The Nestlé Boycott
By Peter Greaves
Those of a certain age may remember the Nestlé Boycott, and wonder whether it is still operating. Younger people may not have heard of it, or wonder whether it is still relevant. It is operating, and it is relevant, and a recent little booklet* explains why. Nestlé’s CEO repeated at its 2016 AGM the mantra: “Ever since the Code was established Nestlé has respected it.” The author of the booklet comments: “Part of the art of marketing is to repeat a lie so often that it becomes perceived as truth.”
The Code in question is the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, adopted overwhelmingly by the World Health Organization in 1981. A boycott against Nestlé products (chosen because it was the market leader) had started in 1977, but was suspended in 1984 when the company promised that it would abide by the Code. However, it was re-launched in 1988 when it was evident that companies still promoted free supplies of infant formula to hospitals, a dream marketing tactic. The current ongoing boycott of Nestlé is led by Baby Milk Action, which has set out conditions for its ending (http://www.babymilkaction.org/nestle-four-point-plan).
The Code is about marketing; it is not saying you cannot give a baby anything other than breastmilk. It is saying that companies must not push their products at you, tell lies about infant feeding or withhold vital information. Most companies still do all three… Unethical marketing of baby milk is still happening and it’s far more sophisticated than in the era of the 1970s when saleswomen were disguised as ‘milk nurses’. It entices and manipulates health professionals and their institutions, politicians and some aid agencies.
In 1991 the Church of England endorsed the Nestlé boycott, but in 1994 the Church Synod narrowly voted to conditionally suspend the boycott after a massive PR blitz by Nestlé, and at the 1997 Synod in York top executives flew in with executive staff from all over the world and pledged to keep to the Code and all subsequent relevant resolutions of the World Health Assembly. The Church of England boycott was dropped completely. That year Nestlé gave £100,000 to the York Council of Churches. The 1998 monitoring report of the International Baby Food Action Network, covering 39 countries, showed that Nestlé’s promotion of infant feeding products had not changed.
*Why the Politics of Breastfeeding Matter, by Gabrielle Palmer, Pinter & Martin Ltd 2016. £7.99