Juan Villamayor posted a blog entry on April 28 about the CSR of companies responsible for bad products; products that kill people (munitions manufacturers and cigarette companies among others). One company stands out in my mind for practices equally repugnant to the tobacco industry even though the products it manufacturers, when used according to manufacturer's instructions, do no harm. Although I suppose that, too, is debatable.
As the manufacturer of Breast-milk substitutes (a.k.a. Infant formula) the company's profit-at-all-costs motive has had a lasting impact on me and anyone I know in the business of international health and development over the past 30 years. To this day I cannot eat chocolate or any of the other confectionery items made by the company. Nor would I drink any of its bottled water. I actually go out of my way to ensure I do not support this company in any way and that my friends follow suit. This is how adversely affected I have been by the company's tactics even though as an individual I have not suffered personally.
What is it then that converts the product on the shelf from being relatively innocuous to being an egregious villain? A company's marketing policies, practices and associated tactics can be as lethal as those employed by any in the tobacco industry.
In 1981, UNICEF and the WHO introduced the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes in response to this company's subversive marketing tactics, which included among others the provision of free supplies of breast-milk substitutes to hospitals. The company continued to violate the voluntary Code for decades after it was introduced regardless of the shaming that occurred. Each time an allegation was made, the company would deny any involvement yet continue to provide poorly funded hospitals in developing countries with infant formula and additional funding for their operations, provided the Hospital agree to put a can of formula in the hands of every Mother leaving the hospital with babe in arms; practices which are in direct violation of the 'Code'. Anyone who has breastfed a baby knows that the first weeks of a child's life are the most critical period for establishing a ready supply of breast-milk. Without regular and frequent infant suckling, Mom's breast-milk supply quickly dries up. With breastfeeding interrupted by a supply of formula provided by the hospital, a natural source of breast-milk is not available to the baby when the formula runs out.
This means buying the formula in the open market.
In any economy, canned baby formula is expensive, but in developing countries the relative cost is unaffordable for most. Because of the expense, families dilute the formula attempting to make it last longer. If I was poor, and I was led to believe that what I was doing was in the best interests of my baby, I wouldn't behave any differently. As a consequence, the baby is deprived of essential nutrients at a critical period in life and fails to thrive as a result, beginning a rapid decline in overall well-being, with increased vulnerability to infection.
Not only do babies on the breast-milk substitute not thrive when the formula is diluted, they are further compromised by exposure to contaminated drinking water used to mix and dilute the formula. Do you know that over 884 million people in the developing world are without an adequate supply of safe potable drinking water?
The combination of insufficient product and contaminated water has proven deadly for hundreds of thousands of babies throughout the developing world over the past 30 years.
So, you can imagine my reaction at seeing John Elkington of CSR and sustainability fame announced as a member of the company's Creating Shared Value Advisory Board earlier this year. Then when Ann Veneman, UNICEF Executive Director 2005-2010, claimed a seat on the company's 14 member Board at its recent meeting of shareholders April 14, 2011, I was equally surprised. Ms. Veneman acknowledged as she took her position that the company is still not fully compliant with the 'Code'.
Are these dangerous liaisons? Or, is there a kernel of value by association? Such associations are unlikely to change my perception of the Company, but what do they do for you?
Dangerous products, unethical marketing; what's to prevent the corporate social responsibility designation from going up in smoke?
photo credit: mothersofchange.com