Nestle sponsorship of BlogHer Conference starts to go wrong for most-boycotted company

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The Nestlé boycott works its magic again as sponsorship of the BlogHer conference by its Stouffer brand comes under scrutiny. The Conference is due to take place in New York in the United States (6 - 7 August). Ironically, this came to my attention by a posting on a blog by someone defending her decision to attend Nestlé's parenting-blogger event in California in October 2009, which led to a first-class public relations disaster on Twitter, the social networking site. Nestlé has an abysmal image in cyberspace and is trying to improve this. As debate rages over whether bloggers should attend the Conference and what they can do there to support the campaign if they do, some thoughts come to my mind, which I will share here. It is very welcome to see people taking a stand, but the fact that Nestlé is contributing to the unnecessary death and suffering of babies around the world is an uncomfortable fact to face if you are someone who loves a particular product or want to accept its largesse. Accordingly, facing the facts is generally avoided in the arguments for not taking a stand.

While some bloggers in this debate are dismissive of the boycott as a strategy, there are two groups of people who have no doubt as to its importance: Nestlé executives and campaigners.

According to Nestlé's Global Head of Public Affairs, Dr. Gayle Crozier-Willi, Nestlé is widely boycotted. In fact, an independent survey by GMIPoll found it is one of the four most boycotted companies on the planet, the most boycotted in the UK, where Baby Milk Action is based. For executives, the boycott ranges between being an irritant to an unavoidable problem to be dealt with, depending on the day and the forum. Our job as campaigners is to move it to the right end of this spectrum, because that is when we see change. For example, Nestlé refused to translate the labels of baby milks into the national language in countries such as Malawi until we got the issue onto national television - then they rushed out translated labels. When we held national demonstrations in the UK, picked up by Swiss television, Nestlé announced it would stop promoting complementary foods from too early an age. When boycotters have contacted Nestlé over specific examples of malpractice, such as leaflets claiming Nestlé formula 'counteracts diarrhoea', Nestlé has said it would replace them. In our current campaign against Nestlé's new global strategy claiming its formula 'protects' babies (see youtube clip below), Nestlé has already taken action over point-of-sale display of tins, after we exposed that Nestlé's distribution system was allowing such things to go ahead, despite Nestlé's published policy saying they are not permitted. In the following clip, I take on the role of Mr. Nastie to explain Nestlé's baby milk marketing strategy.

With enough pressure we will persuade Nestlé to remove its 'protect' logos from labels of baby milk - send a message here. At the shareholder meeting in April 2010, Richard Laube, Chief Executive of Nestlé Nutrition, defended the practice when we raised it and admitted the strategy has been rolled out in 120 countries.  Nestlé knows that babies fed on its formula are more likely to become sick and, in conditions of poverty, more likely to die, but it puts its own profits first. Not only is there no justification for such an irresponsible strategy, it is a clear violation of Article 9.2 of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, which Nestlé claims to respect, which states: "Neither the container nor the label should have pictures of infants, nor should they have other pictures or text which may idealise the use of infant formula." [emphasis added]

This is only one concern amongst many, but it is particularly harmful as it undermines the message that breastfeeding protects babies. With enough mobilisation, we will stop it as we have stopped other outrageous practices. You can find out more and take action here:

Now, in the debate about the BlogHer conference, there is a phenomena that I have noticed before when Nestlé sponsorship is involved: there is a distinct lack of engagement on the actual issue of Nestlé marketing practices and an unwillingness to look at the evidence. So people will say things like, 'it is recycled old news'.  Well, there have been problems with Nestlé for over a hundred years, but anyone paying attention knows we are talking about things Nestlé is doing RIGHT NOW.

Some say that it is a simple fact of life that it takes money to organise events and any sponsor could be criticised by someone, so just take the money and do good with it. Which brings to mind the stance taken by the Indian Academy of Paediatrics, which has refused sponsorship by Nestlé or any other company involved in infant nutrition since 1997, taking the view that it was better to pay for their own meals than compromise their independence. The Academy argued against all such sponsorship for health workers and this was introduced in legislation in 2003 - legislation Nestlé is accused of breaking. The World Health Assembly, made up of the world's health ministries, has also adopted Resolutions calling for conflicts of interest in sponsorship of health workers and health programmes to be avoided.

