Merchants of Death

Corporations have no morality. That’s not so much a flaw in capitalism as a fundamental part of it. Google, famously, had an unofficial motto “Don’t be evil.”, but obviously they didn’t mean it. Like all corporations, the limits of Google’s evil are “whatever we can get away with”.

Corporations are constrained to some degree, of course. There are international and national laws, there is the company’s reputation with its customers, and sometimes even the attitude of shareholders. Big corporations devote considerable resources to managing reputations and keeping within the law. (The letter of the law, not the spirit.)

The amount of effort and expense it takes to keep a corporate reputation the right side of acceptable must depend on how controversial are their business model and practices. I mean, an organic bean farm probably doesn’t really need to employ a public relations company, while a corporation which makes money from starving babies to death will be needing some help.

If you haven’t twigged yet, the latter corporations I’m referring to are those which sell “infant formula” milk, and the most notorious is Nestlé, based in Switzerland. The business model follows the old drug dealer scheme: give free samples so that the user becomes addicted, then make them pay. Really make them pay. In the case of milk, if a mother stops breastfeeding and uses the free gifts, then lactation stops and she is compelled to buy more supplies.

In poorer countries, mothers often can’t afford to buy enough formula to feed the baby adequately. The World Heath Organisation estimates that in some poorer countries most formula milk is over-diluted by a factor of three, and often with dirty water. Some babies survive, but are severely malnourished. Some die.

boycott nestleNestlé’s public relations people really have to earn their pay. They have been pursuing two separate strategies, the first being the classic “deny, deny, deny”. If the company is prosecuted for breaking the law in some country, say for bribing nurses or doctors with gifts, they’ll issue press releases with their own story, regardless of the findings of the court. Since news from Switzerland is more readily disseminated than court proceedings in Bangladesh (for example), the wider public may not hear the full story, ever.

The fallback strategy is to claim, or imply, that allegations are all in the past. “The Seventies” is a popular one. Back in the seventies, maybe some unrelated subcontractors did some stuff that we wouldn’t allow in these enlightened times, but everything is fine now. Everything is fine.

Everything is not fine. The campaign group Baby Milk Action documents current cases all over the world where milk formula companies break the law, or violate World Health Organisation standards, or just behave abominably. Nestlé is both the largest producer and most frequent subject of Baby Milk Action press releases, although competitor Danone is trying to catch up on both aspects.

In fact, Nestlé’s reputation is so rotten that the public at large are aware of the odour, not just meusli-eating activists. I know that bad publicity is still publicity, but Nestlé is one of the companies you probably wouldn’t want to associate your business with to give your customers a warm glow. You would think.

I can only imagine that people at Google were lacking due diligence when they selected Nestlé’s “KitKat” as the name of the next Android release, after a previous series of generic and uncontroversial titles. Either that, or someone said “Hey, check it out — they’re even more evil than us! We’ve got to go with this!”

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