Tuesday, January 30, 2007

30th anniversary year

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first Nestlé boycott in 1977. Time for some reflection if you will indulge me.

The boycott was launched following the publicity around the Baby Killer trial - where Nestlé took campaigners to court over a booklet exposing its practices. See

The first boycott campaign was instrumental in bringing about the marketing requirements for baby foods adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981.

The boycott was suspended in 1984 after Nestlé gave undertakings to abide by the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, but it failed to do so. Monitoring conducted by the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) found – and still finds – Nestlé to be responsible for more violations of the Code and subsequent, relevant Resolutions of the Assembly. Hence Nestlé was given an ultimatum in 1988 to comply and when it did not the boycott was relaunched. In the UK this was in 1989. Today the boycott has been launched by groups in 20 countries and is supported by people in many more. Independent analysis has found Nestlé is one of the four most boycotted companies on the planet. See

Way back in my first blog entry, I wrote of some of the victories achieved by the boycott in the more recent past, such as compelling Nestlé to stop promoting complementary foods from too early an age. Although the Assembly set out complementary feeding should be fostered from about 6 months in 1994 it took 9 years of campaigning to prompt Nestlé to change its policy – which it announced during a week of demonstrations at Nestlé sites in the UK.

Nestlé does continue to grow, of course, swallowing other companies and entering new fields, such as bottled water, pet food and cosmetics. Nestlé is not the world’s largest food company by accident. It is through its aggressive approach to business which prompts it to see the boycott as another inconvenience to be countered – like laws it has tried to strike down or official orders it has ignored. In a similar way, campaigners have to be prepared for the long haul. See

For the past decade this has been the attitude of Chief Executive Officer and Chairman, Peter Brabeck-Letmathé, acknowledged to be obstinate not only when it comes to the boycott, but to every other aspect of business, including corporate governance. He became Chairman in the face of an unprecedented shareholder rebellion, exposing the futility of those who believe investing in Nestlé will have influence, other than from standing up at the shareholder meeting each year to raise questions about corporate malpractice. See

Aside from the changes in policy forced on Nestlé and the success in tackling specific cases of malpractice, the scene 30 years after the first boycott is radically different.

For a start, the baby milk issue is well known and the body of evidence of the dangers of artificial feeding and advantages of breastfeeding has grown considerably. Breastfeeding saves millions of lives every year – campaign supporters can claim some of the credit for that. See this review of the state of breastfeeding, marking another anniversary, that of the Innocenti Declaration in 2005:

The biggest change, however, comes from having the International Code and subsequent, relevant Resolutions. We are no longer simply demanding companies stop aggressive marketing practices, we are calling on them to abide by standards adopted by the world’s highest health policy setting body.

It would have been nice if companies had complied with the Code when it was adopted in 1981, but they had opposed it as ‘irrelevant and unworkable’ (to use the words of Nestlé at the time, speaking on behalf of the world’s industry). So it was clear to campaigners that the battle for regulations had to be won again at national level, country after country. We now had important tools to help us. The Innocenti report noted 64 countries with regulations introduced. The total is now over 70, enforced to varying degrees, but some are making a real difference in stopping malpractice and saving lives.

As IBFAN’s 2004 review of 7 case study countries show, achieving regulations has always been a tough call, given the massive resources of the baby food industry and its political influence. Even in countries with exemplary legislation which is helping to reverse the decline in breastfeeding, such as Brazil and India, it took years of hard work and several revisions of the law to achieve the measures in place today. In some countries industry pressure won out and it was voluntary routes that were followed, to little effect. For further details see the report Checks and balances in the global economy: using international tools to stop corporate malpractice – does it work?

Of course, companies should change their practices voluntarily. Indeed the Code calls on them to do so independently of government measures. But in practice, without enforcement, voluntary approaches seem to have little merit.

