The Sunday Telegraph reported this weekend that the multinational firm has been buying 10 to 15 per cent of the milk processed at its Zimbabwe factory from a farm that was allegedly acquired from white owners under threat of violence and given to the dictator’s wife, Grace Mugabe.
This is shock news that goes against the grain of sustainability and ethical sourcing trends. Initial reader reactions to the articles that have proliferated online scream: “Right, that’s it. No more Nestle for me”.
After all, the Nestle brand is not free from tarnish. In the 1980s and ‘90s droves of consumers turned their back on anything bearing the Swiss multinational’s brand – from coffee to condensed milk to chocolate – as a show of opposition to its baby milk marketing practices.
Although this boycott is still officially active, Nestle has done much to re-build its image as a friendly company with consumers’ interests at heart. For instance, it has signed up to the WHO code of practice on marketing breast milk substitutes; and is part of an industry initiative to source fairly traded cocoa from the Ivory Coast.
But buying milk from a Mugabe-owned farm could undo years of careful public relations and company strategy.
Before anyone makes a swift judgement call on Nestle, though, there’s a tough ethical conundrum that needs closer analysis.
Playing with repressive and violent regimes is just not on. International sanctions are in place against the Mugabe regime for very good reasons. Robert Mugabe has committed human rights outrages in his own country, and has wrecked food security. Mugabe and Mrs Mugabe have helped themselves to lucrative farming operations seized from white owners, while ordinary people live under threat of starvation.
No business, however big, should breach international solidarity measures against such practices for commercial gain. End of story.
Or is it?
As Nestle has argued in a statement, Mugabe’s cruel tactics have led to dire food shortages in his country. Grace Mugabe’s Gushungo Dairy Estate supplies 10 to 15 per cent of Nestle’s milk needs in Zimbabwe, but it only buys from that farm since the country’s dairy industry collapsed in late 2008 and half its contractual suppliers went under.
Nestle’s Harare factory produces powdered milk and cereals mainly for the local market. If it closed down its operations because it was too difficult to keep the dictator’s tentacles out of its milk vats, more Zimbabweans would go without and jobs would be lost.
Tricky call, then.
Consumers, NGOs and the Swiss authorities will have to weigh up these arguments carefully and decide whether Nestle’s arguments wash with them.
There is also a big question that needs answering by Switzerland’s legal eagles.
Switzerland has its own set of sanctions against Zimbabwe, similar to the EU’s, which make it illegal to transfer money or make transactions with Robert or Grace Mugabe.
According to The Telegraph, a Nestle spokesperson said the Swiss rules relate only to Switzerland. Nestle Zimbabwe’s dealings in Zimbabwe are subject to Zimbabwean law, so the company has done nothing illegal.
No doubt the Swiss authorities will be examining this legal ring-fence carefully for holes.
But such a ring fence does not exist in public opinion. Mugabe may have tried to keep journalists out of Zimbabwe, but the world knows what has been happening there.
Even if the Mugabe’s milk is not used in products sold in Europe or the US, and if money from Zimbabwe milk sales never made its way into central Swiss coffers, Nestle is a global brand. People are sensitive to the impact their choices may make in other communities, even if the connection is long, convoluted and, in places, theoretical.
It is impossible to tell just yet if the calls for a boycott are a knee-jerk reaction, or a sign of coordinated action to come. Now is the time to gather the facts.
As Georgette Gagnon, the African director of human rights watch, put it to The Telegraph, consumer action is a tool that consumers can use to let companies know they are very concerned about their behaviour and won’t tolerate it if (my emphasis) the evidence was “clear and unequivocal”.
Every case, in every country, has its own context. Let’s not judge Nestle by past scandals just because it is Nestle.
Jess Halliday is editor of award-winning website FoodNavigator.com. Over the past twelve years she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States. If you would like to comment on this article, please email jess.halliday'at'decisionnews.com