By Frances Maurer
Nestlé, the largest food company in the world, has been the target of major boycotts for many different reasons over the years — from child advocacy to plastic pollution. Here at the Lakota People’s Law Project, we’re inspired by the decades-long intersectional coalition grown out of concern for Nestlé’s practices. We stand arm in arm with our fellow global citizens who abstain from its lengthy list of products. In 2018, we penned “The Case Against Nestlé” and launched the Nestlé Pledge: a commitment consumers can make to disavow themselves from Nestlé.
Our movement builds on generations of work by other activists who’ve held Nestlé accountable in the court of public opinion. In case you need a reason to join the boycott, here’s a quick rundown of why we created the Nestlé Pledge:
In the 1970s, Nestlé aggressively marketed infant formula to mothers in overexploited countries, sometimes even paying healthcare staff to start feeding the formula to babies. The Swiss company did this knowing the mother’s ability to lactate could be compromised or the babies could start rejecting breast milk. Furthermore, seeing as many of these mothers lacked access to clean potable water to mix with the formula, some infants suffered malnutrition and even death. In 1974, the first mass boycott of Nestlé began after it was branded “The Baby Killer.”
Nestlé has a reputation of exploiting freshwater resources to turn profit in its plastic bottling operations. The company has been criticized for pumping millions of gallons of water from a California forest during the 2011–2017 drought. It used a permit that expired in 1988, which “allowed” its Arrowhead label to pump water for only $524 per year. The company also has a spotted history in the midwest, pumping hundreds of gallons of water per minute from Evart, MI — even as a lack of clean water in nearby Flint caused lead poisoning in its residents.
Because the company uses palm oil in many of its products, Nestlé has drawn fire over its extraction in the Global South, especially from land defenders and environmental groups. Overexploitation of palm oil and cocoa, specifically the practices of Nestlé and similar international companies, are linked to extreme environmental degradation and human rights abuses.
Nestlé continues to stay in business, despite all the bad press. Whether it's from the company’s shift to plant-based products or noteworthy legal challenges, there’s nary a dull moment in the Boycott Nestlé corner of the internet. Let’s take a look at what Nestlé’s been up to in the past couple years.
"Kayaktivists" protesting Nestlé at Ginnie Springs, 2019. Photo by Sum of Us.
In 2019, consumers across eight states brought a class-action lawsuit against Nestlé brand Poland Spring water. The consumers argue that Poland Springs water doesn’t come from springs as is claimed on the bottles, but is instead sourced from drilled groundwater. This suit sounds eerily similar to a case Nestlé settled in 2003, which claimed that the water was “not sourced from deep in the Maine woods.” Nevertheless, Nestlé staunchly defends its bottled water, claiming that it complies with FDA standards for “what can be described as spring water.”
Some Floridians have recently joined the anti-Nestlé campaign, too, following the company’s move to pump more than a million gallons of water a day out of the state’s beloved Ginnie Springs. Nestlé has operated in Florida under its Zephyrhills and Pure Life brands previously, but as environmentalists point out, Ginnie Springs’ scenic blue waters are already in steady decline. Increasing pollution, algae blooms, and starving wildlife give cause to the coalition of environmental organizations and concerned citizens mounting an offensive against Nestlé. Last summer, “kayaktivists” interrupted traditional recreation activities to protest the food giant’s permit request, paddling into channels with decorated canoes while chanting “Water for life! No to Nestlé!”
Changes, however, are imminent for Nestlé’s North American water operations. The company is apparently considering selling many of its North American facilities and expanding its international lines like Perrier and S.Pellegrino. According to reporting by The Morning Call, the company’s 2019 organic growth in North America was only 0.2 percent, and only that much thanks to price increases. Some speculate that this performance decline is related to Nestlé’s various controversies in North America, while the company claims that North Americans simply spend less on bottled water than Europeans do. Regardless of the outlook, it is true that, thanks to the internet, more consumers are aware of Nestlé’s unscrupulous business practices than at any other point in the company’s history.
As Nestlé looks for buyers for some of its subsidiaries, the firm also sold its North American brand of pasta, Buitoni, earlier this year. This sale follows several other notable removals from Nestlé’s product lines, including its U.S. ice cream brands and confectionary business. The Swiss company’s offloading of certain assets seems to be making room for Nestlé’s aggressive push toward the plant-based market — a move that some activists brand as clear corporate greenwashing.
“Even the firm that supplied Zyklon B gas, which the Nazis used to kill millions, was not indicted — the prosecutions were instead against the owner and two employees.”
A brief from Nestlé's lawyers in Nestlé USA and Cargill v. Doe.
You may also have seen Nestlé make headlines lately for its role in a Supreme Court case having to do with child labor. Six former child slaves, trafficked from Mali, brought a case against Nestlé USA and Cargill, alleging that the companies were aware of child slavery practices in their suppliers and are enabling these practices through lack of oversight. Companies that do choose to take preventive measures against child labor use practices like paying more for cocoa to ensure a living wage for farmers, and tracing their beans back to particular farms. However, Nestlé and its competitors make it extremely difficult for these companies to remain profitable, since their ethical practices bring up the price of their chocolate.
So far, Nestlé’s lawyers have argued that the law invoked in this case applies to individuals and not to corporations. According to their brief, the “true wrongdoers are the Malian and Ivorian traffickers, farmers, and overseers.” Nestlé made $8.9 billion last year in confectionery alone, but argues that their business, along with fellow chocolatier Cargill, isn’t responsible for the practices of suppliers. The brief used the trial at Nuremberg to argue for impunity, saying, “Even the firm that supplied Zyklon B gas, which the Nazis used to kill millions, was not indicted — the prosecutions were instead against the owner and two employees.”
Supreme Court justices seem to waver on both arguments. They acknowledge that supporting Nestlé could lead to some unpleasant results, but they also seemed reluctant to rule that buying from and failing to oversee suppliers counts as “aiding and abetting.”
Nestlé USA and Cargill v. Doe has the potential to set a firm and unsettling precedent, and plaintiffs in this case are fighting Nestlé under the Alien Tort Statute, which has been used to hold international companies liable and pursue human rights in U.S. federal court. In 2018, the statute was determined not to be applicable to foreign companies, and according to the same article, Nestlé’s defense would appreciate the statute not to apply to domestic companies either. Among other considerations, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer has spoken against the potential precedent of considering aiding and abetting human rights violations as violations themselves, and Justice Elena Kagan has ruminated on why corporations aren’t held to the same standards as individuals.
This case is still under consideration. With massive corporate accountability at the focal point, it’s unclear how it will go. But attention paid to Nestlé (and Cargill) is bringing much needed light to the dark issue of child slavery in the global food production chain.
With that, we hope that in 2021, Nestlé will remain one of the most boycotted companies in the world. It may seem difficult to avoid the company given its extreme diversity of products, from makeup to coffee to cat food — even Gerber’s baby food. Nevertheless, boycotts are an effective method to let companies know that their practices are not unnoticed, a consumer-side way to break up their power. If you reject Nestlé’s practices, whether it’s due to the alleged child slavery in the chocolate supply chain, the commodification of water, or other concerns, consider taking the Lakota Law pledge to Boycott Nestlé. With enough individual actions, we can force Nestlé to change their unethical practices — or force them out of the market.