Put ethics ahead of profits

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Originally published in Volume III, Issue 3 on 6th November1996 by Alan Torney and Nicola Moore.

 

Since the referendum in 1994, Nestle products have not been on sale in the SU shop. Alan Torney argues below for the continuation of the ban, while on the page opposite, Nicola Moore argues the case for consumer choice.

 

What has happened? That’s the question you need to ask when justifying UCD’s continued boycott of Nestle products. What has changed since students decided in a 1994 referendum to remove Nestle goods from their Students’ Union shops? Opportunities such as this to review the situation must be welcomed, particularly since the boycott was intended as a temporary measure.

For those less familiar with the original issues, it was a temporary measure to protest at Nestle’s aggressive and unethical marketing of its infant formula, particularly in developing countries. In these countries poverty, illiteracy and a lack of clean water make bottle-fed babies as much as 25 times more likely to die prematurely that those fed, safely and without cost, at the mother’s breast (UNICEF figures).

The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes was introduced in 1981 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to protect infants and their mothers from the sort of misleading and dangerous promotion of infant formula that Nestle is famous for. Neslte was consulted when the Code was being drawn up and they pledged to abide by it.

Yet month after month, year after year, the message coming back from healthcare workers and non-governmental organisations in developing countries was clear and consistent: many infant formula companies, and Nestle in particular, were continuing their practices and violating the Code which they claimed to follow.

Events came to a head in 1994 when comprehensive and independent report to the WHO confirmed Nestle as the worst offender, detailing 455 incidents of Code violation by the company alone. The research was carried out by IBFAN, an independent monitoring organisation based in 74 countries, whose technical capacity and ability is recognised by UNICEF. It was at this stage, that UCD students chose to join with 70 Students’ Union in the UK which has already taken action against Nestle. The boycott was extended to Trinity College the following month and is also endorsed extensively by churches, political parties , MPs, MEPs, trade unions, consumer groups and many individuals (most recently, philosopher Noam Chomsky).

That was two years ago this month. What real evidence have we received since then to warrant a removal of the ban on Nestle goods, which every one of us would like to see? Sadly, very little. Shortly after the UCD referendum, UNICEF in Britain issued a statement on the issue of infant formula promotion which noted: “UNICEF field offices continue to report code violations by Nestle.”

At about the same time, Nestle themselves were conducting an investigation into the allegations made against them by IBFAN. Not surprisingly, they came to somewhat different conclusions than UNICEF. Of the 455 allegations that they examined, only three, according to Nestle, required corrective action. This was not the first time that Nestle had appointed itself as investigator in its own practices. During the 1994 UCD referendum campaign, students were told by opponents of the boycott that in 1988 an “Independent Commission” called NIFAC had found that Nestle was not breaking the code. On further analysis, students discovered that NIFAC stands for “Nestle Infant Formula Audit Commission,” and as founded by Nestle itself.

So why do I object to these studies being carried out by the Company itself? For the same reason that we would all have objected if the referee in next week’s Ireland v. Iceland World Cup match had been Icelandic. It is unrealistic to assume that people with a vested interest in a particular outcome can be entirely objective.

At the same as Nestle was conducting its study, Save the Children, the UK’s largest international children’s charity, was observing Nestle’s operations in China. In six Kunming City hospitals, the Company, was seen to consistently violate the International Code (and indeed national legislation of 1992) to aggressively promote bottle-feeding. Following this initial campaign, which was followed by a significant drop in the City’s previously near 100% breastfeeding rates, Nestle raised the market price of its infant formula.

Save the Children brought the complaints directly to Nestle in July 1995. Again not surprisingly, the company’s investigation found itself “not guilty” and dismissed the claims. The Charity involved has since gone public about the case, resulting in an article in the Financial Times in July, 1996. It is in individual situations such as these, not in broad policy statements, that Nestle’s true attitudes to the code becomes apparent.

