Monday, May 31, 2010

Nestle sponsorship of BlogHer Conference starts to go wrong for most-boycotted company

The Nestlé boycott works its magic again as sponsorship of the BlogHer conference by its Stouffer brand comes under scrutiny. The Conference is due to take place in New York in the United States (6 - 7 August). Ironically, this came to my attention by a posting on a blog by someone defending her decision to attend Nestlé's parenting-blogger event in California in October 2009, which led to a first-class public relations disaster on Twitter, the social networking site. Nestlé has an abysmal image in cyberspace and is trying to improve this. As debate rages over whether bloggers should attend the Conference and what they can do there to support the campaign if they do, some thoughts come to my mind, which I will share here. It is very welcome to see people taking a stand, but the fact that Nestlé is contributing to the unnecessary death and suffering of babies around the world is an uncomfortable fact to face if you are someone who loves a particular product or want to accept its largesse. Accordingly, facing the facts is generally avoided in the arguments for not taking a stand.

While some bloggers in this debate are dismissive of the boycott as a strategy, there are two groups of people who have no doubt as to its importance: Nestlé executives and campaigners.

According to Nestlé's Global Head of Public Affairs, Dr. Gayle Crozier-Willi, Nestlé is widely boycotted. In fact, an independent survey by GMIPoll found it is one of the four most boycotted companies on the planet, the most boycotted in the UK, where Baby Milk Action is based. For executives, the boycott ranges between being an irritant to an unavoidable problem to be dealt with, depending on the day and the forum. Our job as campaigners is to move it to the right end of this spectrum, because that is when we see change. For example, Nestlé refused to translate the labels of baby milks into the national language in countries such as Malawi until we got the issue onto national television - then they rushed out translated labels. When we held national demonstrations in the UK, picked up by Swiss television, Nestlé announced it would stop promoting complementary foods from too early an age. When boycotters have contacted Nestlé over specific examples of malpractice, such as leaflets claiming Nestlé formula 'counteracts diarrhoea', Nestlé has said it would replace them. In our current campaign against Nestlé's new global strategy claiming its formula 'protects' babies (see youtube clip below), Nestlé has already taken action over point-of-sale display of tins, after we exposed that Nestlé's distribution system was allowing such things to go ahead, despite Nestlé's published policy saying they are not permitted. In the following clip, I take on the role of Mr. Nastie to explain Nestlé's baby milk marketing strategy.

With enough pressure we will persuade Nestlé to remove its 'protect' logos from labels of baby milk - send a message here. At the shareholder meeting in April 2010, Richard Laube, Chief Executive of Nestlé Nutrition, defended the practice when we raised it and admitted the strategy has been rolled out in 120 countries.  Nestlé knows that babies fed on its formula are more likely to become sick and, in conditions of poverty, more likely to die, but it puts its own profits first. Not only is there no justification for such an irresponsible strategy, it is a clear violation of Article 9.2 of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, which Nestlé claims to respect, which states: "Neither the container nor the label should have pictures of infants, nor should they have other pictures or text which may idealise the use of infant formula." [emphasis added]

This is only one concern amongst many, but it is particularly harmful as it undermines the message that breastfeeding protects babies. With enough mobilisation, we will stop it as we have stopped other outrageous practices. You can find out more and take action here:

Now, in the debate about the BlogHer conference, there is a phenomena that I have noticed before when Nestlé sponsorship is involved: there is a distinct lack of engagement on the actual issue of Nestlé marketing practices and an unwillingness to look at the evidence. So people will say things like, 'it is recycled old news'.  Well, there have been problems with Nestlé for over a hundred years, but anyone paying attention knows we are talking about things Nestlé is doing RIGHT NOW.

Some say that it is a simple fact of life that it takes money to organise events and any sponsor could be criticised by someone, so just take the money and do good with it. Which brings to mind the stance taken by the Indian Academy of Paediatrics, which has refused sponsorship by Nestlé or any other company involved in infant nutrition since 1997, taking the view that it was better to pay for their own meals than compromise their independence. The Academy argued against all such sponsorship for health workers and this was introduced in legislation in 2003 - legislation Nestlé is accused of breaking. The World Health Assembly, made up of the world's health ministries, has also adopted Resolutions calling for conflicts of interest in sponsorship of health workers and health programmes to be avoided.

