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October 2, 2009

Getting to the Point of #nestlefamily

I've been following the #nestlefamily drama that's been unfolding on twitter for the last few days. It's kinda like the #nikonhatesbabies incident that happened at BlogHer over the summer, multiplied by 1000. We weren't at the Nikon party where the trouble started, but we were at BlogHer, so we were interested to watch the conversation unfold and we ended up doing some research, talking to people who were involved, and writing up our own take on what happened.

We're taking a similar approach with this Nestlé debate - we weren't at the Nestlé/blogger event that has sparked all of the controversy, but we've been reading the conversation as it develops on twitter and we think it raises a lot of important issues, so of course we have to weigh in.

First, a quick summary for people who haven't been following this - Nestlé recently invited a group of mom and dad bloggers to a Nestle Family event to "learn firsthand the things that are important to them and their families, and to share a little about us and our brands". When some of those bloggers started talking about the event on their blogs and using the #nestlefamily hashtag on twitter, it sparked some responses and criticism from people who started pointing out some of Nestlé's questionable and problematic behavior as a company, especially when it comes to their marketing of baby formula around the world. Twitstorm ensues.

I'm not going to rehash the arguments that have already been laid out really well by some other bloggers, so here are a few links:

~An open letter to the attendees of the Nestle Family blogger event from PhD in Parenting - If you only read one of these links, please make it this one. Go! I'll wait here. This open letter clearly lays out the case against Nestlé on the issue of formula marketing, and calls on the bloggers who attended the Nestlé Family event to think about these issues and reconsider their support of the company. There's also a long conversation going on in the comments section that's worth reading.

~Did we learn anything from the Nestle Family Twitter-storm? from Crunchy Domestic Goddess - In addition to posting her take, she's also collecting links to other people's posts about the situation. She also links to an older post of hers with some great background info and resources on the ongoing Nestlé boycott.)

~Thinking outside the hashtag from Mommy Melee - She makes the key point that while debating these issues on twitter is nice, it's important for all of us to take the next step by turning our words into action.

~#Nestlefamily, Bloggers & Race: Why It Matters from Blacktating - She talks about a really important aspect of these issues that isn't raised often enough - the fact that women (and children) of color around the world are the people most impacted (and victimized) by Nestlé's unethical practices.

~A Night-Night Story for Nestle's Blogger Junket from Deb on the Rocks - What can we say? Deb is wise. Deb is funny. Deb rules.

~For a lot more information on the case against Nestlé, check out Baby Milk Action and the Boycott Nestle blog. (Nestlé also has their own site with their side of the story.)

What was interesting to me in reading the #nestlefamily discussion on twitter was how quick some people were to get defensive, get distracted with irrelevant issues, or try to reframe the debate into something that it's not. Let's break down some of the most common themes that I saw:

~But I formula fed my babies and they turned out fine!

That's wonderful, but also pretty much irrelevant to criticisms about Nestlé's questionable practices in marketing formula in the developing world. Formula feeding was easier for you because...
  • You can afford to buy enough formula so you don't have to water it down.
  • You have access to clean water to mix with it.
  • You have the tools that you need to sterilize your bottles properly.
  • You have access to information and resources to help you make the best choices for your child.
  • You can read the directions on the package because you're literate and they're written in your native language.
Many women in developing countries don't have all, or any, of those advantages. Yes, I'm making some generalizations here, and I'm not trying to say that women in the developed world never have trouble affording formula or other challenges with formula feeding. But the point is that sometimes you have to look beyond your own experience with a product/company and think about the bigger picture.

~Women should be able to make their own choice between breastfeeding and formula feeding.

Yes, but they should be able to choose freely, without pressure or manipulation, and with access to unbiased information. Again, it's a good idea not to assume that the experiences of women in developed and developing countries are always very similar.

This isn't a "mommy wars" breastfeeding vs. formula feeding issue. The criticism is being framed by some people as 'well, Nestlé promotes formula feeding around the world and I'm a breastfeeding activist so I don't like Nestlé, let's boycott', but that's not accurate. This is about questioning the ethics of a company that promotes formula feeding among mothers who don't have the resources to do it safely, and about holding that company accountable when they fail to follow the rules - whether we're talking about the guidelines of an international organization like the WHO, the laws of a particular country, or standards of basic human decency.