In the new year, IBFAN, the organisation which coordinated the last independent survey of code violations, will start a new worldwide, six month period of code monitoring and violations by infant formula companies. Nestle has until then to get its act together. If the results of the independent monitoring give us reason to believe Nestle is, in practice, genuinely committed to the code, I will happily organised a campaign to overturn the 1994 referendum. In the meantime, students need not to travel abroad to witness code violations by Nestle: Nip down to the computers in the Arts Block LGs and look up the Nestle homepage. A brief check against the International Code will show that the advertising contained on the page itself violates enough code stipulations to keep Nestle’s “independent” investigators busy for a while.

 

Let students decide

What has emerged from the Nestle debate is panicked hysteria on one side resulting in incorrect facts and little hard information. The other side has combated thus by seemingly running away and avoiding straight questions. Neither has managed to convince me, and I object to being kidnapped in an argument between people who are so caught up in their own crusade that they feel little compunction to inform me, the consumer, of anything that is going on.

At the Commerce and Economics Society debate last Thursday I made a genuine attempt to inform myself and make a personal decision on this matter. From the pro-Nestle camp, led by Mr Liam Kelly, I failed to get a satisfactory answer to the question whether Nestle had changed anything since the UCD referendum. On the other hand, when I asked Ms. Shona Ni Bhriain, on the anti-Nestle side of the fence why they were picking on this particular company, I was given an eminently straight answer – they were bigger and they have products that students have access to.

Frankly, I don’t think that is a good enough reason to choose Nestle. This is a completely contrary to any of the laws of the natural justice. Because one company is bigger than another is not a reason to punish it. Because it happens to manufacture a product which students eat, such as chocolate, is even less of a reason to attack it.

Another point which was raised again and again during the debate last Thursday was that Nestle were guilty of aggressively marketing their product, that women in the third world were particularly susceptible to such publicity. If this is the case then why are the One World Society and Baby Milk Action channelling all their energy, man hours and time that they spent running the anti-Nestle campaign, into educating these women and persuading them that breast milk is best? Surely, if you don’t want Nestle selling baby milk in certain areas, the best way is to remove their customers.

I assume there is no objection to Irish women using non-breast milk and hope that the anti-Nestle campaign are sensitive to the fact that they are sending many women on an unnecessary guilt-trip. I understand that there are differences in conditions etc. which result in more deaths being attributed to non-breast feeding in developing countries. Why is it, then that this gets lost among the pictures of babies and accusation against Nestle.

So at this stage what have we got – Nestle is bigger, students have access to their other products, and they market their products in such a way as to convince women that they are best where that is probably not the case. To deal with the fact that Nestle’s other products are accessible to students – this is my criticism. If I am convinced that their argument is correct, then I will not buy their products. I believe that the students of UCD should be credited with enough intelligence to make this decision for themselves, as individuals. I am not convinced by tht anti-Nestle campaign, and indeed have heard nothing from them for the past year. The present ban on Nestle products renders it unnecessary for them to convince me.

Effectively, the referendum has removed from me my one source of power as a consumer – my power of choice. At the Commerce and Economics debate Ms Ni Bhriain stated that it was ridiculous to put the right to choose a bar of chocolate on any level near the right to life. The problem with this line of logic is that the entire protest by the anti-Nestle campaign is made up of thousands of people exercising this right. In actual fact, Ms.Ni Bhriain is belittling her entire campaign and insulting those of us who do not agree with her. If she is entitled to make a statement by not buying a particular type of chocolate, the surely I too am entitled to make my statement by buying it.

The referendum, on the face of it, would appear to epitomise democracy. In fact it is the very antithesis of the individual’s right to have their say. I am sure that the anti-Nestle campaign are certain of their facts and their methods. Can they not convince the student individually not to buy Nestle? Of course a blanket ‘NO’ makes more of a statement, buy only if it is an informed, voluntary, and convinced ‘NO’.

 

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