I was contacted recently by a supporter of the Nestlé boycott whose nephew questioned her concerns by referring to a blog post on Nestlé’s website. The staggeringly dishonest nature of Nestlé’s presentation of the facts shows how desperate it is to undermine support for the boycott. In a recent survey, Nestlé was voted the least ethical company of the last 25 years. (Order one of our new Nestlé-Free Zone t-shirts to support the boycott).
Nestlé, the company with the largest share of the baby milk market (29%), is the target of a boycott because it systematically violates the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant Resolutions of the World Health Assembly. Nestlé executives have rejected Baby Milk Action’s four-point plan aimed at saving infant lives and ultimately ending the boycott.
The following misleading comments from Nestlé were in the extract forwarded to me:
As a result of our inclusion in the responsible investment index FTSE4Good in 2011, the United Reformed Churches ended their support for the boycott. A number of other significant stakeholders had already ended their support for it, including the General Synod of the Church of England, the Royal College of Midwives, and the Methodist Ethical Investment Committee.
People who want to work with Nestlé, accept offers of sponsorship or feel good about eating Nestlé products may well be satisfied with these assurances and not want to know whether they are true or not.
But the fact is, none of these groups have said the concerns about Nestlé’s marketing of breastmilk substitutes are over. Some have published their own evidence of “systematic violations” by Nestlé and other companies, accusing them of “thereby jeopardising the lives of infants”. Not all have ended their support for the boycott. Some have decided to try other methods to put pressure on Nestlé, while commending Baby Milk Action for our work.
For those who do want to know the truth, read on. You will find links to source documents so you don’t just have to take our word for it. Our analysis of Nestlé full response to concerns about its marketing practices can be found here.
In this blog I will be looking at the misleading claims regarding the position of the United Reformed Church, the Church of England, the Royal College of Midwives and the Methodist Church.
I will examine each element of Nestlé’s claims in turn:
As a result of our inclusion in the responsible investment index FTSE4Good in 2011…
Nestlé was included in the FTSE4Good Index not because it changed its marketing policies and practices, but because the FTSE4Good Breastmilk Substitutes Criteria were weakened in 2010.
The Index is an initiative of the FTSE stock exchange listing company. FTSE Chief Executive, Mark Makepeace, explained the rationale for weakening the criteria in a letter to the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) on 17 June 2011: ‘In the infant food sector we were not able to engage the companies as they were all being excluded from the index.’
IBFAN finds this unconvincing. We have been in ongoing written communication with Nestlé’s Chairman and Chief Executive for decades. They have demonstrated their unwillingness to change policies and practices. Changes that have been made have come from pressure through regulations, campaigns and the boycott. Faced with the same intransigence, FTSE decided to back down rather than defend the international minimum standards that Nestlé should follow. This has had devastating consequences for child rights as described below.
So Nestlé was not included in FTSE4Good because it made the required changes to its baby milk marketing. In fact, Nestlé weakened its marketing policy prior to joining FTSE4Good because this flawed initiative assesses companies against a company’s own policy, rather than the International Code and Resolutions. The Methodist Church Joint Advisory Committee on the Ethics in Investment (JACEI) presented a report on Nestlé to the Methodist Conference on 29 June 2015 that explained:
“Nestlé’s Operating Instructions were revised in 2010 and now permit the advertising of formula milk designed for babies older than one year even when the brand name is the same as that for infant formula.”
Prior to this, Nestlé said it would not advertise milks for older babies that had the same brand as the infant formula for use from birth. This cross-promotional strategy is documented by IBFAN in its monitoring reports with reference to Nestlé’s own materials. An example from Armenia, a country Nestlé describes itself as “high risk”, is given below. Nestlé promotes it Nan brand with the claim: “reliable protection for children”.
…the United Reformed Churches ended their support for the boycott.
The United Reformed Church Assembly renewed its support for the Nestlé boycott in July 2010. The announcement at the time stated (click here for archived version):
“After animated discussion, a resolution was passed which effectively continues the boycott of Nestlé products at this time, but anticipates ending the boycott should the company gain acceptance by the FTSE4Good Index – through reaching FTSE4Good prescribed standards of corporate responsibility.”
