Greenpeace is reporting that Nestlé has agreed to all of its demands regarding its sourcing of palm oil from suppliers accused of destroying Indonesian rainforest to produce it. Nestlé had earlier resisted calls to change its policies and practices and received many thousands of messages and Greenpeace campaigners dropped in - literally - on its shareholder meeting in Switzerland last April. Now it is saying it will source palm oil from sustainable sources by 2015. This will require careful monitoring; when Nestlé was targeted over child slavery in its cocoa supply chain it promised in 2001 to ensure this had ended within 5 years, but has still not delivered. From our own success in holding Nestlé to account, we know that its Public Relations team will be swinging into action to portray this as 'Nestlé taking the lead' - ignoring the great efforts campaigners have had to go to and using its climb down to divert attention from other concerns about it awful management behaviour.
We have several examples from the Baby Milk Action campaign we can cite. For example, we campaigned for three years over Nestlé's refusal to translate labels into the national language of the country where they were sold and prompted Nestlé to review its labels after getting this onto national UK television (The Mark Thomas Product).
This was portrayed by Nestlé in its 'Code Action Report' (left) as if it was unilaterally taking action. While it did indeed put out new labels in Malawi, one of the examples cited, these were rejected by the Government as inadequate. Although they have since been changed, Nestlé has added a logo claiming its formula 'protects' babies, when in truth babies fed on it are more likely to become sick and, in conditions of poverty as exist in Malawi, are more likely to die. This is the target of a current Baby Milk Action campaign - click here to send a message to Nestlé.
So don't be surprised if Nestlé puts out statements and pamphlets about it tightening its requirements for sourcing palm oil - without acknowledging it was forced to do so. Greenpeace is right to say that Nestlé must be closely monitored to see if it delivers on its undertaking.
In another example, we campaigned for 9 years to force Nestlé to accept a 1994 World Health Assembly (WHA) Resolution saying that complementary feeding should be fostered from 6 months of age - Nestlé routinely promoted such foods for use from 4 months of age or even less. It took bringing the Resolution into law and policies in many countries, further Resolutions at the Assembly and, finally, national demonstrations in the UK to prompt change. During the course of the week of demonstrations in 2003, which were filmed by Swiss television, Nestlé contacted Baby Milk Action to say it was accepting the WHA Resolutions - but again it spun this as Nestlé 'taking the lead', the headline in the 7th edition of its 'Code Action Report', shown left. Again, it has not lived up to its claim to change its practices and continues to push complementary foods from too early an age. A recent example was given on the PhDinParenting blog a couple of weeks ago.
Nestlé's Code Action Report has a curious history - Nestlé launched it in October 1999, with the claim:
"This is the first edition of a monthly report, issued by Nestlé to interested parties around the world, which is designed to be a reliable and authoritative source of information on implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, including its Aims, Principles and Articles.
"This new initiative is intended to encourage meaningful dialogue with all interested parties concerned with infant feeding and nutrition, the encouragement of breast-feeding and the promotion of the WHO International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes."
Baby Milk Action took Nestlé at its word and entered into this 'dialogue' - as a result Nestlé had to publish corrections and apologies in subsequent issues of the Code Action Report, including a full-page right-to-reply from Baby Milk Action after it disputed our evidence regarding its use of community health workers to promote baby milks in the Philippines. It apologised to the Danish and other governments in the pages of the report for misrepresenting letters Nestlé claimed were official verification that it was abiding by the Code and Resolutions. For full analysis of this PR disaster surrounding these letters, see our 1999 briefing, Don't Judge a Book by its Cover.
So Nestlé decided that 'meaningful dialogue' was not such a good idea. The sequence of 'monthly' Code Action Reports, posted to Nestlé's anti-boycott website, are as follows:
Number 1: October 1999
Number 2: November 1999
Number 3: January 2000
Number 4: April 2000 (They are starting to come a little more slowly now)
Number 5: August 2000 (Now more than a year to wait..)
Number 6: October 2001 (And if you can believe it, an even longer wait..)
Number 7: June 2003 .. the newest edition on the site - no new report for nearly 7 years!
We are not alone in finding that when Nestlé backs down it tries to spin this to its own advantage.
In 2003 Oxfam launched a campaign against Nestlé's attempt to extract US$ 6 million from the Ethiopian Government at a time the country was experiencing famine. The compensation claim related to a factory that had been nationalised 27 years before, prior to Nestlé owning the company that had owned the factory. The Government offered US$ 1.5 million compensation, but Nestlé tried an accounting trick to increase this four-fold. Its Global Head of Communications, Francois Perroud, went on the radio claiming it was in the Government's interest to settle if it was to attract future investment. People sent messages and packs of rice to Nestlé and eventually it agreed to settle for US$ 1.5 million and donate this to initiatives in Ethiopia (history here). But Nestlé has no shame - the following year, when the Guardian newspaper reported that Breakthrough Breast Cancer had refused a £1 million donation from Nestlé on ethical grounds, Nestlé sent a letter to the newspaper dismissing criticism of its baby food marketing and claimed it was a force for good in the world, citing the donation made to Ethiopia - of course, it did not mention that that the donation came about not because of Nestlé altruism, but because of campaign protest. In addition, Nestlé's Chairman has made it very clear that any donations to good causes have to benefit shareholders.
So well done to everyone who campaigned on Nestlé's sourcing of palm oil. The company needs to be monitored to see it it delivers. Greenpeace is now moving on to target another company in its palm oil campaign.
Those who are concerned about Nestlé practices should not be misled if Nestlé now claims to be taking the lead on palm oil - this is a PR response and it has not changed its business ethos. Continued pressure is need to stop it claiming its baby milk 'protects' babies and other malpractice. Click here to send a message to Nestlé. The Greenpeace victory - as with our past victories - show that if we make enough noise, then Nestlé will judge it is in its own best interests to change.
You can help to make some noise by demonstrating at Nestlé UK (HQ) in Croydon on 22 May 11:00 - 12:00 or another Nestlé site or location where Nestlé products are sold. For further information on this and other future events, see our Diary Dates page.