~We should all be thankful that Nestlé is willing to listen and answer questions now.

Why? Listening to feedback, answering questions, and addressing concerns from customers and potential customers should be just part of the job for any responsible company, right? (Of course the key word is "responsible".) If they want my money - or, in the case of the bloggers invited to the Nestlé Family event, also my time and possibly my endorsement and promotion of their company and their brands - a willingness to listen should be just part of the deal, not a cherry on top that shows how wonderful and open they are as a company.

In the comments over at PhD in Parenting, someone suggests that Nestlé deserves a lot of credit for the attention that they paid to the criticism during the Nestlé Family event and their willingness to "open channels of communication", because their baby products weren't supposed to be on the agenda, but they still took the time to listen and discuss the concerns. I would say that that's the least they can do considering the scope of their problems. And as far as these issues not being on the agenda...well, why weren't they? If this was one of Nestlé's first attempts to reach out to bloggers, didn't they consider the possibility that some of the attendees would do their due diligence and bring some of these questions to the table, or that opening up a discussion on blogs and on twitter would result in some loud voices of opposition coming out of the woodwork? (The company did eventually create their own Nestle Family twitter account to "answer questions", and...well, they answered a few...sort of.)

Deb on the Rocks has a theory related to these questions that's definitely worth considering:
I think Nestle was testing the waters. I wholly believe they were monitoring their hashtag and name; they have a tweet interface posted on the event internet page that PhD in Parenting linked to in her post. They had a fairly successful Stouffers event earlier this year–with only a few “hey, that’s Nestle, they suck” tweets, and so I think they then planned this to see if the Nestle brand would hold up. So glad for aware, outspoken and caring consumers like you that prevented them from getting away with whitewashing this media as they have tried to do to all media.
Also, as some other PhD in Parenting commenters pointed out, these issues with Nestlé are decades old, so this feedback isn't anything that they haven't heard before. By now it should be about taking action and a real commitment to change on Nestlé's part, not "well, we're listening" or other PR spin. If they're still stuck on "listening" and "dialogue" after three decades, you'll have to forgive activists for being less than impressed.

~Can't we all just get along? Can't we pull together as one community of women/moms/bloggers?

Well...no. Not always. Being part of a mommyblogger community (or any other) doesn't mean that you always have to agree with everyone else in that community. Sometimes heated debates need to happen. They can raise awareness, they can be productive, and they can lead to positive action and outcomes. I've never been a fan of the 'let's just drop it and all be friends and talk about kittens and rainbows' style of conflict resolution. I think it makes a lot more sense to say that we should all do our best to challenge each others beliefs and opinions respectfully, and back up our arguments with facts and research, than to say that we should just gloss over disagreements and refrain from expressing strong opinions for the "good" of the community.

~All companies do bad stuff.

Even if this is true, I think Nestlé still deserves to be recognized for being near the top of the list. The Nestle boycott has been going on since the 70s (with a brief break of a few years in the 80s), and Nestlé has been described as "one of the world's most boycotted companies" and "easily one of the world's most hated companies". It's not just about baby formula either - just by starting with the Controversy and Criticism section of Nestlé's wikipedia page, you can jump to information about Nestlé's connection to the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe and cocoa plantations in Africa that use child slave labor, questionable practices in their bottled water business, price fixing accusations, and more. Sites like Nestle Watch and Corporate Watch have more. (And these sites are just suggestions for places to start - I encourage everyone not to take my word for it and to do their own research.)

And how exactly does this line of thinking work? All companies do bad stuff, so we should just shut up and let them all get away with whatever they want to do? Yes, it's important to pick your battles and probably impossible to protest or boycott every single company that does anything that we don't agree with. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't use our power as consumers (and responsible human beings) to work for positive change.

~And then there's the really fun stuff...