What happened next can only be described as unintended consequences: the FTSE4Good standards were weakened in September 2010 clearing the way for Nestlé to be listed in March 2011, even though it continued to violate the Code and Resolutions and had just weakened its advertising policy. Nestlé’s inclusion in FTSE4Good led to the URC Mission Committee “issuing an instruction to its Mission Council meeting to terminate the boycott of Nestle products.”
Baby Milk Action suggested to the URC’s Secretary for Church and Society that it would be more appropriate to return the matter to the URC Assembly as Nestlé had been accepted into the index because the FTSE4Good criteria had changed, not Nestlé. However, we were told the issues: “were fully debated at our General Assembly last year resulting in the compromise resolution which Mission Council (which represents General Assembly between its biennial meetings) is now required to act on.”
Although we have publicised these details, we wonder how many URC members are aware that their Mission Committee instructed the boycott to be called off because it felt the Mission Council was duty bound to act on a resolution, even though it had been superseded by events.
I am certain it was not the intention of the 2010 Assembly Resolution to reward Nestlé for weakening its formula advertising policy by calling off the boycott, but that is what happened.
A number of other significant stakeholders had already ended their support for it, including the General Synod of the Church of England…
Again, the reality of what happened is far different from the impression Nestlé wishes to create. Far from finding Nestlé marketing malpractice had stopped, the Church of England arranged its own investigation independently of Baby Milk Action and found Nestlé “systematically” violates the marketing requirements.
So how did the Synod end up calling off its support for the boycott?
The Church’s governing body, the Synod, first gave its support to the boycott in 1991. Then there was a move to disinvest from Nestlé at the 1994 Synod. Nestlé lobbied extremely hard against this initiative and the Synod decided to suspend its support for the boycott and conduct its own investigation.
It formed the Interagency Group on Breastfeeding Monitoring (IGBM) with other church groups, development organisations and academics. Baby Milk Action and IBFAN were purposely excluded.
The Cracking the Code report was published in 1997 after monitoring was conducted in Bangladesh, Poland, South Africa and Thailand. This found “systematic violations” by Nestlé and other companies.
The Synod accepted the report, but did not support resuming its boycott and disinvesting, partly because Nestlé was not the only company implicated and partly because the Church Commissioners proposed using their supposed influence as shareholders to exert pressure on Nestlé. We have asked the Church Commissioners over the years for information on any success from this approach as we continue to find Nestlé only responds to campaign pressure and enforced regulations. The Commissioners have never reported any impact to us.
The Church of England press release from 1997 Synod stated:
“The main conclusion of the report is that major manufacturers of breastmilk substitutes continue to contravene the international code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes thereby jeopardising the lives of infants. Violations include the donation of free samples, the publication of information materials which undermine breastfeeding and unsolicited visits by company representatives to health facilities.”
This is one of the facts Nestlé wants people to forget in its presentation of the history. Note, evidence today shows these practices continue in many countries that do not have effective regulation. They are now evident in the UK since Nestlé took over the SMA brand and has recruited a network of clinical representatives whose job description is to violate the Code by targeting health workers to gain “brand endorsement”.
Nestlé led a concerted attack on the Cracking the Code report, even though it had been invited to comment on the protocol beforehand and had declined to do so. A peer reviewed paper based on the research was published in the British Medical Journal in 1998.
UNICEF wrote to Nestlé’s then Chief Executive Officer (now Chairman), Peter Brabeck-Letmathé, defending Cracking the Code as supporting its own findings and set out several areas where Nestlé policies needed to change (it took years of campaigning to pressure Nestlé to change its policy on complementary foods, criticised in the UNICEF letter – see boycott successes).
…the Royal College of Midwives…
The 1997 Conference of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) responded to the Cracking the Code report referred to above by adopting a motion noting the “widespread abuses” and suggesting that the RCM Council “reconsider its hypocritical position of boycotting Nestlé whilst continuing to accept sponsorship from other infant feeding manufacturers.”
Many midwives expected the RCM Council to stop taking money from the companies named in the report. Instead the Council opted to drop the Nestlé boycott, continue to accept funds and to work from “the inside”.
Again, Nestlé falsely implies this decision was based on Nestlé having been cleared.
Nearly two decades later, the RCM has finally stopped accepting formula advertising for its journal and sponsorship from manufacturers of breastmilk substitutes for events and its conference.
…and the Methodist Ethical Investment Committee.
As mentioned above the Methodist Conference in 2015 accepted a report from the Joint Advisory Committee on the Ethics in Investment (JACEI) that cites evidence of ongoing violations by Nestlé and documents how the FTSE4Good strategy led to Nestlé weakening its formula advertising policy.
Like the Church of England Commissioners, the Methodist Central Finance Board (CFB) argued that it could influence Nestlé as an investors. A statement from JACEI in 2006 stated:
“JACEI acknowledges and respects the work of organisations such as Baby Milk Action in highlighting the scandal of inappropriate marketing of breast milk substitutes. The way in which the CFB responds to such activities is to engage with company managements and seek change from within. These approaches should be seen as complementary strategies working to achieve a common aim.”
When these issues were discussed at the Methodist Conference in 2006, the adopted texts presented investment as a parallel strategy to the boycott. The texts adopted by the Conference included:
“The Conference shares with the [Oxford] Circuit the substantial concerns regarding the promotion of breast milk substitutes…”
“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.” [emphasis added].
“The Joint Advisory Committee for Ethics in Investment (JACEI) has discussed with Nestlé ethical concerns across a range of issues…. there is scope to influence change through engagement….”
“Many would consider that these two strategies [the boycott and engagement] have complementary objectives.”
We explained to JACEI and CFB that it was not necessary to invest in Nestlé to “engage” with executives – we have been in communication with the most senior management of Nestlé for decades. We also warned that it would be misrepresented by Nestlé. It began immediately and the current comments on Nestlé’s website show it continues to exploit the CFB decision despite past assurances that it would not do so.
A Methodist Church representative raised concerns about Nestlé misrepresenting the investment decision at a meeting of the Church Investors Group on 4 December 2009. Nestlé’s Vice President for Corporate Affairs, Niels Christiansen, was present at the meeting. The record of the meeting records:
“one delegate representing both the Methodist Church (which had had an engagement and policy change process, and the URC, which was commencing one), noted that, in his view the Methodist change in policy had been used by the company and misrepresented them. Could Nestlé provide assurances that any decision the URC makes will not be similarly misused?
“Niels Christiansen gave assurances that it is not in the company’s interest to misrepresent the views of investors or to capitalise on a policy shift. If that had happened, it was regrettable and would be looked into. Nestlé is keen to inform the URC process with the facts as part of a constructive engagement process, but would not seek to promote any decision in the company’s own public relations interests.” [emphasis added].
As Nestlé’s actions then and since demonstrate, no organisation can take assurances from Nestlé’s most senior executives on trust. While they may sound reasonable and comforting, Nestlé is engaged in a public relations offensive so that it can continue to put profits before the rights of mothers and babies. We have again raised this with the Chair of the JACEI committee in a recent letter.
Executives will say whatever they believe people want to hear to persuade them. They will then break their word, leaving Baby Milk Action hard pressed to correct the false impression given.
Final word on FTSE4Good the dishonesty of Nestlé executives
Nestlé similarly misrepresents its inclusion in FTSE4Good Index (full history here). FTSE has repeatedly told Nestlé not to misrepresent what inclusion in the Index signifies. For example, the 17 June 2011 letter to IBFAN from FTSE Chief Executive, Mark Makepeace, states:
“Mr Brady drew our attention to an instance where Nestlé had referred to WHO Compliance in the same sentence as a reference to their inclusion in FTSE4Good. We followed up with the company noting that their assessment is based on the FTSE4Good BMS Marketing criteria rather than WHO Code Compliance.”
Nestlé’s Chairman, Peter Brabeck-Letmathé, treats FTSE’s requests with contempt – he again misrepresents inclusion in FTSE4Good in an interview in The Guardian published 31 January 2014.
“Brabeck also defended Nestlé against accusations by Baby Milk Action that it contributes to the unnecessary death and suffering of infants around the world by aggressively marketing baby foods.
“‘We are the only infant formula producer which is part of FTSE4Good. We are being checked and controlled by FTSE4Good. They make their audits in different parts of the world and we have to prove that we are complying with the WHO code and up to now we can prove that in everything we are.'”
Should we be surprised that Mr Brabeck does not tell the truth about FTSE4Good when he manages to sleep at night pursuing policies that put company profits before the lives of babies?
He knows that babies who are fed on formula are more likely to become sick than breastfed babies, but continues to defend promoting formula with the claim it “protects” babies and using other strategies that systematically violate the Code and Resolutions.
We have a proven track record in forcing changes, but it is not easy and we need your help.