Monday, October 23, 2006

The long haul

The long haul

A few days ago I wrote about Nestlé's growth in turnover. A sample of the things popping up over the past few days show how Nestlé could be doing so much better if it abided by the baby food marketing requirements, so bringing an end to the boycott.

Swansea Student Union renewed its support for the Nestlé boycott. This was prompted by someone noticing that Buxton Water in the union shop is a Nestlé product. So that will no longer be stocked. A business has emailed saying they have stopped their contract with Pow Wow water, a company taken over by Nestlé. When the engineer came to collect the cooler, he said there were 6 other addresses in the same street who had also cancelled their contracts. Someone has requested information for lobbying their council to support the boycott. And the usual round of journalists for articles on the campaign, the controversy over the Nestlé/L'Oreal takeover of Body Shop etc.

One particularly nice letter arrived today with a cheque for £281. Vanessa explains that her son and 12 other members of his church youth group held a 24-hour sponsored fast to raise money for three organisations. Baby Milk Action was selected after Oliver gave a powerpoint presentation to the group, which he repeated in church. As she says, 'no mean feat for a 16 year old boy to talk about breastfeeding to either a group of teenagers or the predominantly elderly congregation'. So the word is spread and the campaign grows.

But why hasn't Nestlé given up, people sometimes ask? And if Nestlé sales continue to grow, what does that tell us?

As I wrote in the first entry on this blog, Nestlé has given up in some important areas. Lives are being saved thanks to the campaign. But it is not yet over.

Nestlé continues to grow despite the campaign because it is an extremely powerful company. It spends more on one advertising campaign than Baby Milk Action operates on for a year. And it is as aggressive in competing with other companies as it is in competing with breastfeeding. It is a point of management principle that Nestlé will be in the top two companies in every business it enters, be it infant food, bottled water or pet food. It is now entering into the diet meals business with the takeover of Jenny Craig so expect it to eat up competitors or put them out of business. Expect consolidation as other companies struggle to survive. Nestlé has not become the world's largest food company by accident. It is through ruthlessly pursuing that goal.

Every now and then an organisation comes along and looks at Nestlé's continued aggressive marketing of baby foods and decides to have a go at solving the problem. Perhaps Nestlé will be a focus for a couple of years, before they move on to something else. Perhaps they see the boycott as 'confrontational' and believe that by 'engaging' with the company they can persuade it to change. It never ceases to amaze me how flattered people are if Nestlé agrees to meet, as if they have scored some great victory. We have been there before. I think of the governments bullied by Nestlé, the trade unionists locked out and tied up in endless court battles, the company's contempt for the European Parliament public hearing and Mr. Brabeck's past attacks on the Executive Director of UNICEF. And I feel a little bit sorry for those who really don't know what they are getting themselves into and a little bit annoyed at their failure to learn the lessons of the history of the campaign.

Nestlé understands two things. The first is money. That is why it does not abide by the baby food marketing requirements. It undermines breastfeeding to increase sales. The boycott makes Nestlé take concerns over its baby food marketing seriously because it hits its bottom line. Periodically it makes changes it can trumpet to the world to try to release the pressure.

The second is the law. For Nestlé the law is an inconvenience. Those who think they can change Nestlé's practices through sitting down with executives over a cup of Nescafé should first look at how it responds to legal actions, failing to turn up at court, trying to get laws changed and so on. But laws do work. When independently monitored and enforced they stop aggressive marketing. Breastfeeding rates start to recover.

What am I trying to say? Don't expect it to be easy to hold a company like Nestlé to account. Not just because campaigning organisations are poorly resourced. Certainly we could make more progress with additional resources, boycotters and media attention. But the problem is more fundamental: the nature of Nestlé and its thirst for continuous growth.

No. It is not easy a task. But somebody has to do it. And stick with it.

Settling for less than the minimum required to protect infants and their families is a failure and a betrayal of those who are asking for our help.

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