Let's Talk About Nestlé

People love to hate on Big Business for a variety of reasons- from human rights concerns and environmental impacts to disruption of local economies, and a general trend towards globalization. Nestlé is, no doubt, ‘big business’. As the largest food company in the world, Nestlé fields incredible volumes of criticism for the way they conduct business.

I recently stumbled upon a news article taking a stab at Nestlé Waters and pressure on the Ontario Liberal government to deny a renewed permit for water extraction in the area. Concern is being raised over the drought conditions in the region, coupled with a host of problems surrounding both environmental concerns of bottled water, and the fact that Nestlé appears to be extracting water regardless of expired permits and without consulting locals. These appear to be legitimate concerns but still left me wondering, “Just how ‘evil’ is Nestlé, really?”.

What is the extent of their violations when we consider the realm of ‘reasonable’ business behaviours and transactions? Is the company taking undeserving heat for an overall shift in public opinion against the ethics of big business?

I did a bit of digging and came up with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly…

 

THE GOOD

I figured that the best way to drum up some positive narratives is to visit the Nestlé site directly. The company has a link on their main page to what they call, ‘Creating Shared Value’, where we find a collection of 39 commitments to the betterment of society. These include specific goals within the areas of Nutrition; Rural Development; Water; Environmental Sustainability; and Our People, Human Rights and Compliance. Sounds pretty good.

Perusing the list of commitments under the umbrellas of ‘Water’ and ‘Environmental Sustainability’, I came across goals like “advocate for effective water policies and stewardship”, and “improve the environmental performance of our packaging”. Under the umbrellas related to human rights, a list of goals associated with eliminating child labour in “key categories”, and improving human rights impacts within the supply chain.

The list of commitments is long, and the webpage is colourful and tidy- punctuated with simple charts and links for more information. It would appear that Nestlé employs an effective PR team with a talent for polite but direct graphic design. They appear to prioritize transparency to the average consumer and are aware of their PR weaknesses.

Note: searching for positive impacts of Nestlé company online will more than likely lead you directly to Nestlé company reports.

 

THE BAD

 

Through this process I learnt a lot about the philosophy of ‘Creating Shared Value’, which is the phrase Nestlé uses to encompass their overall commitments. Most importantly, I learnt that ‘Creating Shared Value’ is vastly different from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), mainly in the sense that is does not focus on meeting external criteria, or on philanthropy . This is troubling to me because it allows Nestlé to form a much more fluid, subjective narrative around their contributions to responsible business. I came across VERY few, if any, external bodies who verified the legitimacy of Nestlé’s claims about upholding human rights codes and continued efforts towards transparency.

The ‘Creating Shared Values’ approach allows for companies to structure their responsible efforts in a way that primarily enhance the bottom line of the business, while committing to give back at various levels- ‘doing well by doing good’. What’s not as certain, however, is the extent to which ‘doing good’ is achieved.

With lack of external criteria, Nestlé is able to use relative figures in their website.

For example...

Under the “Improve the environmental performance of our packaging”, I found the following specific goal:

By 2017: Continue to systematically analyse and optimise our packaging portfolio, avoiding the use of at least 100 000 tonnes of packaging material from 2015 to 2017.

What does this even mean? What does 100,000 tonnes of packaging material look like in comparison to how much is already being used or how much is wasted? Does reducing this number by 100,000 tonnes make a meaningful impact in a practice that is SO incredibly resource intensive and polluting?!

It seems deliberate that this page is void of any real information regarding packaging waste. Without having an idea of the percentages of waste reduction compared to baseline, or actual methods of reduction, this information really is not useful at all. 

THE UGLY

 

As it turns out, there’s a lot of ‘ugly’ surrounding Nestlé. I mean, a lot.

Not only is there a long list of corporate scandals and ethical violations associated with the company, but it seems like these issues have been going on for many decades.

In the interest of space, I’m going to leave this list of ‘Corporate Crimes by Nestlé’, posted by Corporate Watch (click to view link):

·       Unethical Marketing of Artificial Baby Milk

·       Exploiting Farmers

·       Union Busting

·       Promotion of GM Food

·       The Ethiopia scandal

·       Illegal extraction of groundwater

·       Pollution

·       Pyres of Burning Animals

·       Fraudulent Labeling

·       Perpetuating Sexism

·       Promoting unhealthy food

·       Promoting untested nano-technology

·       Backlashing against Fairtrade

A lot of these ‘crimes’ are rather broad and encompass a huge list of other issues, some literal crimes and others ethical violations that don’t carry legal weight. There is a boycott movement against Nestlé that seems to have picked up traction back in the 1970’s when Nestlé took major heat for using predatory marketing tactics and fraudulent labeling to promote baby milk to uneducated mothers, committing numerous World Health Organization violations in the process.

Despite insistence that the company is 'committed to environmental issues', Nestlé continues to notoriously extracting massive amounts of water from regions experiencing drought to the point where watersheds are compromised. The company is able to suck these regions dry virtually for free, while Nestlé waters makes massive profit Ontario charges $3.71 for every million litres of water extracted, British Columbia charges even less. 

Disposable plastic water bottles are a huge pollution concern with 22 billion plastic water bottles being thrown out every year . As the largest producer of plastic water bottles on the planet, Nestlé is no doubt a major contributing factor to this number (although, again, they don’t disclose this in their packaging reports online).

Pollution, child slavery, palm oil and plastic scandals. That’s just a taste of the history of Nestlé and a quick Google search will pull up a host of other reasons to avoid the brand.

What does this mean for the average consumer, though? Should you boycott Nestlé products?

 I don’t think I realized the extent of just how detested the company is, but Nestlé is certainly a strong contender for most hated company in the world. In my opinion, rightly so. Keep in mind that the corporation owns a huge number of popular brands under their label and that their reach is huge. I'm currently editing this post while drinking from an Arrowhead water bottle (owned by Nestlé) and so I recognize what it means to try and completely detach myself from the worlds biggest foodstuffs company.

If you'd like to join me in avoiding Nestlé products, HERE is a list of major brands in Canada owned by the company.