The stance taken in India has an impact on sales - and breastfeeding rates. The industry analysts, Euromonitor, stated in their report on the market in 2008: "The huge disparity in the retail value of milk formula sales between China and India is mainly due to the significant differences between their official regulatory regimes.” The action by paediatricians to protect infant health is reflected in other measures. Euromonitor notes: “In India, all advertising is prohibited, while in China, TV advertising and the use of celebrity spokespeople are allowed.”

If the Indian Academy of Paediatrics can find other ways to hold its meetings, surely it is not beyond the imagination of bloggers in the US to put in place an ethical funding policy for their events?

With regards the boycott, every little helps and the way we promote it is intended to make it as easy to support as possible. We target Nestlé's flagship product, Nescafé, while publishing a list of major brands so people can avoid the whole lot, which obviously has more impact. We produce 'Nescafé - No Thanks' cards that people can leave where Nescafé is sold requesting an alternative option.

We promote International Nestlé-Free Week at the end of October (encompassing Halloween, which is a big chocolate event in some countries) so that people who do not usually boycott can be asked to avoid Nestlé products during that week. Those that normally only boycott Nescafé are asked to boycott all of them for the week. So when people say they have been given pause for thought because Nestlé makes such and such a product, that is not an argument for doing nothing, but an excuse.

In the BlogHer debate, some are saying that those who support the boycott should not go to the Conference. Everyone has to make up their own mind - Baby Milk Action certainly doesn't dictate. There is a difference between speakers who will be seen to endorse Nestlé if they share a platform with company spokespeople or are surrounded by branding and someone who sits in the audience to listen, learn and perhaps question.

Nestlé sponsorship provides an opportunity for campaigners and it is valid to attend to raise awareness and question Nestlé's involvement. Do not forget that following the Twitter disaster last year, Nestlé is embarking on a strategy to improve its image in cyberspace and sponsoring bloggers and their events is part of that strategy - people need to be alerted to how they are being used.

Nestlé is already reportedly paying celebrities US$10,000 per Tweet to say nice things about the company. It is worth recalling that when Mark Thomas, a British comedian and investigative reporter, was putting together an exposé of Nestlé for his television programme, they went digging through his past looking for any links with the company. Mark obtained company documents including his name using the data protection act and found a memo saying that if Nestlé could find he had advertised a company product they could attack him for hypocrisy for speaking out. You can see Mark's first programme on Nestlé on youtube.

Some people are saying it would be hypocritical for boycotters to attend the BlogHer event. There is a difference between an event organised by Nestlé (like its blogger event last year) and an event where the organisers have accepted Nestlé sponsorship, where we might hope to persuade the organisers to either get out of the arrangement or put in place a policy to prevent a repetition. Baby Milk Action has attended health worker events sponsored by baby food companies so we can gather material, take photographs, speak to other attendees and put the case to organisers that the action of the companies is not appropriate.

Handing out leaflets inside an event can be effective - and I will gladly help to make any leaflets for the BlogHer event legally bomb proof. Alternatively, or in addition, picketing events with placards and politely offering leaflets to those entering means that Nestlé's sponsorship is turned against it. And campaigners should always be polite, because even a few unpleasant comments will be used to suggest all campaigners are 'hateful' and provide an excuse for avoiding the real issues.

The dilemma for speakers reminds me of the situation Stephen Lewis, then Executive Deputy Director of UNICEF, found himself in when invited to be the key-note speaker at a nutrition event in Canada, only to find later it was sponsored by Nestlé and other formula companies.

