Looking back on the Nestle boycott

In 1843, Henri Nestle, a German-born inventor living in Switzerland, created a substitute for mother’s milk, based on cow’s milk mixed with meal that had been baked by a new process.  He hoped to do something about the high infant mortality rate in Switzerland, where one in five babies died in the first year of life.  According to the Everybody’s Business almanac, he tried out his new formula on a prematurely born child who had refused his mother’s milk and was suffering from convulsions.

The 15-day infant thrived on the milk food, and Nestle started selling his formula in large quantities.  Nestle in time merged his business with a condensed milk business, and the resulting firm eventually became the multinational giant Nestle, which sells milk products, including infant formula, all over the world.

Starting in the 1970s, the Nestle company has been accused of doing the exact opposite of what Henri Nestle intended.  A worldwide boycott was organized against Nestle on the grounds that, far from helping safeguard the health of newborn children, its products were causing the deaths of children in poor countries.

The boycotters said that Nestle infant formula was being marketed to poor women who would have been better off breastfeeding their infants, and who were not told and often lacked the means to prepare the infant formula safely.  Thus it was a common sight, they said, for a woman to be holding an infant dying of diarrhea or malnutrition, while her pockets were filled with empty Nestle infant formula containers.

The boycotters said that Nestle gave away free samples of infant formula to women in hospitals.  Impressed by the idea that using Nestle’s formula was the advanced modern way, they used the formula instead of breastfeeding, and then found their ability to breastfeed impaired when they left the hospital.

This sounded both plausible and shocking to me, but when I began work on an article for the Democrat and Chronicle about the Nestle boycott, I learned there was another side to the story.

Dr. Dana Raphael, founder of the Human Lactation Center and an advocate of breastfeeding, ridiculed the idea that a Nestle boycott could help poor mothers in the Third World.  Women in poor countries are experts at keeping children alive, she said; they’re not likely to be bamboozled by advertising by Nestle or anything else.

She said that most poor women supplement their breastfeeding with whatever is at hand—whether it be free samples of infant formula, or the water that’s left in the pot after boiling rice, or whatever.   Their problem is lack of access to clean water or pasteurized cow’s milk, and lack of money to buy sufficient food generally.  Boycotting Nestle isn’t going to change this one way or the other, she said.

I don’t know whether Dr. Raphael or the boycotters are right.  I am inclined to believe Dr. Raphael rather than the boycotters, but I don’t have any independent knowledge of my own.  Whichever was right, what the boycotters asked of Nestle might have done good and would not have done harm.  The boycotters did not call for Nestle to cease selling infant formula worldwide, only to adhere to certain standards that would assure that the formula was not misused.

The Nestle boycott has been off my radar screen for 30 years, but I recently starting thinking about the subject of corporate boycotts because of the controversy over Apple Computer and its sourcing of components from Chinese sweatshops.

If one corporation is worse than all the others, a corporate boycott would be justified and probably would be effective.  Corporations do respond to the pressures of the marketplace.  If a corporate boycott results in a company improving its practices, it is a good thing.  But if a boycott results in shifting of business to other companies that are just as bad or worse, it is an exercise in futility.  What’s needed are rules of the game by which all players must abide.

The Nestle boycott is still going on.  Nestle claims it abides by guidelines of the World Health Organization; its critics say it does not.  I couldn’t say who is right, but it would be interesting to know whether the annual bonus of any Nestle manager is affected by their adherence or lack of adherence to the WHO rules.

Click on Milking it for an article in The Guardian about sales of infant formula in Bangladesh.  The article is the source of the above picture.

Click on The Nestle Boycott—what’s that all about then? for a thoughtful and fair attempt to weigh the issue by a British woman living in Finland on her Note from Lapland web log (which is fascinating in itself).  Her verdict: Nestle is guilty as charged.

Click on Breastfeeding and Doula Support for an interview with Dr. Dana Raphael.

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2 Responses to “Looking back on the Nestle boycott”

  1. Becca Says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I leapt upon the boycott as part of my new-mother enthusiasm, only to be scolded by my father that the issue was decades old, and that Nestlé’s misdemeanour was in the past. I’m in the process of trying to figure it out for myself!


  2. Cassie Says:

    A good book and author to talk to about this is “Leaving Never Land, why little boys shouldn’t run big corporations” by Daniel Prokop.

    I spoke to him last year and he had many interesting things to day.

    My comment has no reflection on or connection to Mr Prokop, I just believe that his book is worth a read.

    Personally I have always boycotted Nestle and will remain to. The information missing in this article is HOW they are selling the milk products. The controversy is in the use of student nurses, the blond/e haired, blue eyed babies on the packaging, the inability of the uneducated families to read the instructions and therefore incorrect and usually diluted quantities, the high cost ratio of the products compared to the wages of the “customers” and the water/liquids that the parents are mixing the powders with.

    Another issue lies with an extension of this: once the mother’s milk dries up the family are then dependant on the formula.

    The intensity of the boycot faded out a few years back after they supposedly adhered to the regulations, but Nestle have since then, reportedly, been back to their old practices…


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