What is the most evil company in the world? Exxon, who deplete oil wells and poison our atmosphere? Philip Morris, who continue to manufacture cigarettes even after millions of people have died from smoking them? Maybe Monsanto, who exploit the agricultural industry and alter our food to stay profitable?
Well, all of these companies are bad, but one company is worse than all of them combined. The most evil business in the world, Nestlé. Nestlé is the biggest food manufacturer in the world, with over 2,000 different brands produced in over 400 factories in 189 countries. The company makes around $100 billion in sales annually.
From Perrier to Nespresso, Coffee Mate, Hot Pockets, KitKat, Crunch bars, Dreyer's ice cream, Power Bars, L’Oreal, and Purina, it would be difficult, if not almost impossible, for you to go through life without using one of their products.
In 1867, troubled by the high infant death rate, Henri Nestlé created baby formula, a milk-based substitute for babies who couldn't have breast milk. Nestlé had excellent intentions and never marketed its product as better than breast milk. Sadly, after Henri Nestlé’s death, integrity seemed to disappear from the company.
In the 1970s, cigarettes were in their heyday, largely thanks to misleading and expertly crafted advertising campaigns around them. Nestlé took a page from big tobacco's notebook and executed a similarly deceiving campaign to push its baby formula on the masses. Through paid doctors and shady advertisements, Nestlé convinced much of the public that formula was better than natural breast milk, an undeniably false claim.
But their deceit didn't stop there.
Nestlé then hired hundreds of saleswomen in Asia and Africa, dressed them up like nurses, and sent them to local communities to profess the false benefits of baby formula to mothers all over developing countries.
At the direction of Nestlé, these saleswomen gave formula samples to nursing mothers that would last just long enough for the mother to stop producing milk but not enough to feed the baby until it could be weaned.
When their formula samples ran out, the mothers, who were no longer able to nurse,had to buy more formula from Nestlé. But since many of these women could not afford formula, or the milk it was supposed to be mixed with, they began diluting it with water.
And in areas where education, especially for women, wasn’t always comprehensive, many women didn't know that the water they were giving their babies was often contaminated. Millions of infants died due to the contamination. Millions of others grew up nutritionally deficient.
In 1978, Nestlé executives were called before the United States Senate to explain why babies were dying after being given formula. But like most corporations, It refused to take responsibility for how mothers prepared the baby formula. They weren’t totally exonerated, though. In 1981, new regulations were put in place in the United States making it illegal to compare breast milk to formula, which was Nestlé's entire marketing strategy.
Would this cause Nestlé to stop their formula crusade? Absolutely not. It simply moved the majority of their operations to Asia and Africa.
While women and babies in these developing countries suffered the most, doctors worldwide were paid to give new mothers free cans of Nestlé baby formula. Often, this led to babies never developing a taste for natural breast milk, the healthier and free option.
Nestlé continues to spread lies about its formula, even though the American Pediatric Association, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and others say that breast milk is always better if available. The World Health Organization has added that eliminating baby formula globally could save the lives of 820,000 children every year. When you stop and think about this, even for a second, it's heartbreaking that this company is still allowed to aggressively market baby formula when we know the harm it can do to babies.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons that a baby wouldn’t be able to feed on breast milk or that a mother wouldn’t be able to provide it. So I'm definitely not saying that formula should be eliminated altogether. But every mother has the right to make an informed choice for her baby, and Nestlé has repeatedly robbed them of that right by spreading what could be classified as misinformation on a global scale. As if deceiving mothers and harming babies wasn't enough, Nestlé has a long list of other human rights abuses in its production pipeline.
The company has been exposed for buying fish for its pet food brands from businesses in Thailand using slave labor. Although Nestlé came forward and said it was taking steps to bring attention to the issue and cut ties with the offenders, it clearly didn’t do its due diligence when deciding where to source its ingredients.
However, this scandal pales in comparison to the company's practices in producing one of its most prominent products, chocolate. A lot of the cocoa grown in the world comes from Africa. To increase profit margins, Nestlé looks for opportunities to buy cheaper beans. For these farms to lower the cost of their beans, they have to reduce their labor costs drastically. They often do this by using child labor.
In 2000, a report accused Nestlé of buying 'blood cocoa' from the Ivory Coast. The company has said it’s against child labor but can’t always guarantee that cocoa sourced from certain places won't involve child labor. Not quite the strong stance one might hope for from a global corporate leader.
In 2005 the International Labor Rights Fund filed a lawsuit against the company on behalf of 3 Malian children. The suit alleged that the children were trafficked to Ivory Coast, forced into slavery, and experienced beatings at the plantation that Nestlé sourced from. Again, Nestlé tried to sidestep the situation, claiming it had no idea that child labor and abuse were occurring, despite the lawsuit stating that it very much did.