He decided it would have more impact to attend and raise the unethical behaviour of the companies in his speech and say he thought their sponsorship of the event was inappropriate. See:

A few year’s ago we handed letters to Members of Parliament, church and business leaders and other VIP guests as they entered a prestige Nestlé event, called its ‘development lecture’ – that year on the theme of malnutrition. This provided an opportunity for the guests to put the issues we raised direct to the CEO of Nestlé (UK). You may have heard Nestlé say it likes people to put questions – but they cancelled the event the following year because they didn't want to be questioned:

To bring it up to date, we have a share in Nestlé to attend the shareholder meeting to raise questions directly with the board of directors before other shareholders and also organise events on Nestlé’s doorstep. As the film clip above shows, although the boycott stops some malpractice, the company is always coming up with new ways to undermine breastfeeding to boost sales of its baby milk – the latest being its claim that its formula ‘protects’ babies:

Even if people do not want to support the boycott, they can still send a message to Nestlé via the above link asking the company to stop claiming its baby milk 'protects' babies.

It just takes a click.


Response to 'A daily dose of Toni' blog

A post on the blog 'A daily dose of Toni' asks people to respond to her view that boycotters who attend BlogHer are hypocrites after she was criticised by 'several of these people' who tweeted on the #nestlefamily Twitter hashtag about her attending an all-expenses-paid visit to Nestlé. My response is below with added links. Here's the link to Toni's blog:


This is a very interesting take on the #nestlefamily event and the forthcoming BlogHer Conference. My understanding of both events is somewhat different.

I work for Baby Milk Action which promotes the Nestlé boycott in the UK and we became aware of the #nestlefamily event due to the jump in traffic to our sites from people posting links to inform other bloggers about Nestlé's pushing of baby milk in breach of international marketing standards supported by the US and all other countries that attend the World Health Assembly.

I contacted those bloggers who were down to go, to ask if they were prepared to look at the evidence of Nestlé malpractice or would just be relaying what Nestlé said. A couple of people did enter into communication and I provided background information. Nestlé is one of the four most boycotted companies on the planet and it was obvious that this event, targeting parenting bloggers, had the intention promoting the the company's portrayal of its activities to a wider audience - this is a common tactic. For example, it invites health journalists on all-expenses-paid trips to Switzerland and when positive articles have resulted has provided direct financial support (see note 4 on the blog here). We advise people not to attend such events and if they want to question Nestlé, use their own resources to visit the company to do so. But our starting point is people who accept such invitations probably were unaware of the implications.

In the case of the #nestlefamily event there were bloggers who said they were new to the issue and wanted to question Nestlé directly about it. There were others who seemed to take the view that because they like a particular Nestlé product they didn't want to know anything bad about the company. Those who were already aware of Nestlé's practices simply declined their invitations at the outset.

When the event was on, some bloggers did indeed put questions to the Nestlé (USA) Chief Executive and relay the responses. I tweeted information pointing to evidence disproving Nestlé claims, as did others. I also offered to take part in a direct tweet debate with Nestlé (I have debated with Nestlé many times, though it now refuses to participate having lost all past debates when there has been a vote). This offer was not taken up by Nestlé.

There were some attendees who can only be described as pro-Nestlé who objected to the hashtag being used to criticise Nestlé and wanted to tweet exclusively about what a nice time they were having. There were some critics who were unpleasant about this response and upset that bloggers had attended in the first place, which was unfair and unproductive in my view. But, on the whole, the use of the hashtag gave a good airing to concerns about Nestlé and its strategy blew up in its face (this is how we reported on it in our newsletter Update 42).

Although Nestlé promised to take part directly on the hashtag it did so only briefly and did not return as it had promised. However, it did provide detailed responses to the PhD in Parenting site which have been well analysed and, inevitably when put against the evidence, reveal Nestlé to be dishonest in the way it presents its activities. This has greatly raised the profile of the boycott in the US. 

Nestlé's response to its Twitter disaster has been to recruit a Public Relations agency to try to improve its image in cyberspace. An independent image rating agency has found Nestlé to have a particularly poor image. 

It is probably on the advice of the PR agency that Nestlé's Stouffer and Butterfinger brands have come forward as sponsors to the forthcoming BlogHer event late in the day. When people were buying early-bird tickets and accepting invitations to speak, no Nestlé brand was listed as a sponsor, people who bought such tickets have said. Now that BlogHer has decided to take Nestlé on as a sponsor it has created a dilemma for those who had already arranged to attend and particularly the PhD in Parenting blogger who was booked to speak specifically on the whole Nestlé issue. 

