Behind the Boycotts


BOYCOTTS laws, and demonstrations are three ways activists have been able to force companies to deal with problems that fall beyond the profit imperative--problems like worker safety, social equality consumer health, and environmental purity. Nestle, the largest food company in the world, has been under fire for at least six years for allegedly causing infant deaths by aggressively peddling infant formula products in underdeveloped nations.

Activists charge that Nestle's marketing techniques are exploitative involving mass advertising and, at least until the last few years, the distribution of free formula samples to mothers in hospitals. Since there is a lack of clean water in 85 percent of the Third World, and little fuel in many areas to heat and sterilize formula, and since mothers who use the formula for even three days find that their breasts dry up and can no longer nurse, experts predict that one to three million babies die each year from improper bottle feeding (though not all of this is due to Nestle).

Because of boycotts of Nestle's products started in 1977, the Swiss company formed a Commission about two years ago to examine activists charges. This may be the first time a multi-national has set up a body to police itself, to deal with what economists call externalities."

The Commission chaired by Edmund Muskie, a liberal with a strong reputation for integrity--examines formal complaints that the company is not adhering to World Health Organization (WHO) codes, hears arguments from both sides, and issues formal decisions. The Commission's power to enforce its judgments is nil. It relies solely on company cooperation and its to pressure the company through publicity.

While some have accepted this solution, others have responded by starting another boycott in Boston and elsewhere, this one targeting Nestle's profitable Taster's Choice brand coffee. The current boycott organizers feel the changes in Nestle's policies are a step in the right direction, but have been much too slow. In addition, they criticize the Commission for setting up time-consuming complaint processes which only a large multi-national has the resources to engage in Ultimately, they see any changes Nestle makes as issuing not from the authority of the Commission, but from the economic and public relations damage inflicted by the boycott. After all, killing babies is a heavy charge.

IT IS HARD not to agree that Nestle has been and still is responsible for infant deaths. It is the largest infant formula company in the world, with a large and often dominant share in many Third World countries. Furthermore, the Commission itself has found that Nestle does not always follow the WHO codes, though spokesperson Jack Greenwald feels that the company now generally complies with the codes except in a few areas.

Yet Nestle has been slow to change. Although the company promised to remove baby pictures from formula tins two years ago, it was only recently that the labels were changed. Not until two weeks ago did they announce plans to put warning labels on the tins. Activists ask. Why could they not have made both changes at the same time? What is it that takes them so long?

Greenwald, a staff person for the Commission and a lawyer with Muskie's law firm, argues that Nestle loses business when it complies with the codes. He cites Singapore, where Nestle's 50 percent share of the market dropped drastically when it reformed its policies. But this argument should only serve to further fuel the boycott: if there are changes that should be made but are not because of potential losses, we should force the company to enact those changes by reducing their profits in the grant consumer markets of the West.

Greenwald also cites the lack of cooperation Nestle has received from governments only 19 to 25 countries out of 118 have approved the WHO regulations. Yet boycott organizer Nancy Cole sees the situation differently. According to Code, her group can show that Nestle has interfered with national legislation in countries through lobbying and threatening to see or relocate factories.

Cole also criticizers aspect of the Commission itself, feeling that it is not a fully independent body. Although Nestle supports the Commission financially, Greenwald refused to discuss either the Commission's budget or how much Muskie is paid for his work as chair-person. Insiders say Nestle pays Muskic his going rate, which is in the hundreds of dollars an hour.

A FULLY independent commission recognized by the company could have a significantly greater impact. A dependent commission may feel less able to challenge its company. While Greenwald claims the Commission's only power is publicity, it failed to arrange a press conference for its fourth quarterly report, issued last June, as it had done for the other reports. Many feel this was because the fourth report was the first one to reach decisions on specific complaints--and some decision showed that Nestle had indeed violated.

Furthermore, Greenwald discusses Nestle in pro-company terms. He not only explains what the Commission has done, but also feels free to explain, justify, and argue for Nestle's actions and decisions. Muskie too takes on this role--he gives speeches about what Nestle is doing on these issues. And sometimes, insiders say, he lapses into talking about Nestle as "we" instead of "they."

A related problem is that the Commission not only judges the validity of certain complaints, but also advises the company on how to implement their decisions. Greenwald says the WHO codes are so complex that it makes sense for the assembled experts on the Commission to provide Nestle with advice on how to live up to the code.

This only serves to further entangle the Commission's interests with the company's; the Commission should be a purely judicial body, not a consulting firm. Although it is good that the Commission members help with the wording of different ads so that they include needed information for mothers, it seems that most companies employ people to design labels that meet laws. The company should hire specific personnel for that purpose, and not involve the "independent" Commission.

In the end, Nestle's novel experiment in setting up a Commission to police itself does more for public relations than it does for dying babies. We should continue to drink Maxwell House rather than Taster's Choice until the company abides by the decisions of a truly objective body.