Was Nestlé finally going to have its comeuppance? Knowingly exploiting child labor? Nope. Nestlé got off scot-free. In 2010, a district court in California determined that corporations can’t be held liable for violating international law and dismissed the suit.
Despite the company’s claim that it was taking steps to end the child labor involved in producing many of its food products, not much has changed. In 2015, the Fair Labor Association investigated 260 farms in Ivory Coast and found that 56 of their workers were under 18. 27 of them were under the age of 15.
And Nestlé doesn't care. All it cares about is profit, With 3 million tons of chocolate consumed every year, there is an enormous amount of profit on the table. When it’s not exploiting kids, it’s exploiting natural resources. Nestlé has made a killing by bottling tap water worldwide, often draining communities of their water resources and then selling it back to them in return.
Take Flint, Michigan, a city that has been experiencing a water contamination crisis for years. While Nestlé donates and sells bottled water to 'help' the problem, the company is actually bottling clean groundwater from a pump near Flint.
A similar scam is taking place in South Africa, where Nestlé bought land which prevented citizens from accessing its groundwater. Instead, Nestlé bottles the water it pumps from that land and sells it to the citizens. In Florida, the company has been accused of contributing to the depletion of spring-fed aquifers and selling the water it pumps out at a profit.
The same thing happens in California, which unearths a new level of exploitation as the state suffers from extreme drought conditions. For decades, Nestlé has been pumping billions of gallons of water every year from springs in the San Bernardino National Forest and bottling it under the well-known Arrowhead brand.
What's more frustrating is that this pumping operation is virtually free for Nestlé. It pays only $524 a year for the rights to pump the water despite its license having expired in 1988. Taking advantage of slow and often negligent bureaucracy, Nestlé has essentially stolen water from a state in a desperate drought. In 2013, Nestlé was found to be diverting clean water away from towns in Pakistan, packaging it, and reselling it to the same people it took it from. Pakistan is considered 'water scarce' and has seen some of its water sources sink hundreds of feet since Nestlé's production began. Just like in Flint, the remaining water is toxic. But unlike California, where Nestlé at least pays something for the water rights, in Pakistan, it takes the water for free.
How does it get away with these water-stealing schemes? Nestlé seeks out areas in need of jobs and economic stimulation. It negotiates favorable terms with local governments or whoever controls the water rights and arrives like a job-creating hero. Unbeknownst to the community, all that glitters is not gold.
Nestlé owns 27 bottled water facilities in North America alone, generating 5 billion dollars a year. Worldwide, its water business generates around 8 billion dollars a year.
All of this brings about a pretty simple question. Shouldn't water be a human right? If so, why are companies like Nestlé, that take water away from communities in need, not considered to be breaking the law?
Former Nestlé CEO, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, has said that the idea of water being a human right is 'extreme.' Years later, he walked back that comment, but… too little too late, as they say. Nestlé has also been known to engage in really aggressive business practices. In 2002 the Ethiopian government owed Nestlé $6 million. Despite the fact that the country was experiencing a terrible famine, Nestlé still demanded its money, when it could have easily written it off as a loss or, at the very least, waited until the situation was more stable.
Eventually, after mounting pressure from boycotts, Nestlé backed down. In 2013, Nestlé was charged with an alleged conspiracy to fix the prices of chocolate in Canada, effectively eliminating economic competition.
One of the worst alleged malpractices of the company is its plastic pollution. Nestlé is considered one of the worst plastic polluters in the world, second to Coca-Cola. The company's website says it has a long-standing commitment to sustainability, but is that a realistic assessment of a company that makes more plastic packaging than we can count?
To its credit, Nestlé did inaugurate the Institute of Packaging Sciences in Lausanne, Switzerland, with the aim to make all the company's packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. Similarly, after taking years of criticism for its products leading to obesity and type 2 diabetes, Nestlé is working to make formulas with reduced sugar, saturated fat, and salt. It’s also promised to add more vegetables and fiber-rich ingredients.
But knowing who Nestlé is, should we trust anything it says?
It may feel impossible to avoid the company because, in many ways, it is. But try to shop for local, independent brands. Instead of buying packaged goods, make an effort to prepare your own food. Choose reusable water bottles instead of plastic ones. Even just glancing at a label to see if a product is distributed by Nestlé might help you escape the company's grasp.
But in the end, is the worrying worth it? That's up to you. For some, trying to avoid an evil behemoth like Nestlé feels good. For others, it feels like unnecessary and futile work. A drop in the ocean of the company's earnings and reach.
In the end, the fact that you know the truth is a good starting point. Because companies like Nestlé profit by relying on the public's ignorance. There's no reason to kick ourselves when we’re craving a KitKat bar at the gas station. But at least when we see bottles of Pure Life bottled water being handed out in disaster zones, we'll think twice and wonder… Is Nestlé is really the 'benefactor' it wants us to believe it is?