I have recently written to Novartis about its undertaking to comply with the criteria of the FTSE4Good ethical listing on baby food marketing. It’s Gerber subsidiary satisfied FTSE that it had put in place systems to achieve compliance with the Code and Resolutions in every country where it operates. We looked at Gerber marketing on our September 2006 Campaign for Ethical Marketing action sheet around the time this was announced. Checking today the same violations continue on its website. We said we would take a ‘wait and see’ approach. What we see so far is that changes to the systems have not brought about changes in practices. It is practices that impact on infant health, not policy statements. How long does it take a transnational corporation to change a website? Surely 5 months is more than enough time to put a member of staff on to it. If the company was serious about changing, rather than just getting listed.

For us, legislation is the way forward. We know from our experience at home in the UK, as much as abroad, that achieving legislation is not an easy task. When the UK law regulating the marketing of infant formula and follow-on formula was introduced in 1995 it was opposed by Baby Milk Action and all health worker organisations as being too weak, too partial an implementation of the Code and Resolutions to function effectively.

Of course, we have done our best to make use of its provisions. We do have a lot of success in stopping illegal promotion in supermarkets – only for it to recur. It seems it will take prosecutions before supermarkets get the message. Regulatory authorities are handicapped by the loopholes in the law however. See

We have documented in detail how companies exploit the loopholes and how little the authorities are able or are prepared to do. That is why, as I wrote yesterday, we have campaigned for and won a commitment from the Government to strengthen the law. Now we have to work with our partners to ensure the Code and Resolutions are implemented. See

It won’t be easy. Challenging powerful vested interests never is. But we know what works and will call on your help to convince the politicians and expose company malpractice and lobbying. If you have been following this blog you will know what we and our partners are up against in the Philippines, with legal action brought by the pharmaceutical companies to strike down regulations, the US Chamber of Commerce putting pressure on the President and even official suspicion that the government's lawyer defending the case, who was assassinated last month, may have been murdered because of the case. See
Campaigning has won through in many other countries and we hope it will in the Philippines. Global mobilisation of organisations and individuals voicing their support is often what it takes.

Thirty years since the launch of the boycott seems a good time to review where we are at. We are not complacent, because, in truth, we and our IBFAN partners repeatedly review the campaign and future strategies in light of past experience. There are always new approaches to be considered. For example, IBFAN was the first to see the potential of the European Parliament public hearings into corporate practices and successfully called for Nestlé to be the first to be investigated. We denounced Nestlé to the Advertising Standards Authority for untrue claims in an anti-boycott advertisement and won on every complaint. IBFAN has been very active in using human rights instruments, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to remind governments of their obligation to implement the Code and Resolutions and participates in relevant international meetings, such as the Codex Alimentarius Commission - see:

Currently we are asking partners to support our call for Nestlé to participate in an independent, expert tribunal into its baby food marketing practices. Nestlé refuses to even discuss terms and conditions and, as I wrote recently, now appears to be running away from public debates. See

We must keep up the pressure for the tribunal until such time there is some form of international court where Nestlé and other corporations abusing human rights could be put on trial. Now there is a strategy worth considering. At present it may seem too outlandish, but it is only by discussing the possibility that we can make progress towards a regulatory system capable of holding transnational corporations accountable at the global level. In a world that is rapidly globalising, global governance is not keeping pace. The IBFAN case studies report has something to say on how it could.

In this 30th anniversary year there is nothing to celebrate in the fact that the boycott remains necessary.

However, we can and should celebrate the commitment of ordinary people around the world to win justice for mothers and infants wherever they may be. Watch this space for news of forthcoming events.


Mike Brady said...

There is a new film by UNICEF Philippines (2007) showing malpractice by Nestlé and other companies, and its impact on mothers and infants. Also, The Guardian, has conducted its own investigation in Bangladesh.


Anonymous said...

These comments have been invaluable to me as is this whole site. I thank you for your comment.

Mike Brady said...

The week 2-8 July 2007 is the first International Nestlé-Free Week.

For further information and materials see:

Mike Brady said...

Nestle-Free Week in 2009 is 26 October - 1 November. See:

Mike Brady said...

An update on the Philippines situation mentioned above.

Eventuality campaigners were victorious and the regulations came in virtually unchanged. See:

Now the focus is on enforcing the regulations, one aspect of our July 2009 Campaign for Ethical Marketing action sheet: