Tuesday, November 06, 2007

John Angliss: Nestlé and ethics

People may remember that I am indulging in a reality TV style public vote (or preparing to) where you, my gentle readers, get to decide the two things that I will personally boycott for the foreseeable future. John Angliss kindly agreed to write this piece on the trouble with Nestlé.

Most people, when asked to come up with the evils of corporate marketing, will think of misogynistic Pot Noodles ads in Britain, or children contracted to sell cigarettes to their school friends in South East Asia. The Nestlé boycott has been long-running enough to have an impact on the public imagination, but the subtleties of the problem are sometimes missed.

Nestlé does not kill babies, under a purely criminal law interpretation. Instead, its pursuit of sales in the Third World have led it to adopt, over the course of over 30 years, an incredibly unethical set of infant formula marketing schemes. Sometimes doctors in the Third World have been directly paid by the company to promote infant formula as an alternative to breast milk. Sometimes they will merely dole out free samples to expectant mothers wherever they can find them. Often there will be misleading advertising campaigns promoting infant formula at the expense of breast milk. This is not just a Nestlé tactic in Sub-Saharan Africa, where it hurts the most, but has been sighted in Asia, South America and Eastern Europe as well - all since Nestlé publicly claimed that it would desist from its infamous infant formula marketing strategies.

What are the problems with substituting baby formula for breast milk? Well, in simple economic terms there can be severe problems once the mother gets out of hospital: her breast milk will have dried up and she will have to buy infant formula for herself. Often babies are malnourished because the mother tries to ration it and save money. Even more perfidiously, in many of the areas where this alternative is marketed, tap or well water has not been treated properly, and babies’ immune systems are not designed to cope with untreated water until they are well off the teat. Additionally, there are nutrients in breast milk not present in infant formula which help the development of an infant’s immune system – the marketing of infant formula as a better alternative in countries with more lax marketing laws can lead to less direct fatalities. The Advertising Standards Agency has checked claims by Baby Milk Action, which campaigns on this issue, and found that their figures measure up: the shocking truth is that more than 4,000 babies die each year because they are not breastfed, and many of these could have been prevented if companies like Nestlé decided to act in a way befitting a company run by humans rather than amoral profit-seekers.

So what can we do about this? Joining the boycott is one way to hit Nestlé’s bottom line, but email them or phone them to tell them what you’re doing and why. They’ve lied about stopping these practices before, so there’s a real accountability problem either way. But it cannot be right to allow an amoral company to be so awful in the Third World whilst appearing so unbothered about it in the First.

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