some important lessons from what happened.

Nestlé had lobbied hard for the suspension of the boycott, sending a team of five to brief a student committee, including two people from its Webber Shandwick Public Relations firm and Chris Sidgwick. Chris is the midwife who is advocating that UK health workers use Nestlé materials on wards and who wrote an inaccurate article for the British Journal of Midwifery as part of this strategy. See:

We did suggest a debate be held, but this was not taken up. Nestlé has lost every debate where a vote has been taken and has refused to attend any since 2004. A film of a past debate is available in our online Virtual Shop at:

I was unable to go to Sheffield myself when we were invited to brief the Committee and so spoke to them by telephone last year. Many thanks to them for giving time to this issue.

We were invited to comment on the report and both Baby Milk Action and Save the Children, contacted the Committee to try to correct some of Nestlé's misinformation.

The Committee was swayed, however, to recommend addressing "ethical issues involved in promoting breast-milk substitutes" through a strategy of 'engagement' with Nestlé, implying that ending the boycott was necessary to 'engage'. The Student Union Council decided against ending the boycott immediately and arranged for a referendum to take place alongside election of officers and other referenda.

The motion was: "Do you agree that the Union should end its boycott of Nestle, although not actively promote their products, but engage with Nestle and other manufacturers on the ethical issues involved in promoting breast-milk substitutes?"

This is a very interesting approach, as it does not suggest there is no problem, but puts 'engagement' forward as a better way to prompt changes from Nestlé.

This is the strategy that Nestlé tends to use these days, knowing it is unable to win the argument about its marketing practices. So there is the irony that it refuses to participate in debates and refuses to even set out its terms and conditions for taking part in an independent expert tribunal examining claim and counter claim, but tells third parties that it wishes to 'engage' with critics.

This worked with the Joint Advisory Committee on Ethics in Investment (JACEI) of the Methodist Church. The Church Central Finance Board invested in Nestlé following the report, presenting this as a way to 'engage' on matters of concern. A press release specifically referred to the ‘scandal of inappropriate marketing of breast milk substitutes’ and commended Baby Milk Action for exposing this.

The Methodist Conference text adopted following the report stated: "JACEI acknowledges the continuing concern with regard to some aspects of Nestlé’s interpretation of the International Code, the implementation of company guidelines and the transparency of the procedures for monitoring compliance. These concerns may cause some through conscience to maintain a consumer boycott of Nestlé products."

Investment was portrayed as a complementary strategy. Yet the investment is now Nestlé's principal argument against Baby Milk Action's campaign, used to persuade George Clooney to work with the company, for example.

For Nestlé it does not matter if the Church is pressing it for changes in private, if it can misleadingly suggest to the rest of the world that a past critic is no longer criticising it.

So it would have proved if Sheffield students had voted to suspend the boycott in favour of 'engagement'. Today we would no doubt be seeing Nestlé stating the boycott had been dropped and most likely a concerted campaign calling on all other student unions to do likewise.

The statement from Save the Children would have been ignored. It is quoted in the referendum information:

"...violations by Nestlé are systematic. We have no reason to believe that this has changed."

Fortunately the majority of students voting rejected the call to end the boycott. The vote was 1737 for ending the boycott and 'engaging' with Nestlé to 1998 rejecting this call.

So the boycott stands. Hurrah! And congratulations to all those who campaigned on the 'No' vote and those who voted against it.

Undoubtedly many of those who voted for the motion did so with a desire to hold Nestlé to account by the 'engagement' route. Many would presumably have been shocked at the way Nestlé would have spun the result had the boycott been called off.

The boycott is a long-running campaign and some question its effectiveness when it hasn't produced all the changes required of Nestlé to bring its policies and practices into line with World Health Assembly standards. However, it is effective to a point. It forces some changes in policies and practices, particularly when specific cases of malpractice at targeted; it keeps this issue in the public eye: thousands of students at Sheffield have been considering the issues.

The boycott should also be seen as one of a range of strategies. Baby Milk Action 'engages' with Nestlé: we write to its Chief Executive and try to persuade Nestlé (UK) to participate in debates. We are trying to get the independent, expert tribunal off the ground.

We also work for legislation, while Nestlé opposes independently monitored and enforced regulations fully implementing the World Health Assmebly standards. The fact that we can tell policy makers that Nestlé is 'widely boycotted' (to use the expression of Nestlé's Global Public Affairs Manager), helps to put them on their guard when Nestlé comes knocking.

When Nestlé talks of 'engagement' what transpires in reality is denials and deception. Whatever Nestlé's new CEO has told the Methodist Church investors, he still rejected the validity of the World Health Assembly marketing requirements last year when we asked him to accept them to start the process of changing company practices and ultimately ending the boycott. If the Methodist Church threatened to disinvest unless Nestlé makes these changes, that may have an effect, otherwise I fear they are being led on and exploited for public relations purposes.

Had the referendum gone Nestlé's way at Sheffield, I somehow doubt I would be writing here in a few months time that Nestlé's has bowed to the logic of the arguments put to it by the student committee and everything has been resolved. The fact is, this company puts its own profits before all else. It continues to market baby foods aggressively because it provides a massive income for the company, regardless of its contribution to the needless death and suffering of infants around the world. If the suffering of babies hasn't prompted changes, this shows Nestlé is not easy to persuade to fulfill its obligations! It is concerted campaigning that has won the changes we have achieved.

Losing the referendum at Sheffield will hurt Nestlé. Aside from the financial impact, there is the bad publicity and the flack the anti-boycott team will receive from senior management. Senior management have once again received the message that the boycott is still not going to go away and their best chance of ending the boycott is by making the changes required by the World Health Assembly.

The last time he wrote to me, Mr. Bulcke refused to make these changes. More pressure please.

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