The stance taken in India has an impact on sales - and breastfeeding rates. The industry analysts, Euromonitor, stated in their report on the market in 2008: "The huge disparity in the retail value of milk formula sales between China and India is mainly due to the significant differences between their official regulatory regimes.” The action by paediatricians to protect infant health is reflected in other measures. Euromonitor notes: “In India, all advertising is prohibited, while in China, TV advertising and the use of celebrity spokespeople are allowed.”

If the Indian Academy of Paediatrics can find other ways to hold its meetings, surely it is not beyond the imagination of bloggers in the US to put in place an ethical funding policy for their events?

With regards the boycott, every little helps and the way we promote it is intended to make it as easy to support as possible. We target Nestlé's flagship product, Nescafé, while publishing a list of major brands so people can avoid the whole lot, which obviously has more impact. We produce 'Nescafé - No Thanks' cards that people can leave where Nescafé is sold requesting an alternative option.

We promote International Nestlé-Free Week at the end of October (encompassing Halloween, which is a big chocolate event in some countries) so that people who do not usually boycott can be asked to avoid Nestlé products during that week. Those that normally only boycott Nescafé are asked to boycott all of them for the week. So when people say they have been given pause for thought because Nestlé makes such and such a product, that is not an argument for doing nothing, but an excuse.

In the BlogHer debate, some are saying that those who support the boycott should not go to the Conference. Everyone has to make up their own mind - Baby Milk Action certainly doesn't dictate. There is a difference between speakers who will be seen to endorse Nestlé if they share a platform with company spokespeople or are surrounded by branding and someone who sits in the audience to listen, learn and perhaps question.

Nestlé sponsorship provides an opportunity for campaigners and it is valid to attend to raise awareness and question Nestlé's involvement. Do not forget that following the Twitter disaster last year, Nestlé is embarking on a strategy to improve its image in cyberspace and sponsoring bloggers and their events is part of that strategy - people need to be alerted to how they are being used.

Nestlé is already reportedly paying celebrities US$10,000 per Tweet to say nice things about the company. It is worth recalling that when Mark Thomas, a British comedian and investigative reporter, was putting together an exposé of Nestlé for his television programme, they went digging through his past looking for any links with the company. Mark obtained company documents including his name using the data protection act and found a memo saying that if Nestlé could find he had advertised a company product they could attack him for hypocrisy for speaking out. You can see Mark's first programme on Nestlé on youtube.

Some people are saying it would be hypocritical for boycotters to attend the BlogHer event. There is a difference between an event organised by Nestlé (like its blogger event last year) and an event where the organisers have accepted Nestlé sponsorship, where we might hope to persuade the organisers to either get out of the arrangement or put in place a policy to prevent a repetition. Baby Milk Action has attended health worker events sponsored by baby food companies so we can gather material, take photographs, speak to other attendees and put the case to organisers that the action of the companies is not appropriate.

Handing out leaflets inside an event can be effective - and I will gladly help to make any leaflets for the BlogHer event legally bomb proof. Alternatively, or in addition, picketing events with placards and politely offering leaflets to those entering means that Nestlé's sponsorship is turned against it. And campaigners should always be polite, because even a few unpleasant comments will be used to suggest all campaigners are 'hateful' and provide an excuse for avoiding the real issues.

The dilemma for speakers reminds me of the situation Stephen Lewis, then Executive Deputy Director of UNICEF, found himself in when invited to be the key-note speaker at a nutrition event in Canada, only to find later it was sponsored by Nestlé and other formula companies.

He decided it would have more impact to attend and raise the unethical behaviour of the companies in his speech and say he thought their sponsorship of the event was inappropriate. See:

A few year’s ago we handed letters to Members of Parliament, church and business leaders and other VIP guests as they entered a prestige Nestlé event, called its ‘development lecture’ – that year on the theme of malnutrition. This provided an opportunity for the guests to put the issues we raised direct to the CEO of Nestlé (UK). You may have heard Nestlé say it likes people to put questions – but they cancelled the event the following year because they didn't want to be questioned:

To bring it up to date, we have a share in Nestlé to attend the shareholder meeting to raise questions directly with the board of directors before other shareholders and also organise events on Nestlé’s doorstep. As the film clip above shows, although the boycott stops some malpractice, the company is always coming up with new ways to undermine breastfeeding to boost sales of its baby milk – the latest being its claim that its formula ‘protects’ babies:

Even if people do not want to support the boycott, they can still send a message to Nestlé via the above link asking the company to stop claiming its baby milk 'protects' babies.

It just takes a click.

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