Exploitative capitalism: Nestlé’s egregious ethics and you

Don't let the kind mother bird fool you...

As the snowflakes begin to dance down and our noses redden from dry air and that nasty cold that keeps coming around, we’re firmly rooted in hot cocoa season. Most of us just want a nice, sweet, hot beverage. The dual cocoa and cappuccino dispenser is (most of the time) ready to meet that need.

Vassar’s lovely, utopian dining services provider, Café Bon Appétit assures us on its website: “Working directly with farmers and ranchers opened our eyes to the many problems of our modern food supply: [W]hile it is abundant and cheap, it has many hidden costs, such as environmental pollution and worker abuse” (Café Bon Appétit, “Sustainability”). Doesn’t that just make your liberal sensibilities delightfully warm and fuzzy?

Nothing on that page indicates that every press of the dispenser button supports child slavery. The company responsible is, of course, Nestlé.

If you haven’t seen a Gordon Commons staff person refilling the dispenser with Nestlé hot chocolate and Nescafé cappuccino mix, you wouldn’t know that Nestlé is behind the cocoa scenes. The label “Pierce Bros Hot Cocoa,” only refers to the machine’s origin, not its contents.

Nestlé’s ethically-nightmarish history is well-documented. The independent notfor-profit publication Ethical Consumer recounts, “Nestlé [is] known for producing a variety of sweets, drinks and cereals but also for being the target of the world’s longest running boycott,” ongoing since 1977 (Ethical Consumer, “Nestlé SA”).

The boycott started over the company’s breastmilk replacement product marketing strategy. In the ’70s, Nestlé came under fire for using deliberately misleading language while advertising their Gerber infant formula. At that time, Nestlé’s ad campaigns specifically targeting the Global South featured saleswomen dressed as nurses pitching to mothers that formula feeding alone would sustain an infant until they could eat solid foods (Business Insider, “Every Parent Should Know The Scandalous History Of Infant Formula,” 06.25.2012). “Breast is best” is hotly debated in the United States because of the benefits of breastfeeding on the one side and its difficulty and potential mom-shaming on the other. However, breastfeeding is imperative in areas with unreliable water sanitation because powdered formula must be combined with water. Unclean water as an infant’s only source of nutrition can have disastrous effects. According to UNICEF, “In developing countries, optimal breastfeeding…has the potential to prevent more than 800,000 deaths in children under age five and 20,000 deaths in women every year” (UNICEF, “Improving breastfeeding, complementary foods and feeding practices,” 01.05.2018). Additionally, breast milk has no monetary cost and formula is a recurrent cost of child-rearing. It’s not a stretch to suggest that marketing against breastfeeding in the Global South is not just an especially exploitative capitalist practice—it’s evil.

These advertising practices led to new marketing rules regarding breast milk alternatives (Business Insider). But even last year, the company continued to misleadingly advertise the nutritious quality of their infant formula (The Guardian, “Nestlé under fire for marketing claims on baby milk formulas,” 02.01.2018). Nestlé used cheaper formulas in less wealthy areas, with ingredients it elsewhere lauded itself for excluding: “In South Africa, the firm used sucrose in infant milk formulas, while marketing its Brazilian and Hong Kong formulas as being free of sucrose ‘for baby’s good health’” (The Guardian).

Beyond infant formula woes, the company has engaged in ecological destruction and contributed to environmental racism. In one “Boycott Nestlé” campaign led by Lakota Law, a call to action states: “Nestle continues to act beyond the boundaries of ecological protection and basic human dignity” (Lakota Law, “The Case Against Nestle,” 06.13.2018). This refers to Nestlé pledging to donate roughly 100,000 bottles of water per week between May 2018 and August 2019 to those affected by the Flint Water Crisis—which is still happening, by the way—while simultaneously striking a deal with then-Governor Rick Snyder to pump about 1.1 million gallons of water per day from the Great Lakes aquifer in exchange for $200 paid annually to the state (MLive, “Nestle extends bottled water commitment to end of August in Flint,” 04.10.2019) (Click on Detroit, “Residents outraged by new water deal allowing Nestle to pump millions of gallons from Michigan,” 05.30.2018). You read that right: $200. And that’s not even considering the ecological impact of producing somewhere around 3.5 million bottles of water every day (Bloomberg Businessweek, “Nestlé Makes Billions Bottling Water It Pays Nearly Nothing For,” 09.21.2017) in a state with the longest freshwater coastline in the United States at 3,288 miles (Michigan.gov, “Does Michigan have the longest coast line in the United States?”).

Nestlé’s malpractices also extend into our Gordon Commons cocoa. According to Nestlé, in 2018, 49 percent of its cocoa was “responsibly sourced” (Nestlé, “Our Raw Materials”). What about the other 51 percent? Well, unfortunately, “About two-thirds of the world’s cocoa supply comes from West Africa where, according to a 2015 U.S. Labor Department report, more than 2 million children were engaged in dangerous labor in cocoa-growing regions” (Washington Post, “Cocoa’s child laborers,” 06.05.2019). One cocoa farmer told Washington Post journalists, “I admit that it is a kind of slavery.” One child laborer said he had come to the area to get an education but had not been to school in five years (Washington Post).

Shockingly, Nestle’s self-reported percentage of responsibly sourced cocoa is higher than Hershey’s or Mars’ (Washington Post). I don’t know about you, but 51 percent possible child slavery is a little bit too high for me to enjoy sipping cocoa without thinking twice.

The company makes some noise about these concerns, but actual policy changes are difficult to pin down. For example, “Nestlé receives a worst rating for palm oil policy and practice because its statement is vague and confusing” (Ethical Consumer). Their cute, animated depiction of their supply chain—perhaps animated to conceal the emaciated trafficked children—is all about how Nestlé “values” responsible sourcing, with nice phrases like “collaboration is key” (YouTube, Nestlé, “Responsible sourcing at Nestlé,” 08.03.2015). Nestlé’s more detailed supply chain disclosure, which is admirably easy to access, describes the vast majority of its cocoa—146,635 tons of it in 2018, more than three times the quantity sourced from all other sites combined—as sourced from Côte d’Ivoire (Nestlé, “Nestlé Cocoa Plan Supply Chain Disclosure,” 06.2019). The nation is also the site of the cocoa plantations investigated by the Washington Post.

I spoke with a representative from Campus Dining Services, who said that the Nestlé hot chocolate mix is the only Nestlé product in use. That individual did not mention the Nescafé cappuccino mix, but I’m sure that was an honest omission. I have my doubts, given Nestlé’s massive share of the food products market and the (surely) high chocolate consumption in the Vassar community. It goes beyond chocolate, too. I know for certain that our vending machines stock Nestlé products, including Kit Kats, Hot Pockets and all those oh-so-craveable ice creams—yes, all of them. Oh, and Nestlé also has a distribution deal with Starbucks (BBC, “Nestle pays Starbucks $7.1bn to sell its coffee,” 05.07.2018). Not even your frappuccino is safe.

We may like to think that living in the Vassar Bubble exonerates us from considering the sources of what we consume. After all, Bon Appétit purports to do that for us. But these assumptions allow practices by our food providers—Bon Appetit and Triple J Vending, at least—to go unchecked.

We must hold Bon Appétit accountable to their own standards and fight the urge to fuel our cram-sessions with the products of blatant exploitation.

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