Some people were very quick to start accusing the anti-Nestlé side of being overly negative and too snarky. Sure, there were some snarky comments on both sides, but I know I definitely had more WTF moments while reading some of the more pro-Nestlé tweets. I was struck by how dismissive some of the pro-Nestlé people were, many of them responding to people's concerns with flippant comments about how their favorite Nestlé products, how much more Nestlé candy they were going to buy and eat after the discussion, and so on. (There was also a fun attempt to derail the discussion by bringing in totally irrelevant claims about GM's ties to the porn industry.)

I think it's one thing to say something like 'I believe that these are old issues that Nestlé has corrected' or 'I need to see more documentation and media coverage to be convinced' or even 'I don't agree that Nestlé's practices are unethical'. But the comments that basically boil down to 'I don't care what you're talking about even though you're saying that it involves babies potentially being harmed and I'm not interested in learning more so just shut up and go away so I can enjoy my candy bar'? Those I don't get at all. It does remind me of a line from one of Kathy Griffin's comedy specials where she describes a group of people that she couldn't relate to because they seemed to be "proud of their aggressive ignorance".

Some of the "worst offender" comments that have popped up in the last few days only reinforce that opinion for me. A couple of examples:

  • "How many of you #nestlefamily protestors are pro abortion?? Hypocrites! Nestle isn't killing anyone. Good grief!" [Yep, cause us pro-choicers are the real baby killers, unlike holy and blameless Nestlé. We don't make yummy chocolate products either. What good are we?]
  • "I see dumb communist Nestle tweet haters. Off to bake something w/ Nestle Chocolate & do smthng more useful to my time,like spend w/my KIDS." [Damn, they've discovered our secret Communist plot. It's really capitalism that we hate. Nestlé is an innocent victim of our devious Communist agenda.]
  • "I think you need to back off the #NestleFamily bloggers that are trying to tweet info & experiences. Nestle Nazi's go away." [So at this point we're Communists and Nazis who love abortions and don't produce break-and-bake cookie dough. Man, we do suck.]

But these two (from the same person) have got to be my favorites:
Ah yes, the 'if this were true Nancy Grace would have told me!' argument, hard to counter that one. And she does have a point: there really just hasn't been any media coverage at all of Nestle being involved in any questionable or unethical behavior. It's one thing to admit that you haven't heard about any of this Nestlé stuff before, but it's another to claim that because you've never seen anything in the media about it, that must mean that the media has never covered it, and therefore it must not be happening.

Actually though, the more that I think about that second point, the more that I see that there's actually some merit to it. I'll save my full opinion of Nancy Grace for another post, but one thing I do know about her is that once she picks her pet issue of the moment, she just does not let the fucking thing drop EVER. Especially when it concerns innocent children being victimized. I think we've accidentally just stumbled on the key to taking Nestlé down for good, people.

Okay, joking aside, I can say that I'm glad I noticed the #nestlefamily debate and got a chance to follow the conversation. Before this, I knew that there was some kind of ongoing Nestlé protest out there, but this was the kick that I needed to actually look into it and get the details. I plan to keep doing research and make some changes in my buying habits, and I hope that this conversation continues and encourages others to do the same.


Blacktating said...

Hilarious, but sad at the same time. Makes me want to contact Nancy Grace and ask her to cover Nestle. Sheilacakes' simple behind would shit her pants.

That Danielle said...

What's been missing from this whole debacle is traditional media coverage of it. How long does it take for TV & print (& even radio) to report on a twitter/blogger controversy?

Marketing Mommy said...

Smart AND funny recap of the debacle. I'm still stunned by some bloggers' willingness to shill for corporate America. Not for big bucks, like some celebrities, but for a free trip.

My take, here: http://bit.ly/1eemfe

Amanda said...

Great article!

I found myself lurking over the thread on twitter for quite some time. Some of the info and news was new to me, and I wasn't confident chiming in... but I feel like I did pick up on a few things. Your post completely hits the nail on the head..

I felt both sides over stepped their bounds at times. but I stopped following with the 'Nestle Nazi's go away'. The levels to which some tweets went were just absurd to me...

