When Big Becomes Deadly

In the summer of 1977, a U.S. boycott was launched against the gargantuan, Swiss-based Nestle Corporation in protest of the company's aggressive advertising campaign aimed at new mothers in the "developing nations" of Africa, Asia and South America.

If you admire unfettered Capitalism, you're going to love Nestle. What they were trying to do was persuade these women to discontinue the practice of breast-feeding and rely, instead, on breast milk substitutes (baby formula). Specifically, breast milk substitutes which happened to be manufactured by the Nestle Corporation.

Despite health officials' warnings against women switching from breast milk to baby formula, Nestle nonetheless ramped up its advertising. The way Nestle saw it, the Third World, with its relatively high birth rates and relatively low levels of literacy and education (i.e. high level of "gullibility"), was an droolingly tempting market. Getting millions of women to switch to powdered milk would be a gold mine.

Medical professionals noted three dangers: (1) Nature, bless its heart, has made sure that certain nutrients and antibodies are passed to the infant via breast milk; (2) sanitation requirements in these countries are usually lacking (e.g., the water used to mix the formula is often polluted); and (3) because these are poor countries, mothers would be tempted to use less formula powder than necessary in order to "stretch" it, thus depriving the baby of the intended nutrients.

Decades ago, Ralph Nader pointed out what should have already been obvious. He argued that the most powerful lobby in the U.S. isn't the military-industrial complex, or the petroleum industry, or Big Pharma, or agribusiness, or anything else you can think of. The most powerful lobby is the American consumer, and its most effective weapon--its hydrogen bomb--is the boycott.

How much "muscle" do we consumers have? An unfathomable amount. While the following is wildly hypothetical, just consider it: What if, in order to show our displeasure with a particular policy or practice, the American consumer decided not to buy any shoes for a period of two months. No athletic shoes, no dress shoes, no work shoes, not even ballet slippers.

Realistically, we could do that. The American consumer could actually pull off something as ambitious as this with no sweat. As inconvenient and distasteful as the prospect would be, the shoes we already have lying in our closets could be polished up, or patched up, and we could get by without a new pair for two months with no problem.

Of course, the effects of a shoe boycott on the U.S. (and world) economy would be hideous. We may no longer produce many shoes in the U.S. (thank you, Nike; thank you, Honduras), but because we sell millions of them, the boycott would be crushing. Remember when President Bush went on TV and urged us to "continue shopping" in the wake of 9-11-01? The same thing would happen. "My fellow Americans: For the love of God, you need to go out and buy shoes!"

But unlike the UFW grape boycott of the 1960s, and the AFL-CIO Coors beer boycott of the 1970s, both of which were modestly successful, many companies are now so large and diversified, they have become virtually "boycott-proof," effectively eliminating our one and only economic weapon. Take Nestle, for example.

One of the targets of the Nestle boycott was Perrier water, which Nestle owns. But Nestle also owns over 70 other brands of "designer" water, all over the world, so targeting Perrier is going to do little more than some "public relations" damage, if that.

Nestle is simply too big and diversified to be hurt by a well-meaning collective action. It owns Arrowhead and Calistoga and San Pelligrino water, as well as Ice Mountain, and Poland Spring, and Deer Park. How do you mobilize a boycott against a company like this?

The same goes for frozen foods and ice cream. Nestle owns Stouffers, Lean Cuisine, Hot Pockets, DiGorno Pizza, along with dozens of frozen food products. As for ice cream, it owns Dreyers, Edy's, North American Haagen-Dazs, Drumstick, and Canadian Oreo, in addition to dozens of others. As for candy, forget about it. Nestle owns way more than a 100 candy brands. Oh shit, you say. Oh Henry! (which they also own).

What if we leave human edibles, concentrate our efforts on pet food, and mount a national boycott against Alpo brand, which Nestle owns. That's our battle cry....No more Alpo! So instead of buying Alpo products, we hurt Nestle by going with Purina or Fancy Feast. Oops. Nestle owns both of those "competing" brands also. Oh shit. Oh Henry.