Boycotting the ‘baby killers’? Nestlé and the ongoing infant formula controversy
This case discusses the controversy surrounding Nestlé’s marketing of infant formula, and in particular looks at how the campaign against Nestlé has been sustained over 30 years despite attempts by the company to appease its critics. The case provides the opportunity to examine the ethics of marketing practices, as well as to discuss the role of ethical consumption in curbing perceived ethical violations.
The ‘Baby Killer’ is the title of War on Want’s 1970s incendiary report on Nestlé’s marketing of infant formula in developing countries. While much has been said about the issue over the last 30 years, with evidence being marshalled from both sides proclaiming the company’s innocence and guilt, the world’s largest food company remains mired in a controversy that seems destined never to go away. Since the issue first went public in 1973, Nestlé has continued to face intense opposition to its practices, and has the dubious distinction of having endured the world’s longest consumer boycott. Has Nestlé failed to listen properly to its critics? Does it simply not care? Or is it that the critics have either got it wrong, or will never be satisfied? In what has been one of the most remarkable, and probably the most well- known, campaign against an individual company, over just one single issue, the truth of the matter remains thoroughly contested. The details of the Nestlé infant formula controversy (or in truth a series of related campaigns from several parties) have been extensively discussed, to the point now of becoming business ethics folklore. There have been three major books about the events; various academic and media articles; numerous reports from research institutes, development agencies, non-government organizations (NGOs), the World Health Organization (WHO), and others; and nearly all of the major business ethics textbooks seem to include a case on the subject. Unfortunately, all this discussion hasn’t brought a whole lot of agreement. However, in a nutshell, these are the basic details of the criticisms against the company. Nestlé, the Swiss-based multinational behind global brands such as Nescafé, Kit-Kat, Perrier, Maggi, Milo, and Buitoni pasta, is one of the leading suppliers of infant formula (powdered baby milk) across the globe. There have never been any major criticisms of infant formula as a product, but problems can arise when it is used or marketed inappropriately. For example, before being fed to babies, infant formula needs to be mixed with water, and all utensils need to be thoroughly sterilised. In many countries though, high levels of illiteracy can mean that mothers are unable to read the necessary instructions, and poor sanitation can lead to babies being accidentally fed formula mixed with contaminated water. Similarly, mothers in poor countries may try to save money by ‘economizing’ on the formula by using less than the recommended dose or substituting it with other inferior alternatives such as cow’s milk, rice water, or cornstarch with water. Many of the initial problems for Nestlé, and one of the main reasons why it has continued to spark hostility, arose from the claim that it has ‘aggressively’ promoted infant formula. Ironically, the product is actually a vital health resource for mothers who cannot for one reason or another breastfeed. Infant formula is clearly a preferred alternative to other ‘traditional’ substitutes such as those mentioned above. More recently, formula has also been seen as an important alternative to breastfeeding for HIV/AIDS infected mothers. However, critics argued that Nestlé actively promoted the product to mothers who could breastfeed safely. This allegedly included practices such as: • Free samples to mothers.
• Free supplies to hospitals and clinics.
• Advertisements encouraging mothers to adopt ‘modern’ bottle feeding in place of ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘inconvenient’...
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