I actually felt badly for the 'pro Nestle' side at times.. It really seemed like Nestle was using them to go to bat for them. Although it is hard to have a meaningful dialogue in 140 characters, people all day and every day promote their businesses and share links. I felt like Nestle did an extremely poor job of answering questions and not clearing things up. I watched the thread for the entire evening after a Nestle representative got on to answer questions and instead of quelling the fire it just seemed to be an 'attempt' to join the conversation without really conversing about anything.

And.. the fact that so many accusations were submitted and not too many answers were given says quite a bit... Don't even need 140 characters to read that.

claire said...

wow! i had also heard about formula feeding being forced onto women in third world countries, giving them enough free formula to only last a few months and by then the mothers milk has dried up and the babies have no food at all.
I had seen people up in arms over the nestle company but tried to remain ignorant to it/ didn't bother to read into it. but after reading this post i have a clear idea.
There will always be those agressively ignorant people who just need to be defiant and ridiculous to "have the last word" or even the fact that people don't deem things important until the news covers it, which is ridiculous.

expateek said...

This is a great recap, both of the central issues around Nestle's marketing history, and also regarding the hot button related (and not-so-related) issues brought up via OTT Twittering. I was simply astonished to read about this Nestlefest. I followed some of the mess on Twitter until I was overwhelmed by both the defensiveness and the naivete of the pro-Nestle camp, and had to force myself to avert my eyes.

This issue has been around for 30 years, and it's disappointing to see that Nestle is still evading and ducking its corporate responsibilities. Some things seem to never change.

This has reawakened my personal desire to continue to shop and consume ethically, and Nestle will not be on any shopping list I make, ever again. Thanks again for covering this. Appreciate the "heads up".

Annie @ PhD in Parenting said...

Amazing! Fucking amazing! Thank you!


Thanks everyone! We really appreciate all of the comments and feedback. We'll let you know when Nancy Grace returns our call.

Deb said...

Very patient, you are, in fighting fire with logic. Oy. I truly hope Nancy Grace catches up with you, because that would be an EPIC interview.

Crunchy Carpets said...

Awesome post..you nailed it.
And That Danielle..forget the traditional media..where are all the online soc med sites take on this?

Where are all the business sites take on this?

Very quiet out there..

Keep Abreast said...

There's a simple explanation for why traditional media (TV, radio, newspapers) would be unwilling to cover this debate - or anything about Nestle's unethical practices for that matter.

Think about this: how much does Nestle spend on advertising every year? Would these media be willing to lose all those advertising dollars by biting the hand that feeds it?

Of course not! So don't be surprised if the media ignores this whole issue.


Mommy Melee said...

Thank you for linking to my post. It's good to see all this info being shared.

Angie_25 said...

Wow, I had NEVER heard of this until right now. I had no idea there was a boycott. I didn't really even know Nestle made baby formula. That's how little coverage this gets.

I am against anything that encourages people, first or third world, to spend money on something they can do better for free. I was formula fed due to infant lactose-intolerance, so formula is pretty important in some cases, I guess, but still.

Breast-feeding transfers antibodies from mother to child, building the infant's immune system and helping to prevent dysentery that kills many thrid world children. Kind of vital in a place where clean water isn't always available, no? Women were convinced by advertising campaigns in the 70s that breastfeeding was bad, so how hard would it be to convince third world women who haven't been given access to basic health education?

Thanks for letting me know about this. I will be checking the brands on my hot chocolate and candy bars from now on.

Grace Davis said...

Thank you for bringing to the front and center the extreme Tweets from those who channeled what smacked of right wing hate in the defense of Nestle. I hit the ceiling with this one:

"I see nothing from Nestle killing anyone. I see dirty water from filthy places, uneducated people, and people placing blame."

And, this was from a Christian mother. I don't think this is how Jesus wants us to view poverty.

Anonymous said...

I also posted on this:

"Bloggers, Corporations, and Plausible Deniability in the Age of Google."

It's kind of an interesting ethical question when a corporation's record (good and bad) is two links away. How do bloggers engage with that brand/those products, and how do corporations navigate social media?