It has been a masterstroke by Nestlé to set itself up as a sponsor because it now has some people demanding that Nestlé critics do not attend on the grounds doing so would make them hypocrites. If critics do attend to expose Nestlé then the company no doubt hopes the focus will be on whether they should be there or not, rather than the company - just as it prefers the discussion about the #nestlefamily event be whether people were rude, rather than Nestlé's behaviour and its inadequate answers. Nestlé has an anti-boycott team so they are no doubt chuckling to themselves because their job becomes a whole lot easier when arguments erupt over other issues - and this is an important lesson for critics to learn: try to keep focus on Nestlé.

This strategy is all par for the course for Nestlé. A few years ago it came in as a sponsor to a nutrition conference in Canada where the Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF was to be the keynote speaker. It caused a lot of debate as to whether UNICEF should attend or not given its criticism of Nestlé. Stephen Lewis, the Deputy at the time, decided to go and used his keynote address to blast Nestlé and the other formula companies and make the point they are not appropriate sponsors for such events.

Those who want to hold Nestlé to account are sometimes faced with a quandary as to how to respond to Nestlé's strategies. And make no mistake, Nestlé has not come on board BlogHer at the last minute out of kindness. This company is determined in its defence of its business and profits. It has only given ground on the baby milk issue where we have embarrassed it sufficiently - or brought in strong enough laws - that it calculates it is its better option to do so. 

But it goes to great lengths to undermine campaigners. As I write, it is being pursued through the courts in Switzerland for infiltrating the groups Attac Switzerland with a spying operation, not just on baby milk marketing, but a whole range of issues from campaigns against its trade union busting, failure to act on child slavery in its cocoa supply chain, exploitation of water resources etc. You can find further information on the Nestlé Critics website.

Regarding baby milk, Nestlé is found to be the worst of the baby food companies in terms of violating internationally-agreed marketing standards by monitoring conducted on the ground around the world. According to UNICEF: "Marketing practices that undermine breastfeeding are potentially hazardous wherever they are pursued: in the developing world, WHO estimates that some 1.5 million children die each year because they are not adequately breastfed. These facts are not in dispute." 

Nestlé latest global marketing strategy is to promote baby milk with the claim that it 'protects' babies, despite knowing that babies fed on it are more likely to become sick than breastfed babies and, in conditions of poverty, more likely to die. We attended the Nestlé shareholder meeting in April (yes, that's a Nestlé event) to raise this directly with the board of directors before the shareholders. The Chief Executive of Nestlé Nutrition was called forward and defended the strategy, revealing as he did so that it has been rolled out in 120 countries. We have stopped such practices in the past through pressure from the boycott and public support - and we will stop this, but we need your help.

We are currently asking people to send a message to Nestlé. It takes one minute to do so. Four minutes if you want to watch our little film clip about it. 

You don't have to support the boycott to send a message to Nestlé. You don't have to avoid BlogHer to send a message.

I imagine people will be spending far more than four minutes writing about the pros and cons of Nestlé coming in at the last minute to hijack BlogHer and whether Nestlé critics are right or wrong to attend. Please don't let that discussion stop you giving 1 - 4 minutes to help mothers and babies around the world by sending a message to Nestlé. See:


I Will Not Attend BlogHer, Nor Speak

Hi Mike, I "met" you online over a decade ago when I wrote for an attachment parenting site. I have boycotted Nestle since my son was born in 1998 (maybe before's just been a really, really, really long time!).

I was asked to speak on a panel at BlogHer '10 before the Nestle/Stouffer sponsorship was announced. I just found out today, and promptly sent off a note of regret, cancellation of attendance, and cancellation of intent to speak on the panel.

It saddens me to see the sponsoship, but it's not really an ethically dilemma...All I had to see were the words "Nestle" and "sponsor!"

Carry on the good work!



Whether to boycott BlogHer

Speaker at BlogHer 'disappointed and angry'

One of the guest speakers, author of PhD in Parenting, has posted her thoughts on her blog here: