The Forgotten History of the American Church’s Most Successful Boycott

The boycott has fallen on hard times. While once, a primary means of consumers making their voices heard, it’s not the tool it once was. For one thing, as more and more items are owned by fewer and fewer conglomerates, it’s getting harder to mount a successful boycott. Many families may have supported the workers’ strike against Frito-Lay but couldn’t just stop buying all the many products sold by by PepsiCo. You can starve one of these monsters’ heads, but the rest will still be eating.

For another thing, boycotts suffered from overexposure. In the ’90s, well before so-called “cancel culture,” Christian groups were famous for launching boycotts at the drop of a hat. Walt Disney, the Beatles, Harry Potter, Martin Scorsese, Starbucks, Heinz, Wells Fargo and Home Depot have all been on the business end of a Christian boycott and, tellingly, many of reasons for why have been lost to time. You may remember that Christians fretted over Harry Potter’s “witchcraft” or Starbucks’ use of “happy holidays,” but do you remember why the Church was instructed to boycott Petsmart? A boycott’s power is diluted when a new one is announced every month.

It’s a shame, because used shrewdly, boycotts are an effective tool. In the United States, capital speaks. Most of us don’t have enough zeroes in our bank account to get a real audience with a CEO if we feel their business is doing something immoral. We may not also have the time to picket or protest outside their offices. But with a little organization, we can stop the flow of money, and that can make a difference. It has in the past. In fact, there was a time when Christians championed one of the most righteous and successful boycotts in American history.

Nestlé In the Spotlight

The year was 1978 and while Nestlé was most popular for its Swiss chocolate, it was raking in vast sums of money from its infant formula. However, international justice groups began calling attention to Nestlé’s business practices, which they said were exploitive. Groups like The War on Want and The New Internationalist published scathing exposés on Nestlé, accusing them of misleading mothers in developing nations. They claimed Nestlé was promoting their own formula as being healthier for babies than breast milk, going so far as to send representatives to hospitals and homes dressed as nurses to push the product. There were also accusations that Nestlé would offer financial kickbacks to hospitals in exchange for promoting their formula.

But many families that started using the formula in developing nations couldn’t afford to purchase it in the quantities necessary to keep their babies healthy. Mothers would dilute the formula with water as a way of stretching limited supplies, but because Nestlé’s ambassadors didn’t bother to explain how their formula worked, their babies ended up deeply, often fatally, malnourished. But because these babies had been weaned on formula, they were often unable to make the switch to breast milk.  In 1978, Dr. Stephen Joseph told the New York Times that he estimated around a million babies died every year because of their reliance on infant formula.

Nestlé denied the allegations and sued the War on Want’s German translator for libel. The judge ruled in their favor, though they were only awarded about $400 and were instructed to “fundamentally” change how they marketed the formula. Unfortunately for Nestlé, the victory was a hollow one, since it ended up bringing more publicity to their practices.

That’s when the Church got involved.

Onward Christian Soldiers

In the U.S., an organization known as the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility became the “nerve center of the protest.” The group rallied Christians in nation to the plight of women in other countries who they said had fallen prey to Nestlé’s dishonest marketing.

So on November 10, 1978, the National Council of Churches voted to join a massive boycott led by 32 Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations. As part of their resolution, they called on the U.S. Government “to encourage breastfeeding and to refuse to support the promotion of infant formula” in U.S. development assistance programs for Third World countries.

The boycott was specific in its aims. It called on Nestlé to roll back its promotion of infant formula in developing countries, cease financially rewarding doctors for recommending the formula, put warning labels on its packaging and, finally, put educational material about the risks of formula in its promotional material.

The boycott was long and brutal. Nestlé maintained its innocence throughout, either denying its involvement in such activities or washing its hands of responsibility for them. Many Americans were willing to overlook the accusations against Nestlé, since the company didn’t sell formula in the U.S. At the time, justice movements for causes overseas were rare, largely relegated to youth movements on college campuses. The American Church’s union with the Religious Right was still fresh, and the Republican Party couldn’t simply deploy White Evangelical voters with the same ease they could today. The Reagan Administration was initially dismissive of concerns about Nestlé, but as Christians organized against the company, the government started to pay attention. Church organizations worked across religious lines and even international ones, garnering allies among the United Auto Workers, the National Education Association and the National Organization for Women. Groups in Canada, Australia, Britain, West Germany, Sweden, New Zealand, France, Norway and Finland also joined.

Success, for a Time

In the summer of 1984, the boycott was officially suspended when Nestlé agreed to change its marketing and conform to WHO guidelines. It was a big deal, warranting a lengthy breakdown in the New York Times. The company estimated the changes would set them back by 15 to 20 million dollars but, clearly, it was worth getting the American Church off its back.

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Unfortunately, the success was short-lived. By 1989, the International Baby Food Action Network alleged that Nestlé has resumed their practices, and the UK ruled against the company in 1999. Today, the International Nestlé Boycott Committee coordinates international boycotts of the company, while Nestlé itself maintains its innocence, insisting that it’s in compliance with all international codes.

That debate rages on, but it seems at least plausible that there wouldn’t even be a debate today if Christian groups hadn’t taken up the cause in the 70s and 80s. Given the outsized impact of their efforts, it’s worth taking a look at just what made this boycott so successful.

First, it was real. Too many Christian protests are organized against straw men, claiming persecution or loss of religious freedom for imagined offenses or petty grievances. Political correctness, Critical Race Theory and other bogeymen end up the subject of the church equivalent of campfire ghost stories. But Nestlé’s infant formula scheme posed a real threat to the lives and wellbeing of people in other countries. It was a cause worth fighting for.

Second, it was selfless. Nestlé infant formula wasn’t even available in the U.S. at this time, so American Christians had very little reason to get involved in the fight other than genuine care and concern for the exploitation of others. The Church, as always, is at its best when it’s advocating not for its own interests, but for the interests of others (Philippians 2:4).

Third, it was specific. This boycott had specific demands that came from independently verified research into the company it was taking action against. Too many modern boycotts are reactionary attacks that lack real focus. This boycott has achievable goals.

Finally, it was organized. Christians are often wary about joining forces with other, non-religious groups but, in this case, there is strength in numbers. It’s difficult to imagine evangelicals joining hands with the National Organization of Women today, but their partnership was a force to be reckoned with in the 70s. By finding common cause with other groups, the Church was not only able to expand the reach of its impact, it was able to demonstrate compassion up close and personal.

Winter is just around the corner and, with it, the usual, exhausting discourse about the “war on Christmas” and all the usual boycotts. They’ve become background noise to the season, as easily dismissed as white noise. But if the Church started paying attention to real acts of injustice here in the U.S. and abroad, it could marshall moral authority and social force by rallying other sympathetic Americans to real causes. The blueprint is there, if we’re willing to learn from it.

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